ONSLOW, George (1731-1814), of Imber Court, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 13 Sept. 1731, o.s. of Arthur Onslow. educ. Westminster 1739; Peterhouse, Camb. 1749. m. 26 June 1753, Henrietta, da. of Sir John Shelley, 4th Bt., sis. of John Shelley, and niece of Thomas, 1st Duke of Newcastle, 4s. 1da. suc. fa. 17 Feb. 1768; cr. Baron Cranley 20 May 1776; suc. cos. as 4th Baron Onslow 8 Oct. 1776; cr. Earl of Onslow 19 June 1801.
Out ranger of Windsor Great Park 1754-63; surveyor of the King’s gardens 1761-3; ld. of Treasury July 1765-1777; ld. lt. Surr. 1776- d.; P.C. 23 Dec. 1777; comptroller of the Household 1777-9, treasurer 1779-80; ld. of the bedchamber 1780- d.
George Onslow entered politics under the most favourable conditions: son of the Speaker and nephew by marriage of the minister, he was first given a sinecure worth £400 a year, then brought into Parliament for a Treasury borough—‘my election cost me not a single shilling’, he wrote, ‘save my moiety of the entertainment’. His total income at this time was £600 a year, which he studied to improve; and naturally he was one of Newcastle’s most reliable dependants. In October 1760 he was made surveyor of the King’s gardens—‘a very genteel office’, he wrote, ‘and worth to me nearly as much as my other’;1 and in November, expecting Francis Gashry’s death, applied for his office of treasurer of the Ordnance.2
In 1761 he succeeded his father as M.P. for Surrey. He followed Newcastle into opposition, with a zest which rather alarmed Newcastle.
Mr. Onslow ... acquaints me [wrote Newcastle to Hardwicke on 29 Nov. 1762] that there appeared the first day the greatest disposition in the House to show spirit ... that our friends are most pressing for some point to show themselves upon, and that they will not be easy without it, and that if nothing else can be found out they will attack the peace, which they think the most popular point they can go upon.3
And Onslow to Newcastle on 30 Nov.:4
Determine on some plan to follow; call us together at a meeting and let us know it, that we may no longer continue in that unsettled ignorance which I find grows irksome to them all, checks their ardour, and will if continued make them think themselves neglected, unsupported, and by that means sacrificed to the resentment of the most arbitrary Administration that this country ever knew.
He voted against the peace preliminaries, and spoke in the debate of 10 Dec. ‘Mr. George Onslow will, in the opinion of the House, make a good speaker if he will practise it’, wrote James West to Newcastle.5 The inevitable result followed, and Onslow was dismissed.
Both these offices I was removed from in 1763 [Onslow wrote in 1771 in an autobiographical note6], the famous time when (by the counsels of that wretched man Mr. Henry Fox, afterwards Lord Holland, and by the hand of him to whom this country is indebted for all the evils which have happened in this reign, I mean the Earl of Bute) that general massacre was made of almost every man in office from high to low, who had had any connexion with far better and higher men than themselves ... Among those, very much to my honour, I suffered, if I may so call it, when my father’s munificence made that loss of income, great as it was, scarcely to be felt.
Onslow now busied himself in trying to organize the Opposition; and when Wilkes was arrested sprang enthusiastically to his defence, and had to be restrained by Newcastle from visiting him in the Tower.7 On the day Wilkes was released on habeas corpus, 6 May 1763, Onslow wrote to Newcastle:8
In my opinion the liberty of the subject and the dignity of the House of Commons ... has this day received a glorious support. The acclamations of the people in the Hall are beyond what you can imagine, and on the whole showed, what I have long been convinced of, that the genius of this country is Whiggism.
He consorted with Wilkes and Temple, and on 24. Nov. 1763 presented Wilkes’s petition to the House of Commons. He now became one of the most frequent Opposition speakers, eager for action, and not over-nice in selecting topics. On 18 Apr. 1764 he opposed as ‘useless and improper’ an address of thanks to the Crown for remitting its share of the money received from prizes in the war. James Harris writes:
The address went without a division and would have been nem. con. had not Onslow very conspicuously placed himself at the bottom of the House, and given a single and audible No...
I never saw any behaviour more indecent, more absurd, nor (considering the immense pension bestowed on his father by the King) more ungrateful, than that of Onslow’s this day.
He was particularly active against the Regency bill, spoke for Lord John Cavendish’s motion of 7 May 1765 to name the Regent, and seconded Rose Fuller’s motion of 9 May to name the Queen.
On 24 June, during the negotiations for a new Administration, Onslow had a ‘confidential conversation’ with Pitt and Temple; and on 25 June, the day on which Temple was to see the King, wrote to him ‘to implore your acceptance of the Treasury’.9 Onslow attended the meeting of Newcastle’s friends at Claremont on 30 June, and was one of those who were against taking office without Pitt. ‘I wish your Grace would see George Onslow and talk him over’, wrote Rockingham to Newcastle on 2 July;10 and Onslow was persuaded to accept a seat at the Treasury Board. He wrote to Temple on 29 July:11
I long to go through with you all the intricacies and difficulties of the last three weeks, and explain to you the extreme difficult part I had to steer through them, more perhaps than any one man of them all, behind none of them, I am sure, on account of affection, gratitude, and devotion to you, which nothing in this world can happen ever to lessen, and which formed the chief part of my difficulty, though not the whole, knowing ... that your objection to accepting was founded on the most honourable and consistent principles in the world. I think I can convince you ... that my accepting has been founded on the same, and after having done all I did, which was all I could, I could not take any other part than what I did.
In January 1766, when the repeal of the Stamp Act was being considered by the Cabinet, Newcastle asked Dartmouth to let Onslow see the relevant documents.
I laid the papers before Mr. Onslow yesterday evening, [wrote Dartmouth to Newcastle on 3 Jan.] and had the pleasure to find that his sentiments upon them do not greatly differ from your Grace’s. He thinks that such part of the petitions [from America] as tend to deny [the right of taxation] are unreasonable and unwarrantable, and that it would be extremely dangerous to give away in that point, because the ground upon which they build their claim of exemption from taxation will equally support a denial of the authority of the British legislature in any other instance. On the other hand, he thinks there is so much weight in the reasons they allege against the expediency of the late measures, and so much propriety and decency in the manner of stating them, as will be sufficient to induce Parliament to give them relief, provided a mode of doing it can be found which shall not be liable to be construed by them into an acknowledgment of the justice of their claim.12
Onslow spoke frequently during the debates on the repeal of the Stamp Act and the Declaratory Act, and sent Newcastle reports of the proceedings in the Commons—short, and hastily and carelessly written. He was also in correspondence with Pitt,13anxious to please him and win his esteem. ‘I had the honour of your most obliging letter’, he wrote on 31 Jan.,14 ‘... and shall most certainly preserve it, that my family may know hereafter I was within the notice and esteem of Mr. Pitt.’ When Pitt attacked the Rockingham Administration on the militia, 14 Apr. 1766, Onslow, writes Harris, ‘got up to humiliate himself and soothe Pitt’. And later, in the same report: ‘When Onslow talked of the honour of seconding any motion of Pitt’s, the House burst into laughter.’
In November 1766, when the Rockinghams broke with Chatham, Onslow, Tommy Townshend, and Charles Townshend of Honingham ‘agreed to act together’ and ‘determined not to resign’.15 On 9 Dec. Onslow spoke for Administration on the East India inquiry. ‘As to George Onslow’, wrote Newcastle to Rockingham,16 ‘though he is very affectionate and good to me as a private friend and near relation, I am far from approving his conduct in every part.’ Onslow managed to remain on good terms with Newcastle while faithfully supporting Chatham’s Administration (he was one of the few knights of the shire who voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1766). His financial position was much improved when he succeeded to the pension of £3,000 p.a. which had been given to his father for two lives.
At a meeting of Government men of business on 12 May 1768 Onslow opposed the expulsion of Wilkes,17 but when it was determined voted for it. On 15 Apr. 1769 he moved that Luttrell be declared duly elected for Middlesex. Avoiding all reference to Wilkes, he based his case on the need to uphold the authority of Parliament:18
The House has an undoubted power to decide on the qualifications of its own Members. In cases of elections the law of Parliament is the law of the land. These are principles of the constitution that I have imbibed ever since I knew the meaning of the word ... A contrary language is to the last degree dangerous. Everything that tends to the diminution of the power of the House of Commons must end in the increase of the power of the Crown and of the other House of Parliament, and create general confusion.
He now became known as a stickler for the rights and privileges of the Commons. Together with his cousin he instigated the proceedings against the printers for publishing reports of debates, and was active in those against Crosby and Oliver. His zeal and bustle for the rights of the Commons, and his absolute reliability as a Government supporter (he was a teller for Administration in the division of 25 Feb. 1774 on Grenville’s Act) made him a laughing stock with the Opposition. Junius called him ‘a false, silly fellow’,19 and Horace Walpole ‘a noisy, indiscreet man’.20
Before the dissolution of 1774 he had decided not to stand again for Surrey. His share in the proceedings on the Middlesex election had made him very unpopular, and the expectation of shortly succeeding to the Onslow peerage was another reason for wishing to avoid an expensive contest.21 He is not known to have sought a seat elsewhere, and for nearly two years retained his place at the Treasury though out of Parliament.
On the death of his cousin he succeeded to the family estates, said to be worth £18,000 per annum. The rest of his career was that of a courtier, of little consequence in the House of Lords. He died 17 May 1814.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 520-1.
- 2. Add. 32915, ff. 176-7.
- 3. Add. 32945, ff. 200-1.
- 4. Ibid. ff. 227-9.
- 5. Ibid. f. 266.
- 6. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 521.
- 7. Add. 32948, f. 205.
- 8. Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
- 9. Grenville Pprs. iii. 63-64.
- 10. Add. 32967, f. 210.
- 11. Grenville Pprs. iii. 75-77.
- 12. Add. 32973, f. 31.
- 13. Chatham Corresp. ii. 374-402.
- 14. Ibid. 378-9, misdated.
- 15. Newcastle to Portland, 24 Nov. 1766, Add. 32978, f. 52.
- 16. Ibid. ff. 235-41.
- 17. Add. 32990, f. 71.
- 18. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 367-8.
- 19. Junius to Woodfall, 16 Aug. 1769.
- 20. Mems. Geo. III, iv. 145.
- 21. There are letters from John Butler, later bp. of Hereford, to Onslow about the Surrey election in the Onslow mss at Clandon.