Sir James Lowther, 4th Baronet
Sir James Lowther, 4th Baronet, FRS (1673 – 2 January 1755) was an English landowner, politician and industrialist. He obtained immense wealth from coal mines in northern England, which he extensively developed and modernised.
He was baptised on 5 August 1673 at St Giles in the Fields, London, the second son of Sir John Lowther, 2nd Baronet and Jane Leigh. Educated privately in London, he attended Queen's College, Oxford and the Middle Temple.
In 1694, he was returned as Member of Parliament for Carlisle, a seat he held until 1702. He also served on the Board of Ordnance from 1696 until 1708, when he re-entered Parliament for Cumberland. This seat he held until 1722; in 1723, he was returned for Appleby, but in 1727 was MP for Cumberland again, and would be so for the rest of his life. Politically, Lowther was a Whig, but with little interest in national affairs; his Parliamentary activity was primarily directed towards promoting local interests in Cumbria. He was sworn a Privy Counsellor in 1714.
In 1706, he inherited the family estates upon the death of his father, his elder brother Christopher having been disinherited as a spendthrift. The principal wealth of the estates was in collieries, and he made extensive investments to improve and extend his holdings. To facilitate the coal trade, he made improvements to the harbour facilities at Whitehaven, which became a major coal port for shipping to Dublin and elsewhere. Lowther also sought to promote iron manufacture in the area, and develop Whitehaven as a planned town, an enterprise first begun by his father in the 1680s. He succeeded his brother in the baronetcy in 1731.
Despite his great holdings, Lowther lived a frugal lifestyle, which earned him the name of "Farthing Jemmy", and was thought by the 1730s to be the richest commoner in England, enjoying an income of about £25,000 a year at his death. Although his principal residence was London, his improvements were not made completely in absentia. Almost every summer, he made the then-arduous journey north to Whitehaven to discuss the management of his estates in person, and continued to travel despite advanced age, and the amputation of his right leg due to gout in 1750.
Improvements in mining
Lowther was not interested merely in expanding his estate, but in technical improvements as well. By the late 1720s, he faced increasing competition from the Workington mines, and found it necessary to increase production. His steward, Carlisle Spedding, was dispatched to Newcastle to learn about improvements in mining technology there, which he did by disguising himself as a common miner for some time. Upon Spedding's return, work began in 1729 on the Saltom Pit near Whitehaven, the first undersea mine in England, and, at 456 feet (139 m) deep by 1731, the deepest undersea mine anywhere at the time.
The first problem to be confronted in such an enterprise was drainage, which was dealt with by using early Newcomen steam engines. Lowther had already been the first to set up a Newcomen engine in Cumberland in 1715 at the Stone Pit. The second was firedamp, which was encountered in great quantities in sinking the pit. Spedding invented the "Steel Mill", a device which struck sparks from a flint to give illumination (and which was less likely than candles to ignite firedamp) and forced ventilation, but the Whitehaven pits were perpetually gassy, and the hazard of methane explosions was never entirely overcome. The large pocket of firedamp first encountered in digging Saltom Pit was in part drawn off by a pipe to the surface, where the gas could be collected. Lowther showed that it could be stored for some period of time and retain its inflammable properties, describing the nature of the gas in a submission to the Royal Society in 1733. As a result, he was chosen a Fellow of the Royal Society on 25 November 1736. Lowther also supported further research by Spedding and William Brownrigg, a doctor, into the scientific properties and medical effects of methane, paying half the costs for construction of a laboratory (and lighting it with gas piped from a nearby pit).
In 1739, Lowther became a founding governor of a charity in London, the Foundling Hospital, which would give unwed mothers an alternative to abandoning their babies by providing a child care institution where they could be brought up.
Lowther continued to be active through his eightieth year (despite the amputation aforementioned), managing through Parliament six bills on turnpike trusts, for the improvement of Whitehaven, in 1753. He died on 2 January 1755 in London. (The faithful Carlisle Spedding died in a pit explosion the same year.) Unmarried, Lowther left his estates to his fourth cousin once removed, Sir William Lowther, 3rd Baronet.
- Lowther, James (1733). "An Account of the Damp Air in a Coal-Pit of Sir James Lowther, Bart. Sunk within 20 Yards of the Sea; Communicated by Him to the Royal Society". Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775) 38 (427–435): 109–113. doi:10.1098/rstl.1733.0019. JSTOR 103830.
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- Allen, J.S. (1972). "The 1715 and other Newcomen Engines at Whitehaven, Cumberland". Transactions of the Newcomen Society 45: 237–268.
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- Nichols and F A. Wray, R.H. (1935). The History of the Foundling Hospital. p. 347.