In the 1920’s Herstmonceux Castle was owned by Colonel Claude William Henry Lowther, a conservative MP and a theatre enthusiast. During the First World War, he had raised the Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment which was also known as Lowther’s Lambs. Do you ever wonder about the family of the people who owned the castle? Were they just as interesting? If so then Claude Lowther’s sister, Toupie Lowther may be a person of interest. While Toupie has been described as unpleasant and often not present, there was no doubt that she was an independent woman with great strengths and an air of mystery about her.
Born 16th April 1874 in London as the third child to father Lieutenant Francis William Lowther and mother Louise Beatrice Lowther, May ‘Toupie’ Lowther was a very interesting woman. While it was unknown when the nickname Toupie was introduced or its origins, it is what she was referred to in all historical contexts, including in official documents. Toupie had a normal childhood for someone of her status. She received an outstanding education starting as a young child being taught by a governess while learning French and German from her mother. Later on, she attended the Les Ruches boarding school just outside of Paris, which still to this day provides a highly regarded education. While at boarding school she had learned how to fence and play tennis. After graduating, Toupie went on to study En-Science at Sorbonne University in Paris.
At the start of the 20th century, Toupie was a very highly respected woman in both Britain and France. Her skills in competitive fencing could be described as nothing short of a natural ability. At the age of 17, Toupie began studying fencing at McPherson’s Gymnasium and School of Arms which led to her time as an exhibition and competitive fencer. She toured nationwide demonstrating often for charity fundraisers and was very popular among the crowds. At a prestigious exhibition on 30th April 1898 Toupie had one of her most successful victories, with over 500 people present to watch her win.
A few short years later Toupie appeared on the world stage for her lawn tennis skills and continued to go on to become an international champion. She was known for her love of driving fast and drove herself across Europe for the majority of her lawn tennis competitions. She won the Women’s Single British Covered Championship in 1900, 1902, 1903, but had a brutal defeat in 1901. In 1906 Toupie made it to many final rounds of European competitions but often lost in the final round.
Some of Toupie’s other skills included her known talent as a piano player, a composer, and her lovely singing voice. She was also an actor in films. Her appearances include Murder in Montparnasse, Suffrajitsu, The Pale Blue Ribbon and The Isle of Dogs. Toupie was also influential in some of the books written at the time.
By the time the First World War began in the summer of 1914 Toupie Lowther was 40 years old and had retired from her lawn tennis games. As the war began to take over the world as she knew it, Toupie did not hesitate to get involved. Living in France at the time Toupie put her love and skills for driving swiftly to use and became an ambulance driver who was recorded as an active service member in France. In expected Toupie fashion, solely driving an ambulance was not enough and she wanted to do more.
This resulted in Toupie’s idea to put together and create her own all-woman ambulance unit at the start of 1917. Joined by her business partner, Ms Hackett, who was in charge of the Canteen section of the Ambulance unit they began preparing for the Front. By mid-1917 the Hackett Lowther Ambulance Unit had come into effect and was fully prepared to start serving. After approaching the British Army to offer their services, the Hackett Lowther Ambulance Unit was given the necessary supply of ambulances. During the First World War there were many all-women initiatives such as the successful Endell Street Hospital in London. As more and more ambulances were provided the number of volunteers continued to grow. In London, many women were proud to serve their country with a surplus number of women looking to sign 6-month contracts.
By 1918 the Hackett Lowther Ambulance Unit was so strong it was given by the British to the French military to be incorporated into the sanitary unit in the I.P.S.E.A which was upsetting for Toupie. Although later on as the unit began to show their strengths together Toupie began to enjoy the team. Due to these War efforts, Toupie gained the Victory and war medal for the British government, from her service between December 14th, 1921 and July 19th, 1922 as well as the Croix de Guerre from the French government.
Toupie was a well-known member of the LGBTQ2+ community. In Una Troubridge’s daybook she is described as a lesbian. It is widely known that Toupie spent many nights with Una and her partner at Radclyffe Hall in London’s lesbian and gay underground bars after the end of the war.
In conclusion, we here at the castle believe that Toupie was an outstanding woman. Her wide variety of skills and talents make her a proud part of the Castle’s history and one we hope more can learn about. In a 1919 article in The Times, Toupie was described as ‘a woman who could hold her own in anything that required skill and brains’!
Tegan Elliot, 1st Year Arts Student, Queen’s University Canada.
Brown, Val. Toupie Lowther: Her Life. Matador, 2017.
TNA, WO 372/23/23706, Lowther, Toupie Medal Card
‘Englishwomen With The French Army – Miss Toupie Lowther’s Unit’, The Times, 5 August 1919. p. 13.