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The Next Generation

WILLIAM and JULIETTE LOW

William Low

William Mackay Low and his future wife, Juliette McGill Gordon, were both born in 1860, William on August 3rd, in Newport, Rhode Island where his parents were spending the summer and Juliette on October 31st, in Savannah. The Low and Gordon families knew each other, both fathers were cotton brokers, their houses were a few blocks apart and a recent marriage had forged an additional link between the families. William and Juliette were probably too young to later remember if they had met or played together as young children.

William Low’s childhood was blighted by the death of his mother when he was barely three years old. His maternal grandmother reluctantly left her beloved plantation home in north Georgia and came to Savannah to raise her four motherless grandchildren. Grief-stricken Andrew Low, distracted by the havoc the war was inflicting upon his once flourishing cotton factoring business, probably left the upbringing of his four young children, William and his three sisters, largely to their grandmother Stiles. There were two older half-sisters already in boarding school, in England, when the war began. They were young ladies when Andrew Low brought them back to Savannah in late 1865. The atmosphere in the Lows’ handsome house on Lafayette Square during the latter years of the Civil War would have been somber.

In contrast, while Juliette’s father, William Washington Gordon, Jr. a Captain in the Confederate Army, was away during the war, her mother was at home and was a positive presence in Juliette’s life. There was the lively companionship of two brothers and three sisters and Grandmother Gordon lived a few doors away. In this close knit family environment few shadows were cast over Juliette’s childhood.

In 1867, Andrew Low had moved his family to England, away from the struggling reconstruction hardships of the post-Civil War south. He leased a house in Leamington, Warwickshire, an area of England that offered a refined and respectable environment in which to raise his young family. A suitable staff was hired to care for them. The office of his English business, Isaac, Low and Company, was in Liverpool, several hours away by rail.

The two older Low daughters soon made successful marriages. William’s three sisters were educated at home by a governess then sent to a fashionable boarding school. As each completed her education, she was presented at Court. In the late 1870’s the girls began to accompany their father on his annual business trips to America, renewing contact with their Georgia relatives and making friends in Savannah. Jessie, the youngest daughter, first came with her father in 1880 and in her diary repeatedly mentions the Gordon girls, especially Juliette. They walked in the park, shopped and attended church together, dined at each other’s houses and attended the same dances. A warm friendship developed between the daughters of the Low and Gordon families.

William Low was educated at Dunchurch, a day and boarding school near Leamington Spa. He went on to Winchester College, one of England’s famous ‘public schools’ (Prep Schools) and completed his education at Brasenose College, Oxford University, where he was a member of both the Octagon and Phoenix Common Room, fashionable student dining clubs.

A cousin described William Low at this time as “looking like a Greek god” and “having beautiful manners”. In addition, he was an excellent horseman and a crack shot. He was also his father’s only male heir and someday would inherit a comfortable fortune. William Low fitted seamlessly into the late Victorian social world of the British upper class.

Juliette Gordon was educated at the Virginia Female Institute (now Stuart Hall), attended Miss Emmett’s School, in New Jersey and completed her education at a French finishing school in New York City. She had a talent for painting and while in New York studied with several prominent artists.

William Low first returned to America in January 1882 upon receiving word his father had been injured in a fall on board ship en route to America for his annual business trip to New York and Savannah. While in Savannah that winter, William Low definitely met Juliette Gordon. She was of marriageable age and his name would have been on the invitation list of every matron in the city entertaining for her eligible daughter! In the following years, William dutifully made these annual business trips for his aging father but to the concern and disappointment of Andrew Low, he showed little serious interest in pursuing a business career.

Juliette and her parents visited England in the summer of 1882. The Gordons traveled to Leamington to see their old Savannah friend, Andrew Low, at his home, 42 Clarendon Square. Juliette stayed on for a visit of several weeks with the Low girls. William may have been at home during the time of her visit.

By 1883, Juliette was in love! It may be assumed William was not altogether indifferent to Cupid’s arrows. There was talk of marriage and both fathers opposed it. They recognized likely future points of incompatibility between the two young people. From the time he was seven years old, William had been raised according to the traditional male centered standards of the British upper class. He attended boarding school, prep school, then went to university. He mastered the expected sporting and social skills of a gentleman. Juliette had been raised within the security of a close knit family. At boarding school and later in New York City, there had been sisters and cousins with her or living nearby. Long summer vacations had been spent at the Stiles’ north Georgia plantation, now home of her aunt, in the company of numerous cousins. These two attractive young people came from different worlds and their fathers were rightly concerned at the prospect of their marrying.

Early in 1886, the gravely ill Andrew Low consented to the marriage, provided the couple “was of the same mind after a year”. He stated his intention to give William the Savannah properties, which would provide an income of about £3,000 a year (about $30,000), a princely income at the time. Andrew Low died on June 27, 1886. William Low inherited his father’s substantial estate in England and America. That fall, when the weather was cold enough to transport bodies across the ocean, he accompanied his father’s body on its final journey. Andrew Low’s wish was that he should be buried in Savannah, beside his wives and little son, in Laurel Grove Cemetery.

Work was already underway to up-date the décor of the Lafayette Square house. William sent money from England and Juliette shopped in New York for carpet, wallpaper and other furnishings for her soon-to-be home. At her insistence hardwood flooring was laid over the original parlor floor. New fixtures were purchased for two bathrooms. A few days before their wedding, a telephone, one of Savannah’s first, was installed in the house.

The wedding was celebrated in Christ Church, at noon, on December 21, 1886. William’s three sisters, Katie, Mary and Jessie, were among the eight bridesmaids. As the couple departed for a honeymoon trip to St. Catherine’s Island, the traditional “good luck” shower of rice was tossed at the departing bride and groom. A grain lodged in Juliette’s good ear. (She was already deaf in one ear from an earlier infection.) Initial efforts to remove the grain of rice were unsuccessful, infection set in and despite seeking the best treatment available, Juliette was soon deaf in this ear, too.

The newlywed couple settled into the Lafayette Square house and briefly entered into the social life of Savannah. As spring approached they sailed to England. William’s three sisters, who had enjoyed an extended visit with their American relatives, returned with them. The second day at sea, Jessie Low, recorded in her diary that Juliette was, “in bed, howling and crying” and that nothing they attempted to do helped her. She remained in bed, in this upset state, after they arrived in England, taking no interest in arranging her home, Beauchamp Hall, in Leamington. Finally, Mrs. Gordon was sent for. Her arrival seems to have provided the cure. Acute home sickness may have been an early blight on their marriage, for on future trips back to Savannah Juliette stayed with her parents and William stayed at the Low house. When here he went on frequent shooting and fishing trips with friends, including some who came from England, including his good friend, the Earl of Warwick, who later wrote of these trips in his autobiography.

In England, the couple’s life settled into the rhythm of the upper class social calendar routine of house parties, fox hunts, balls, the London season, shooting and fishing parties in Scotland, with trips to fashionable spas for rest, rejuvenation and amusement. He served as Captain and later Major in the Warwickshire Yeomanry and enjoyed participating in their regular drills. Juliette was presented at court. She also suffered from an undiagnosed “health problem” and spent weeks in bed, refusing to see anyone, according to accounts in a Low family diary.

In 1889 William bought Wellesbourne House, in Warwickshire. Extensive renovations were made to house and grounds until it was described as “looking like a southern plantation”. Rare orchids were cultivated in the green houses and the stables had stalls for 40 horses. In addition, they had a town house in London and leased a shooting lodge in Scotland. Their Savannah cook, Mosiana Milledge, was brought over to prepare specialties of southern cooking for their guests. Rosa Lewis, later proprietor of the Cavendish Hotel, in London, was a scullery maid at Wellesbourne House at this time and learned to make some of these dishes, later serving Smithfield ham, brandied peaches, pecan pie, beaten biscuits and other southern dishes to selected guests at her establishment. The wine cellar at Wellesbourne House was liberally stocked and quantities of Cuban cigars were imported for the enjoyment of the gentlemen. Inventories of the quantities of these items taken at the time of William Low’s death are staggering!

By all accounts, William Low was a generous man. During the winter he regularly provided coal for needy families in the district. He hosted the inhabitants of four neighboring towns at a splendid feast that ended with a brilliant display of fireworks to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, on June 22, 1897.

The newspapers reported that on June 27, 1898, “The Prince of Wales has taken his first trip on a motor car. His Royal Highness was driven around the grounds of Warwick Castle and later in the day to Mr. William Low, at Wellesbourne House. After luncheon His Royal Highness and party returned to the castle. The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough were in the party”. An interest William Low and the future Edward VII shared was – race horses!

William Low by James Lynwood Palmer

William Low’s racing stable was well known, some of his winners, included Rightaway, regarded as his best horse and the sire of Throwaway. Cesarwitch, winner of the St, Brie in 1896, Mark For’ard who won the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster in 1898, Elopement who was 2nd to the Prince of Wales horse in the 1900 St. Leger, Littleton winner of the Derby Gold Cup in 1903 and Imari who won the Chester Cup in 1905, only days before William Low died. The gleaming gold and silver cups and trophies won by his horses were displayed in cabinets in the main hall at Wellesbourne House. James Lynwood Palmer documented several of these horses on canvas, in addition to painting William Low astride a favorite hunter. “Morny” Cannon, the famous jockey, rode many of these winners.

Rightaway c. 1908

The couple had no children and drifted apart, in time essentially leading separate lives. In 1898 William Low took his sister, Jessie, to a spa to “raise her spirits” after the death of her nine year-old son. There he met Anna Bateman, a beautiful, wealthy young widow. She was looking for a husband and William Low found her charming. By 1902 they wished to marry and divorce proceedings were started. As part of an agreed upon settlement, William Low deeded the Lafayette Square house, in Savannah and the lease hold on his London town house to Juliette. He also made a new will, leaving everything to Mrs. Bateman except Wellesbourne House and its contents. These he willed to his half-sister, Amy Low Grenfell. (Amy was 14 years his senior and in 1871 had married Harry Grenfell, a rising officer in the Royal Navy. As a youth, William seems to have regarded them almost as surrogate parents and it was through the Grenfell family that William was introduced into the social circle of the Prince of Wales.)

According to letters written by his maternal grandmother, William Low had been a rather sickly child. By 1900, his sisters thought he had a heart condition and an American cousin wrote in 1902 that he had “lost all his good looks”. He was regularly spending time at health resorts in Germany. On June 8, 1905, while staying at Ruthin Castle, in Wales, William Low was taken ill and died. He was forty-five years old. His funeral was held in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Widmerpool, Nottinghamshire. This church had been restored in 1888, by his half-sister, Harriet Low Robertson, in memory of her father, Andrew Low. In the church are memorial plaques to members of the Low family and a beautiful stained glass memorial window. His grave in the churchyard is next to those of his half-sisters and their husbands.

At the time of William Low’s death, the final divorce decree had not yet been handed down; therefore Juliette was legally his wife/widow. She contested the will. As the estate consisted of property in both England and the United States, the will was declared invalid in America because it had been witnessed by only two people, as required under British law. (American law requires three witnesses.) As the widow, Juliette received the entire American portion of the estate. In England, the estate passed as directed under the will.

Juliette Low used the London town house as her residence and rented the Savannah house to tenants until 1918. She made regular trips back to America to spend time with her family, even making several crossings during the First World War, despite the danger posed by German submarines. In Savannah, she always stayed in the Gordon house until after her mother’s death in 1917.

Juliette Low knew Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and his sister Agnes, founder of the Girl Guides. Juliette helped organize Girl Guide troops in London and in Scotland. This sparked her idea of establishing a similar group in America. During her 1912 visit to Savannah, Juliette Low met with a group of friends, including her cousin, Miss Nina Pape, and proposed they organize a troop of girls along the lines of the British Girl Guides. The girls they recruited formed the first Girl Scout Troop.

The corner lot at Drayton and Charlton Streets, across from the Low house garden, was developed as a basket ball court for the Girl Scouts and a fence was erected around it so the girls could not be seen playing in their bloomers! After 1918, when Juliette began to use the Low house as her Savannah residence, she made part of the carriage house available for use by the Girl Scout Troop.

Mrs. Low traveled to many cities, organizing Girl Scout Troops and regularly returned to her London home. About 1923 she developed breast cancer but kept to her busy schedule. Early in 1927 she realized she was dying and returned to her Savannah home for the last time. Juliette Low died in the southeast bedroom of the Low house on January 17, 1927. She was buried in the Gordon family lot, in Laurel Grove Cemetery.

In her will, Juliette Low left the carriage house, except the north portion, the garage, to the Girl Scout Council of Savannah. In 1928 The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Georgia bought the Low house to use as their State Headquarters. Ten years later they deeded the northern portion of the carriage house to the Girl Scout Council of Savannah, provided it be used as a museum to Juliette Gordon Low and the Girl Scouts.

Copyright ©2013 Andrew Low House