Onslow, Arthur (DNB00)

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ONSLOW, ARTHUR (1691–1768), speaker of the House of Commons, born at Chelsea on 1 Oct. 1691, was elder son of Foot Onslow, first commissioner of excise, by Susanna, daughter and heiress of Thomas Anlaby of Etton, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and widow of Arnold Colwall of Woodford, Essex. His great-grandfather was Sir Richard Onslow (1601–1664) [q. v.] He was educated at Winchester and matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, as a fellow commoner on 12 Oct. 1708, but took no degree. He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1713. He was recorder of Guildford and high steward of Kingston-on-Thames (1737). He became a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1728.

At a by-election in February 1720 Onslow had been returned to the House of Commons in the whig interest for the borough of Guildford, which he continued to represent until the dissolution in July 1727. Only three references to Onslow's speeches during the period he was a private member are known. He took part in the debate in November 1722 on the proposal for raising 100,000l. upon the real and personal estates of the Roman catholics, and ‘declared his abhorrence of persecuting anybody on account of their opinions in religion’ (Parl. Hist. viii. 52). In April 1725 he strenuously opposed the motion for the reversal of Bolingbroke's attainder (ib. viii. 462), and in March 1726 he supported Richard Hampden's petition ‘in consideration of his great-grandfather, who made a most noble and courageous stand against arbitrary power in opposing ship-money, and fell the first victim in the glorious cause of liberty’ (ib. viii. 515). At the general election in August 1727 Onslow was returned both for Guildford and for Surrey. He elected to serve for Surrey, and continued to represent that county until his retirement from the House of Commons at the dissolution in March 1761. At the opening of the new parliament, on 23 Jan. 1728, he was unanimously elected speaker of the House of Commons, an office to which he was re-elected in 1735, 1741, 1747, and 1754 (ib. viii. 629; ix. 634; xii. 214; xiv. 87; xv. 322). Onslow was sworn a member of the privy council at Hampton Court on 25 July 1728 (London Gazette, 1728, No. 6694), and on 13 May 1729 accepted the post of chancellor and keeper of the great seal to Queen Caroline. He was appointed treasurer of the navy on 20 April 1734, an office which he resigned in April 1742 ‘because the opposition said that his attachment to the court arose from interest’ (Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George II, i. 129). His speech to the king on 2 May 1745, on the occasion of presenting the Money Bills (Journals of the House of Commons, xxv. 8–9), was the last prorogation speech entered at length in the ‘Journals’ of either house (Diary and Correspondence of Lord Colchester, 1861, ii. 488). In May 1751 he made a ‘noble and affecting speech’ against the Regency Bill (Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George II, i. 126–8; Parl. Hist. xiv. 1017–23). In consequence of failing health Onslow resolved to retire from parliamentary life, and on 18 March 1761 the thanks of the House of Commons were unanimously voted to him ‘for his constant and unwearied attendance in the chair during the course of above thirty-three years in five successive parliaments.’

In returning thanks Onslow was deeply affected, and confessed that ‘the being within these walls has ever been the chief pleasure of my life.’ A further resolution for an address to the king, that he would be ‘graciously pleased to confer some signal mark of his royal favour’ upon the retiring speaker, was also unanimously carried (ib. xv. 1013–15). Accordingly the king, by letters patent dated 20 April 1761, granted Onslow an annuity of 3,000l. for the lives of himself and his son George, a provision which was further secured to him by an act of parliament passed in the following year (2 Geo. III, c. 33). The freedom of the city was voted to Onslow at a court of common council on 5 May 1761 ‘as a grateful and lasting testimony of the respectful love and veneration which the citizens of London entertain of his person and distinguished virtue.’ He was admitted to the freedom on 11 June following, but declined, ‘on account of his official position,’ to accept the gold box of the value of one hundred guineas which had also been voted by the court (London's Roll of Fame, 1884, p. 42). He died on 17 Feb. 1768, aged 76. ‘His death,’ Walpole records, ‘was long and dreadfully painful, but he supported his agony with great patience, dignity, good humour, and even good breeding’ (Letters of Horace Walpole, v. 86). He was buried at Thames Ditton, Surrey, but his body and that of his wife were afterwards removed to the burial-place of the Onslow family in Merrow Church in the same county. A monument was erected to his memory by his son George in the north aisle of Trinity Church, Guildford, and there is a tablet to him and his wife in Thames Ditton Church.

Onslow was a man of unblemished integrity and much ability. He was the third member of his family who had been speaker of the House of Commons. No speaker has ever supported the privileges of the House with more firmness, or sustained the dignity of his office with greater authority. ‘His knowledge of the constitution equalled his attachment to it. To the crown he behaved with all the decorum of respect, without sacrificing his freedom of speech. Against encroachments of the House of Lords he was an inflexible champion. … Though to conciliate popular favour he affected an impartiality that by turns led him to the borders of insincerity and contradiction; and though he was so minutely attached to forms that it often made him troublesome in affairs of higher moment, it will be difficult,’ says Horace Walpole, ‘to find a subject whom gravity will so well become, whose knowledge will be so useful and so accurate, and whose fidelity to his trust will prove so unshaken’ (Memoirs of the Reign of George III, i. 51–2). He used frequently to declare that ‘the passing of the Septennial Bill formed the era of the emancipation of the British House of Commons from its former dependence on the Crown and the House of Lords’ (Coxe, Memoirs of Sir Robert Walpole, 1798, i. 75). On being asked what would be the consequence of naming a member, he is said to have answered, ‘The Lord in heaven knows’ (Hatsell, Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons, i. 237).

In June 1761 Onslow was elected a trustee of the British Museum, in the establishment of which he had taken the greatest interest. Several books, now long forgotten, were dedicated to him. His ‘Character of Archbishop Abbot upon reading Lord Clarendon's account of him,’ written in 1723, is appended to the ‘Life of Dr. George Abbot, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury,’ Guildford, 1777, 8vo. His speech on presenting the Money Bills to the king on 29 April 1740 was published in pamphlet form (London, 1740, 8vo), where it is erroneously stated that the speech was delivered on 29 April 1739. A number of Onslow's notes will be found in Burnet's 'History of his own Time,' 1833, and in the second volume of Hatsell. His correspondence with the Duke of Newcastle, 1738-65, is preserved in the British Museum (see Index to the Addit. MSS. 1882-7, p. 873). The Clandon Library (at Clandon Park, Surrey), formed by him, and containing many books with his autograph notes, was sold at Sotheby's in March 1885.

Onslow married in 1720 Anne (1703-1763), daughter of John Bridges of Thames Ditton, and niece and coheiress of Henry Bridges of Ember Court, in the same parish, by whom he had a son, George Onslow, first earl of Onslow [q. v.], and a daughter Anne, who died unmarried on 20 Dec. 1751.

A whole-length portrait of Onslow, in his speaker's robes, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, is in the National Portrait Gallery. There are portraits of him in the hall of Wadham College and in the town-hall of Guildford. Onslow is the principal figure in the ‘House of Commons,’ painted by Hogarth and Sir James Thornhill, which was exhibited at the loan collection of national portraits at South Kensington in 1867 (Catalogue, No. 285), an engraving of which is given in Nichols and Stevens's ‘Genuine Works of William Hogarth’ (ii. opp.285). There are several engravings of Onslow by Faber and others after Hysing; and a curious one of him, ‘in his seat at St. Margaret's Church, Westminster,’ by A. Walker, forms the frontispiece to Wilson's ‘Ornaments of Churches considered,’ Oxford, 1761, 4to.

[Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George II, 1847; Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III, 1845; Walpole's Letters, 1857, vols. i. ii. iii. iv.; Hatsell's Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons, &c, 1818, pp. ii, vi-vii, 228, 236-7, 241, 354. 384, 393-7, iii. 189; Browne-Willis's Notitia Parliamentaria, 1750, iii. 118; Manning's Speakers of the House of Commons, 1851, pp. 435-40; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, 1813-15, vols. i. ii. iii. iv. viii. ix.; Nichols's Literary Illustrations, 1817-58, iii. 492, iv. 252-4, v. 166, vi. 460; Nichols and Stevens's Genuine Works of William Hogarth, 1808-17, i. 259-60, ii. 285-6; Boswell's Life of Johnson (ed. G. B. Hill), ii. 165, v. 396; Georgian Era, 1832, i. 537-8; Gent. Mag. 1768, p. 94; Brayley and Britton's History of Surrey, 1850, i. 308, 343-4, ii. 58, 104, 415, 433; Collins's Peerage, 1812, v. 472-6; Burke's Peerage, 1892, p. 1058; Foster's Alumni Oxonienses, 1500-1714 (1891), iii. 1090; Gardiner's Registers of Wadham College. Oxford, 1889, pt. i. pp. 435-6; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. xi. 220, 405, 8th ser. iii. 167, 258, 318; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 44, 56, 67, 79, 92, 104, 117; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.