Open main menu

The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Lowe, Right Hon. Robert

< The Dictionary of Australasian Biography

Lowe, Right Hon. Robert, G.C.B., LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., first Viscount Sherbrooke, formerly a New South Wales colonist, was the second son of the late Rev. Robert Lowe, rector of Bingham and prebendary of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, by his marriage with Ellen, daughter and co-heiress of Rev. Reginald Pyndar, rector of Madresfield, Worcestershire. Mr. Lowe was born at Bingham in Dec. 1811, and educated at Winchester School and at University College, Oxford, where he graduated as a first in classics in 1833, and was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College in 1834. After a highly successful career as a private tutor at Oxford, he was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in Jan. 1842, and throwing up his Oxford appointment, emigrated to New South Wales. On Oct. 18th on the motion of the Attorney-General, Mr. Lowe was admitted a barrister of the Supreme Court of that colony, but briefs came so slowly that it was rumoured he would give up practice altogether. No public notice was taken of his arrival beyond the fact that he was the guest of Governor Gipps, and for fourteen months he remained in complete obscurity. Then, to the surprise of every one, in Nov. 1843 he was nominated by the Governor as a member of the Legislative Council. At this period the struggle for obtaining representative government was proceeding vigorously, under the powerful leadership of Mr. W. C. Wentworth. Mr. Lowe's first speech was made on the Monetary Confidence Bill brought in by Mr. Windeyer to alleviate the financial depression by circulating land debentures. It was against the measure, and excited universal admiration by its brilliancy and wit. This success was followed up by another speech on the third reading of the same measure, which passed the Council,but the vigorous opposition it met with emboldened the Governor to withhold the assent of the Crown. Mr. Lowe's attack called up Wentworth, the leader of the Opposition, who taunted him with his support of the authority which had given him legislative power. He acknowledged that "the efforts of the hon. member from Horbury Terrace, smelling of the lamp as they did, and highly considered as they were, were nevertheless efforts of no small merit." Then he alluded to his antagonist's want of experience. "All the opposition emanated from persons who were comparative strangers to the land, ignorant of its wants, ignorant of its history, and ignorant, in short, of everything connected with it." On Dec. 16th of the same year, Mr. Lowe brought up the report of a committee on the insolvency law, and earnestly and eloquently urged the abolition of imprisonment for debt, a measure which subsequently became law, and was the distinguishing feature of the first session of the Council. He vigorously opposed Mr. Wentworth's proposal to increase the duty on flour from one shilling to half a crown, and also the proposal to admit natives as witnesses in criminal cases. His oration in the latter debate was considered a masterpiece of oratory. Soon afterwards an affair occurred which brought Mr. Lowe still more prominently, but less favourably, before the public. Dr. Lang; who had been ejected by the local Presbyterian Synod, brought the temporalities of the Presbyterian Church under review in connection with the disruption of the Church of Scotland. In discussing this question of ecclesiastical law, Mr. Lowe thought proper to indulge to the full his extraordinary powers of sarcasm and personal invective. He jeered at Dr. Lang for proposing to bring before the House the conduct of the Executive of the Australian Library, which, though aided by Government funds, had blackballed a certain Alderman Macdermott. This unlucky allusion was the cause of much trouble, for Mr. Macdermott, after reading the speech, sent a friend, Dr. Macfarlane, to ask for an explanation. This Mr. Lowe refused to give, as he considered himself privileged as a member of the Legislature. Next day the same gentleman reappeared at his chambers with a certain Captain Moore, and demanded an apology or satisfaction. Mr. Lowe refused to apologise, and declined a duel on three grounds:—(1) that he was not responsible for his words in the Council except to the Council; (2) he did not consider Macdermott his equal; (3) he was always bound to keep the peace. Not content with this, he at once filed an affidavit detailing the circumstances, and appeared at the police court, where Macdermott, Dr. Macfarlane, and Captain Moore were bound over to keep the peace. These disagreeable incidents were brought before the Council at its next sitting, and a committee was appointed to consider them. This was the first case of "privilege," and it was a source of great perplexity. The committee were of opinion that the Council had not the power to deal directly with the offender, but recommended that an Act should be passed securing this right. In the present case they proposed that the Attorney-General should prosecute Macdermott and his friends in the courts of law. These recommendations were carried after a long discussion by fifteen votes to thirteen, Mr. Lowe voting in the majority, and the prosecution accordingly was commenced, but fell through on technical grounds. Meanwhile public opinion was roused on the subject. At the request of a huge number of citizens, the Mayor called a public meeting, and resolutions were passed against the appropriation of public money for the purpose of the prosecution and condemning the proposed legislation as oppressive and unjust. For the time Mr. Lowe was the most unpopular man in the colony, and the Council for the action it had taken shared in the opprobrium. On August 21st, 1844, Dr. Lang, then one of the members for the Port Phillip district, moved a resolution affirming the desirability of the separation of what subsequently became the colony of Victoria from New South Wales. This secured the unanimous adhesion of the six members for the district, but Mr. Lowe was tho only other member who gave them his support and vote. He hoped the time was not remote when Great Britain would give up the idea of treating the dependencies of the Crown as children who were to be cast adrift from their parents as soon as they arrived at manhood, and substitute for it the far truer and nobler policy of knitting herself and her colonies into one mighty confederacy, confident against the world in arts and arms." The most important task before the Council was the assertion of constitutional rights in connection with the lands of the colony. Mr. Cowper had obtained a committee on Crown lands grievances, of which Mr. Lowe was a member. The Council, ably led by Wentworth, Lowe, and Cowper, never rested until it obtained the distinct declaration that the Crown lands should be subject to the control of the local Legislature. A matter more particularly connected at this time with Mr. Lowe's name was popular education. He had obtained a committee and brought up a report recommending the introduction of Lord Stanley's Irish scheme. This report at once raised a storm. The Anglican bishop summoned a meeting of Churchmen, which was adjourned and lasted over two nights. The clergy were opposed-to anything but a denominational system pure and simple. The friends of a general system induced the Mayor to convene a town meeting. Mr. Lowe on coming forward to move the first resolution was howled down with cries of "Privilege! privilege!" The meeting was so disorderly that the Mayor adjourned it until next day. This adjourned meeting was quite as rowdy, but at length on a third day the opponents of Mr. Lowe's views stayed away, and able speeches were delivered in support of the recommendations of the committee. The Catholics held a meeting, under the presidency of their bishop, at which the proposals were temperately discussed, but they were adverse to the new scheme. The Council, in spite of the clamour on the part of the denominationalists, approved the committee's report. In successive sessions Mr. Lowe continued to press forward the subject, and in 1846 he succeeded in passing a resolution authorising the formation of a national board. After Mr. Lowe had completed his education report, he resigned his seat as a nominee member of the Council. When he was first appointed he was inexperienced in colonial politics, and his sympathies were with the Colonial Office. He expected that he could give a general support to the Government, though he was in no way pledged to do so. The Colonial Office had authorised the formation of district councils, with powers of taxation for local objects. Sir George Gipps thoroughly approved of this, and in spite of the objection that the population of the colony was then too sparsely scattered for the councils to be anything but an intolerable burden, he endeavoured to force them on an unwilling people. Mr. Lowe became one of the bitterest opponents of this pet scheme of Sir George Gipps. He also had a personal difference with the Governor respecting the admission to his entertainments by the latter of a guest of dubious reputation. He did not, however, resign his nominee seat until Mr. Roger Therry had denounced him in the Council as an adder which had stung to death the benefactor who had warmed it in his bosom. Before the commencement of the next session, Mr. Lowe was again a member of the Council, this time as the elected representative of the district of St. Vincent. His opposition to the action of the Governor and his condemnation of the squatting regulations had won him the support of squatters and settlers alike. His oratorical triumphs in the Assembly had brought him a considerable practice at the Bar. In defending the prisoner Knatchbull he made use of an argument which drew upon him the charge of fatalism, and the press attacked him for this somewhat unfairly. He defended himself with great spirit. In conjunction with William Forster and others, he started a weekly paper, the Atlas, which waged incessant war against the Government, and particularly against the Governor. Article after article full of constitutional learning, enriched with classical and historical allusions, assailed with relentless logic the unconstitutional position of the Governor and the Colonial Office. At length Sir George Gipps left the colony. Mr. Lowe in opposing him had allied himself with the squatting party; but when the new Governor arrived, the independent party who, in the first session of the Council, had joined with the squatters in demanding for them fixity of tenure as a protection from the encroachments and impositions of the Crown, were now equally loud in denouncing their threatened monopoly of the land of the colony. In truth, on the land question Mr. Lowe altered his views more than once, and thus incurred the charge of inconsistency. But he steadfastly opposed the squatting monopoly. Were the broad lands that could support millions to become a mere sheep-walk for the benefit of the few? This was the question which, supported by a small minority in the House and amid the indifference of the people outside, he propounded to his fellow-colonists with a vehemence, persistency, and eloquence that has never been surpassed. These efforts did not by any means absorb all Mr. Lowe's energies during the session of 1847. At its commencement he spoke with great effect on the bill for amalgamating the two branches of the legal profession. At the conclusion of the session he called attention to the incipient slave trade with the islands of the Pacific. Already employers of labour had begun the system of importing Polynesians, which subsequently led in some instances to deplorable results, calling for criminal prosecutions and legislative interference, In 1848 he opposed Earl Grey's proposal to constitute the Assembly by the election of local corporations or councils, and supported the bicameral system. At the general election he was triumphantly returned for Sydney as colleague to Wentworth, and amidst great rejoicings at the success of the popular party, of which he was now the acknowledged leader. Wentworth on this occasion attacked him on the hustings with great incisiveness, urging the electors to return Dr. Bland as his colleague in preference to Lowe, who had himself been a party to the compromise on the transportation system, which he then denounced. Mr. (now Sir Henry) Parkes was one of Lowe's warmest supporters. In 1849 he strenuously opposed Earl Grey's malign project for renewing transportation, and also the conduct of Sir Charles Fitzroy in seconding Earl Grey's efforts in spite of the repeated and passionate remonstrances of the people. On August 1st Mr. Lowe spoke at great length on the Budget, urging the House to use finance as the lever with which to force the British Parliament to grant them a responsible Government. The next month he brought up the report of a committee on the Sydney Corporation. The report proposed its abolition, and the speech in which Mr. Lowe moved the adoption of this recommendation manifested hostility not merely to the Sydney body, but to corporate institutions generally. The Land Committee's report was also drawn up during the session. It was palpably in the main Mr. Lowe's own composition, and pointed out that many of the positions taken up by the advisers or the Government were simply due to their absolute ignorance of all local conditions. During the session Mr. Lowe had given his support to Wentworth's proposals to establish a university in Sydney, but on the last day of the session he combated certain details, and suggested further consideration until the beginning of the next session. This led to a challenge from Dr. Bland (q.v.), which, however, ended harmlessly. During the debates on the Constitution Mr. Lowe had given no indications of any intention to leave his adopted country, but in the spring he determined to return to the old land, and to seek power and distinction in the broader fields of English political life. He left New South Wales in 1850. His subsequent career as an English statesman till his elevation to the peerage as Viscount Sherbrooke in 1880 forms no part of Australian history. The collection of his poems published in 1884 contains many pieces having reference to colonial life and politics. Lord Sherbrooke married first, in 1836, Georgiana, second daughter of George Orred, of Aigburth House, Liverpool. She died in Nov. 1884, and the following year he married Caroline, daughter of the late Thomas Sneyd, of Ashcombe Park, Stafford. In the House of Commons Mr. Lowe, as he then was, took an active part in the discussion of the legislation by which responsible government was conferred on the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales, especially condemning the stipulation by which a two-thirds majority was rendered a condition precedent of constitutional changes, and which, greatly owing to his influence, was expunged. By 1866, however, his views had altered, and instead of denouncing the oligarchical rule of a plutocracy in the colonies, he advocated the abolition of responsible government and universal suffrage, arguing in favour of a recurrence to the Crown system of government. Lord Sherbrooke owned much valuable property in Sydney. He died at Warlingham, Surrey, on 27th July, 1892.