He was educated at Winchester and University College, Oxford, where he took a first class in classics and a second in mathematics, besides taking a leading part in the Union debates. In 1835 he won a fellowship at Magdalen, but vacated it on marrying, in 1836, Miss Georgina Orred (d. 1884). He was for a few years a successful "coach" at Oxford, but in 1838 was bitterly disappointed at not being elected to the professorship of Greek at Glasgow.
In 1841 Lowe moved to London, to read for the Bar ("called" 1842); but his eyesight, showed signs of serious weakness, and, acting on medical advice, he determined to try his fortune in the colonies rather than in London. He went to Sydney, where he set to work in the law courts. In 1843 he was nominated by Sir George Gipps, the governor, to a seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council; owing to a difference with Gipps he resigned his seat, but was elected shortly afterwards for Sydney. Lowe soon made his mark in the political world by his clever speeches, particularly on finance and education; and besides obtaining a large legal practice, he was one of the principal writers for the Atlas newspaper. In 1850 he went back to England, in order to enter political life there.
His previous university reputation and connexions, combined with his colonial experience, stood him in good stead, The Times was glad to employ his ready pen, and as one of its ablest leader-writers he made his influence widely felt. In 1852 he was returned to Parliament for Kidderminster in the Liberal interest. In the House of Commons his acute reasoning made a considerable impression, and under successive Liberal ministries (1853-1858) he obtained official experience as secretary of the Board of Control and vice-president of the Board of Trade. In 1859 he went to the Education Office as vice-president of the Council in Lord Palmerston's ministry; there he pursued a vigorous policy, insisting on the necessity of payment by results, and bringing in the revised code (1862), which embodied this principle and made an examination in "the three R's" the test for grants of public money.
He felt then, and still more after the Reform Act of 1866, that "we must educate our masters," and he rather scandalized his old university friends by the stress he laid on physical science as opposed to classical studies. Considerable opposition was aroused by the new regime at the Education Office, and in 1864 Lowe was driven to resign by an adverse vote in Parliament with reference to the way in which inspectors' reports were " edited." The result was unjust to Lowe, but a good deal of feeling had been aroused against Lingen's administration of the Education Office, and this was the outcome. Lord Palmerston's death in October 1865 was followed by the formation of the Russell-Gladstone ministry and the introduction of the Reform Bill of 1866. Lowe, a Liberal of the school of Canning and Peel, had already made known his objections to the advance of "democracy"--notably in his speech in 1865 on Sir E Baines's Borough Franchise Bill--and he was not invited to join the new ministry. He retired into what Bright called the "Cave of Adullam," and opposed the bill in a series of brilliant speeches, which raised his reputation as an orator to its highest point and effectually caused the downfall of the government.
He remained, nevertheless, a Liberal; and after, the franchise question had been settled by what Lowe considered Disraeli's betrayal, and he had been elected the first member for London University, he accepted office again in the Gladstone Cabinet of 1868 as chancellor of the exchequer. Lowe was a rather cut-and-dry economist, who prided himself that during his four years of office he took twelve millions off taxation; but later opinion has hardly accepted his removal of the shilling registration duty on corn (1869) as good statesmanship, and his failures are remembered rather than his successes. His proposed tax of a halfpenny a box on lucifer matches in 1871 (for which he suggested the epigram ex luce lucellum, "out of light a little profit") roused a storm of opposition, and had to be dropped. In 1873 he was transferred to the Home Office, but in 1874 the government resigned. When the Liberals returned to power in 1880 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Sherbrooke, but from 1875 till his death at Warlingham, Surrey, his health was constantly failing, and by degrees he figured less and less in public life.
Bobby Lowe, as he was popularly known, was one of the most remarkable personalities of his day, with his tall, striking figure, albino complexion and hair, and faculty for epigram and irony. During the 1870s the following epitaph was suggested for him by one of the wits of his day:
"Here lies poor old Robert Lowe;Lowe was delighted with this, and promptly translated it into Latin, as follows:
Where he?s gone to I don?t know;
If to the realms of peace and love,
Farewell to happiness above;
If, haply, to some lower level,
We can?t congratulate the devil."
"Continentur hac in fossaHis literary talent, though mainly employed in journalism, was also shown in a little volume of verses, Poems of a Life (1884). He married a second time, in 1885, but left no children.
Humilis Roberti ossa;
Si ad coelum evolabit,
Pax in coelo non restabit;
Sin in inferis jacebit,
Diabolum ejus poenitebit."
See Life and Letters by A Patchett Martin (London, 1893).