Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of Qualified Electors:


Number of voters:

3,957 in 1710


11 Mar. 1690SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt. 
6 Nov. 1695SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt.18301
 Edward Harvey1141
3 Aug. 1698SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt.930
 Nicholas Carew701
 Edward Harvey545
 John Evelyn425
 Sir Francis Vincent, Bt.312
15 Jan. 1701SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt. 
3 Dec. 1701SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt.2047
 William Fenwick504
 Nicholas Carew459
 Sir James Clarke399
29 July 1702SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt.1680
 John Weston1213
 Sir James Clarke528
30 May 1705SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt.3036
 Edward Harvey1638
12 May 1708SIR RICHARD ONSLOW, Bt.2594
 Sir Francis Vincent, Bt.1448
11 Oct. 1710SIR FRANCIS VINCENT, Bt.2166
 Sir Richard Onslow, Bt.1943
 Sir William Scawen1656
20 June 1711FINCH re-elected after appointment to office 
9 Sept. 1713HON. HENEAGE FINCH1745
 Sir Francis Vincent, Bt.1469

Main Article

Although dominated by the Onslow interest, a perennial feature of Surrey politics since 1628, the unpredictability of the county electorate was testified by a long series of contested elections and several notable upsets at the polls. Even the apparent master of the shire, Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt., displayed a profound respect for the wishes of his constituents, and his control of the county’s second seat was never certain. Onslow was fortunate to reside near Guildford, the customary venue for the shire election, but the county’s proximity to the capital also presented him with the difficult task of appeasing an informed electorate whose outlook was influenced by both landed and commercial interests. The potential friction between merchant and gentleman was to some extent alleviated by the fact that many of the more venerable county families, the Onslows included, had maintained City connexions for many years. However, the influx of mercantile wealth into the shire had important repercussions for Surrey’s political development, as most obviously suggested by the success of City merchants at the polls. Even as well-established a family as the Onslows had to work hard to preserve their supremacy, a political reality acknowledged by Sir Richard’s nephew Arthur†, who later observed that ‘the family has succeeded best in all elections when their interest has been kept independent of any other persons’. His uncle’s failure to adhere to this dictum was instrumental in facilitating the victory of his Tory rivals on several occasions, most humiliatingly in the dramatic contest of 1710.

The election of 1690 was settled by an accommodation between two of the county’s most respected families. By repeating the success which he had gained at the election for the Convention, Sir Richard Onslow confirmed his emergence from his father’s shadow and showed a readiness to work with the Tory baronet, Sir Francis Vincent, 5th Bt.* Prior to their election there was some speculation that Sir Walter St. John* might contest Vincent’s place in the absence of the retiring MP George Evelyn, but the Surrey Whigs were content to relinquish their hold on one of the two seats in exchange for an uncontested return. However, at the end of that Parliament the superior strength of local Whiggery was suggested by an address drawn up at the Kingston assizes in March 1695 which heartily endorsed the war effort while offering condolence to the King on the death of his wife.2

Only eight months later Sir Richard Onslow showed little regard for compromise when engineering the election of both himself and his uncle Denzil Onslow. Vincent retired from the contest, it was reported, on account of his reluctance to fight an expensive campaign, and the Tory challenge of Edward Harvey* narrowly failed to dislodge the elder Onslow. Through the machinations of Harvey and Sir John Parsons* the poll was actually held at Reigate, some distance from their rivals’ immediate sphere of influence, but these ‘circumventing endeavours’ could not undermine the general support which the Onslows enjoyed on a county-wide basis. As a measure of the antagonism which the Onslow platform aroused, 700 of Harvey’s votes were reported to have come from plumpers, and but for Harvey’s ‘unseasonable good husbandry’ in curtailing his supporters’ drinking at 8 p.m. on the day of the poll, he might have won. However, the victory was acknowledged by John Evelyn as evidence of how ‘that family are well-known and esteemed and know how to treat the people at the close of the books’. Harvey petitioned against the return, claiming that Denzil Onslow had gained ineligible votes, but the House ruled against the appeal.3

Lingering resentment against the presumption of the Onslows threatened to rebound on Sir Richard at the next general election. In December 1697, on the occasion of the presentation of a loyal address to the crown on behalf of the Surrey gentry, Sir Richard began to canvass for support by inviting ‘almost all the gentlemen’ of the county to a dinner at his London home. Despite his efforts, only four months later a Surrey observer commented that ‘’tis pretty generally the opinion not to choose both the knights of the shire . . . out of the same family’. Onslow’s intentions were closely scrutinized by the county gentry as the election approached, and less than two weeks before the poll it was reported that a field of ‘many candidates’ had agreed to put forward Onslow and Vincent as the county’s next MPs. However, this accommodation quickly dissolved as the activities of the Onslows continued to fuel suspicion right up to election day. The dubious victory gained by Foot Onslow* over John Weston of Ockham at the Guildford borough election on 22 July heightened feeling against the arbitrariness of the Onslows, a source of grievance that was to be compounded by rumours of Denzil Onslow’s intention to stand for re-election. On the eve of the poll no less than eight candidates were expected, although on the day itself Denzil Onslow and one of the Bowyers of Camberwell (possibly Anthony*) declined the contest. Weston’s performance in outpolling Onslow was heralded as a major shock, and it temporarily put paid to any ambition Sir Richard may have nurtured of controlling seats. Even one of the losing candidates, Nicholas Carew of Beddington (uncle of Nicholas*), could express satisfaction that he had run his fellow Whig candidate so close, though the diarist John Evelyn, with whom Onslow was generally on good terms, was reticent in recording his own disappointing performance. Weston’s return offered some consolation to the Tory candidates Harvey and Vincent, and even though they had failed to topple Sir Richard, it soon became obvious that the contest had checked his ambition.4

Onslow quickly adapted to a more accommodating position with local Tories and was content to share the seats with his neighbour Weston at the election of January 1701. Prior to that election, notice had been served of the re-emergence of the Finches of Albury as an active force within Surrey politics, but Hon. Heneage Finch I* did not stand even after reports had reached him ‘of the certainty of your being . . . chosen for the county’. The second election of the year was to be a far more contentious affair, possibly due to the influence of a new Tory lord lieutenant, the Duke of Northumberland, but Onslow’s impressive victory underlined the permanence of his interest. Rumours of Onslow’s disaffection towards Weston were insufficient to prevent the latter’s return a comfortable distance ahead of his nearest Whig rival, William Fenwick of Betchworth Castle, who had been urged to stand ‘by many worthy gentlemen’. The result might have been closer if Nicholas Carew had taken up an offer of £500 for his interest from the Tory challenger Sir James Clarke of East Molesey, but Carew made his rejection of the bribe very public, nobly stating that ‘no honest man would pay so dear for trouble if he designed only to serve his country’.5

The county’s divisions were all too evident at the accession of Queen Anne, though an address from the Southwark assizes in March 1702 promised that the Surrey gentry would endeavour to preserve ‘a perfect union among ourselves’ in support of the new monarch. The election held three months later would shatter any image of county harmony as local Tories mounted a more effective challenge to the Onslow–Weston alliance. The City merchant Leonard Wessell had not long settled in the county, but gained sufficient support to oust Weston in a close contest. Onslow himself managed to secure his seat ‘not without hazard’ and although the last-placed Clarke had mustered little over 500 votes, his candidacy helped the poll to surpass the scale of recent contests. Onslow was forced to reconsider his political strategy in the wake of Weston’s defeat and soon showed himself much more prepared to forgo a local accommodation if he had a realistic chance of taking both seats. An address from the gentlemen of the county in September 1704 again papered over the cracks of disunity within their ranks as it protested joy at the victories of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) and Sir George Rooke*, while attributing the nation’s good fortune to the Queen’s ‘great piety and care for the Protestant religion’. Such Tory sentiments indicated the growing confidence of Onslow’s rivals and probably directed him to employ more underhand methods. In the run-up to the election of 1705 John Evelyn spoke with disgust of the ‘most extravagant expense’ which was being used ‘to debauch and corrupt votes for Parliament Members’. Onslow’s new running-mate, Sir William Scawen, an extremely wealthy City merchant, was undoubtedly the culprit Evelyn had in mind, and the diarist switched his loyalties from the Onslow family and used his interest in favour of Edward Harvey. Evelyn’s example was followed by many other gentlemen in an increasingly polarized county, but only some 250 freeholders were sufficiently alienated by the Whig campaign to plump for Harvey. Sir Richard’s victory was the most emphatic he ever recorded at the polls, but the decision to stand alongside Scawen promised to back-fire on him should a more substantial challenge be raised.6

The bitterness of that contest was still evident in January 1706 when a scheme to raise a subscription to build a chapel at Okewood, near Wotton, was attacked by local Tories as ‘a popular design to make interest and gain votes’ at the expense of Harvey. However, a more harmonious note was struck by the two addresses which the county produced in the course of that year, both of which sought to congratulate the Queen on recent military successes. The first was issued in July in the name of the lord lieutenant, justices and gentlemen, but the second, drawn up at the Kingston assizes and presented in September, also expressed hope that the Anglo-Scottish Union would be ‘to the advantage of both nations’. Its presenter, Scawen, evidently hoped to ingratiate himself with the county elite by this service, an objective he also sought to achieve by direct application to influential local gentlemen such as John Evelyn. By February 1707 Scawen’s electioneering had already been noted, in response to which the Tory Sir Francis Vincent announced his own intention to stand. Sir Richard Onslow did not neglect his own interest either, using the county assize in March 1707 as an occasion to draw up another loyal address. At the election of 1708 the Surrey Whigs again recorded an impressive victory against Vincent’s lone challenge, but they could not afford to be complacent. Onslow polled fewer votes than he had three years before, and even in an era of Whig dominance, complaints were later aired that there was a dearth of suitable Whiggish gentlemen to fill the commission of the peace.7

Having gained greater prominence by his election to the Speakership, and having won nine election victories on the trot, Onslow seemed unassailable. Only in the wake of the Sacheverell trial did the Surrey Tories begin to take heart, recommencing political skirmishes with the presentation of an address at the Kingston assizes in April 1710. A Whig majority on the grand jury rejected the address by 16 votes to five and it was luridly described in the Whig press as ‘of a seditious nature’, a sure sign of its probable support for Sacheverell. However, within a month Hon. Heneage Finch II had been ‘received graciously’ by the Queen when he presented the address at Court, having obtained the subscriptions of over 2,000 Surrey freeholders to lend it authority. The new Tory figurehead had seized his opportunity to throw local Whigs on the defensive, an advantage which his allies sought to maintain in July when electioneering began in earnest.8

Despite this early skirmishing, a meeting of 60 gentlemen at Guildford in the middle of July proposed ‘very unanimously’ that the two parties join to promote Onslow and Vincent as MPs. However, Onslow’s opposition to this accommodation was soon made public, paving the way for Finch to establish himself as a powerful candidate alongside Vincent. On 27 July battle lines were formally drawn when Scawen and Onslow gave a ‘great treat’ for Surrey freeholders at Epsom, thereby ending any speculation that Onslow might fight the election ‘on his own bottom’. Five days later the Surrey grand jury at the Kingston assizes endorsed Finch and Vincent as their favoured candidates, and on 3 Aug. the Tories held their first major rally at Epsom. Within the Whig camp fears were expressed that Onslow and Scawen might appear ‘the aggressors by first joining against Sir Francis Vincent’, but even Tory diehards such as William Bromley II* did not expect Sir Richard to lose. However, the tactics which the Whigs employed in September, when Bishop Trelawny of Winchester was persuaded to issue a circular extolling the ‘great services’ Onslow had performed on behalf of the Church in Parliament, suggested increasing desperation. Moreover, even though the Whigs might ‘exert themselves ten times more than ever’, they could do little to assuage local revulsion against the City-based corruption personified by Scawen.9

Both sides prepared to muster their supporters for election-day in a most thorough manner, using the press to organize coaches to bring London residents to Guildford. On the day itself, the Tories were reportedly bolstered by the presence of ‘a numerous appearance of gentlemen, clergy and freeholders from all parts of the county’, while their rivals had a ‘far inferior number . . . especially of gentlemen’. Tory agents circulated bills which portrayed Finch and Vincent as champions of the Church in opposition to ‘all managers of Oliver’s party and principles, that once murdered their King and thousands of the nation to rule over us’. This propaganda ensured that the electorate remained firmly divided, with few freeholders opting to plump or split their votes. Unfortunately for Onslow, this polarization meant that he was unable to woo enough second votes from his rivals in order to compensate for the unpopularity of his running-mate. News of his defeat was greeted with joy by Tory politicians who regarded it as one of the party’s most significant gains. Nor was there much sympathy for Sir Richard within Surrey itself, where he was censured for passing up the opportunity to reach an accommodation with Vincent. As one observer remarked, ‘he might have secured himself, but that was not sufficient, nothing would satisfy him but the bringing of another with him, and so I think he is not much to be pitied’. Having secured a place in Parliament at St. Mawes, he thought better of competing against Finch in June 1711 when the latter sought re-election after appointment to office. Sir Richard’s ‘great mortification’ at the loss of his county seat even led to thoughts of retirement, but a reinvigorated challenge at the next election showed that he had learnt an important political lesson.10

For their own part, the Surrey Tories were not prepared to rest content with their dramatic victory. As early as January 1713 a group of Tory gentlemen met to discuss election tactics, and the two sitting Members declared their intention of standing again. The following June the Surrey MPs led a delegation of local gentry to present an address at Court which gave thanks for the peace and lauded the merits of ‘so able and just a ministry’. The chances of a Tory victory hinged principally on Onslow’s own electoral strategy, and by choosing to stand alone he removed the principal obstacle to his re-election. One report suggested that Scawen campaigned, as an opponent of the French commerce treaty, but there is no evidence that Onslow encouraged his former ally to put up on this occasion. Caution directed Sir Richard to secure a seat for himself at Guildford two weeks in advance of the county election, but although the Tory press once again tried to mobilize local support, he dismissed the challenge of Vincent with some ease. Some 1,200 freeholders were reported to have plumped for Sir Richard, ‘a thing rarely known in any county’, which highlighted Onslow’s enduring attraction, as well as the latent strength of Whiggism in Surrey. Bromley castigated local Tories for a lazy and parsimonious campaign, but his expectations of Vincent were unrealistic, for although Vincent outranked Onslow as the county’s premier baronet, he could never match his rival’s local prestige. Clandon Park had successfully emerged from the severest test of its political interest, and although the family’s supremacy would continue to be tested at the polls, for the next 60 years their right to at least one of the county seats was never seriously challenged.11

Author: Perry Gauci


  • 1. Bean's notebks.
  • 2. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 512; BL, Verney mss mic. 636/44, John Verney* (later Ld. Fermanagh) to Sir Ralph Verney, 1st Bt.†, 20 Feb. 1690; London Gazette, 21–25 Mar. 1695.
  • 3. BL, Evelyn mss, 740; Add. 11571, f. 57.
  • 4. Evelyn Diary, v. 279; Evelyn mss 542; Flying Post, 21–23 July 1698; Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 1590, 1593, John to Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, 2 Aug. 1698, Carew to same, 8 Aug. 1698.
  • 5. Devonshire mss at Chatsworth House, Finch–Halifax pprs. box 2/63, Leopold to Hon. Heneage Finch I, 18 Dec. 1700; Evelyn mss 553, 755; Post Boy, 27–29 Nov. 1701.
  • 6. London Gazette, 30 Mar.–2 Apr. 1702, 28 Sept.–2 Oct. 1704; Evelyn Diary, v. 511–12, 595; Surr. Poll 1705 (IHR).
  • 7. Evelyn mss 326; Evelyn mss, Ralph Bohun to John Evelyn, 11 Jan. 1706, William Draper to same, 13 Mar. 1707, Scawen to same, 2 Oct. 1707, 17 Apr. 1708, Thomas Bedingfield to John Evelyn II*, 23 Feb. 1707; London Gazette, 22–25 July, 5–9 Sept. 1706; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 198.
  • 8. Post Man, 8–11 Apr. 1710; Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletter 4 May 1710.
  • 9. Bagot mss at Levens Hall, Harvey to James Grahme*, 12 July 1710; Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletters 22, 27 July, 1, 3 Aug. 1710; Evelyn mss, Geoffrey Hussey to John Evelyn, 30 July 1710; Bodl. Ballard 9, ff. 69–70, 72; 38, ff. 150–1; HMC Portland, iv. 590–1.
  • 10. Post Boy, 7–10, 14–17 Oct. 1710; Strathmore mss at Glamis Castle, box 74, bdle. 8, newsletter 14 Oct. 1710; Surr. Poll 1710 (IHR); Evelyn mss, Samuel Thomson to John Evelyn, 24 Oct. 1710; Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletter 14 Oct. 1710.
  • 11. Evelyn mss, diary of John Evelyn II*, 29 Jan. 1713; Add. 21507, f. 76; 70299, O. S. to Ld. Oxford (Robert Harley*), 6 July 1713; London Gazette, 9–13 June 1713; Post Boy, 25–27 Aug. 1713; Daily Courant, 8, 12 Sept. 1713; Ballard 38, f. 162.