Lowther, James William, first Viscount Ullswater 1855-1949, Speaker of the House of Commons, was born in London 1 April 1855, the son of William Lowther, at that time secretary at the British legation in Naples, and later member of Parliament for Westmorland, and his wife, Charlotte Alice, daughter of the famous judge, Sir James Parke (later Lord Wensleydale) [qv.]. On his father's side he was great-grandson of the first, and nephew of the third, Earl of Lonsdale [qv.] and on his mother's side he was cousin to the ninth Earl of Carlisle [qv.], and to the first Viscount Ridley [qv.]. His wife, Mary Frances (died 1944), daughter of Alexander James Beresford Beresford-Hope, of Bedgebury Park, Kent, whom he married in 1886, was niece to the great Marquess of Salisbury. If it is true that Lowther owed something at the start of his career to his family connexions, the chief factor in his success was the remarkable fitness for that career of his own character and abilities.
Lowther was at Eton (1868-70) and at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1874 until 1878 in which year he was placed in the third class of the law tripos. Between those dates he enjoyed a less conventional period at King's College, London, a period to which he looked back with gratitude for the instruction which in the absence of competing attractions he had there absorbed. At Cambridge he entered fully into the social life of college and university, being particularly prominent in the Amateur Dramatic Club, for which he retained a lifelong affection.
After being called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1879, Lowther devoted himself for a few years to the serious practice of his profession. But his election as Conservative member for Rutland in 1883 and, after a short interval in the wilderness, for the Penrith (later Penrith and Cockermouth) division of Cumberland in 1886 turned his energies to a parliamentary career. In 1887 he was made a charity commissioner; from 1891 until the dissolution in 1892 he served as parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign affairs—an office in which he was succeeded by Sir Edward Grey (later Viscount Grey of Fallodon) [qv.]. On the return of the Conservatives to power in 1895 Lowther was appointed chairman of ways and means and deputy Speaker. In 1898 he was sworn of the Privy Council and in 1905 he was elected to the speakership and held that office, through sixteen of the most critical years of parliamentary history, until 1921.
For some years before his election Lowther's fitness for the speakership had been generally recognized. He had profited by his ten years in the junior chair to familiarize himself with the technicalities of parliamentary procedure. Although he had held minor office in a Conservative Government, he had never been regarded as a strong partisan. His judicial cast of mind (inherited perhaps from his maternal grandfather), imperturbable temper, lively wit, and friendly manners; his air of vigour and distinction; and in the background his well-trained and powerful intelligence, had given him wide popularity and also made him a little formidable.
Lowther's speakership fell during an unprecedentedly cantankerous and uncomfortable period. The split in the Conservative Party, which had resulted in 1905 in leaving the House practically without government leadership; the long-drawn-out quarrel between the large and truculent Liberal majority of 1906 and the House of Lords, culminating in the rejection of the finance bill of 1909 and the passing of the Parliament Act, 1911; the not unconnected re-emergence of Home Rule legislation which inflamed party spirit in Parliament and brought the nation to the verge of civil war in 1914; the strain caused by the repeated scenes between the parties in the House and by the incursions of the suffragettes; the parliamentary problems created by four years of war and the abnormal conditions which followed the peace—it is only necessary to recapitulate these successive experiences in order to realize in how many ways the conditions of the period diverged from those of the nineteenth-century Parliaments in which Lowther had served his apprenticeship, and to what an extent he had to rely on his own resources, his rapid and tolerant judgement, his firm but flexible enforcement of discipline.
Among Lowther's assets as a Speaker were his willing acceptance of responsibility, his power of inspiring confidence in all parties, and his sense of humour. As a young temporary chairman in 1890 he had pulled up G. J. (later Viscount) Goschen [qv.], the veteran statesman and Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer, for irrelevance—an invidious duty which he might easily have shirked. So, too, as Speaker, he did not shrink from taking responsibility by a procedural ruling for the destruction of the Balfour scheme of redistribution, the principal item of the session of 1905, and again in 1913 for the withdrawal of the Liberal Government's franchise bill on account of an attempt by amendment to turn it into a female suffrage bill. To his tact and fairness was due the success—the almost miraculous success, as Lloyd George called it—of the daring experiment of submitting the vexed question of electoral reform to a conference of party members presided over by the Speaker. Lowther's sense of humour far exceeded the conventional equipment of the chair. Homely and unforced, it was invaluable in clearing overcharged atmospheres; it also had an astringent quality which was useful for deflating self-assertive opinions.
Upon retiring from the chair in 1921 he was appointed G.C.B. and raised to the peerage as Viscount Ullswater, of Campsea Ashe, in the county of Suffolk. He continued his active public service till a great age, declining flattering invitations from more than one prime minister, but freely giving his services to Royal Commissions and other public bodies. He remained an alderman of the East Suffolk County Council until 1946, attended quarter-sessions regularly, was president of many local societies, and discharged the duties of a large landowner on his estate. He continued until within a few years of his death to ride his sturdy white cob and to shoot. He died at Campsea Ashe 27 March 1949 near his ninety-fourth birthday, having outlived his two immediate successors in the Speaker's chair. There were two sons and one daughter of his marriage and he was succeeded as second viscount by his great-grandson, Nicholas James Christopher (born 1942), whose father, Lieutenant John Arthur Lowther, was private secretary to the Duke of Kent and lost his life with him in the aircraft accident in 1942.
Lowther received the honorary degrees of Doctor of Civil Laws from the university of Oxford in 1907 and Doctor of Law from Cambridge, and Leeds in 1910. A portrait by P. A. de László is at the Inner Temple of which he was a bencher from 1906, and another by the same artist hangs in the Grand Jury room of the Courts in Carlisle. In the Speaker's House there is a portrait by G. Fiddes Watt who also painted the portrait which is in the County Hall, Ipswich.
Viscount Ullswater, A Speaker's Commentaries, 2 vols., 1925