ONSLOW, Thomas (1679-1740), of West Clandon, Surr.

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



1702 - 1705
26 Nov. 1705 - 1708
1708 - Nov. 1715
30 Nov. 1715 - 5 Dec. 1717

Family and Education

bap. 27 Nov. 1679, o. surv. s. of Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt.*  educ. Eton 1691–3; travelled abroad (Holland, ?France) 1697–8; Camb. Univ. LL.D. 1717.  m. 17 Nov. 1708 (with c.£70,000), Elizabeth (d. 1731), da. and h. of John Knight, Jamaica merchant, and niece and h. of Col. Charles Knight, merchant, of Kingston, Jamaica, 1s.  suc. fa. as 2nd Baron Onslow 5 Dec. 1717.

Offices Held

Commr. taking subscriptions to S. Sea Co. 1711.

Out-ranger, Windsor Forest 1715–17; teller of Exchequer 1718–d.

Ld. lt., Surr. 1717–d., custos rot. 1737–d.; high steward, Guildford 1717–d.1


An only son burdened by the expectations raised by his father’s outstanding example, the young Thomas Onslow was marked out as an ambitious and able prospect at a very early stage in his career. At the age of 17 he accompanied the English delegation to The Hague peace talks, having been described by Dr Arthur Charlett as a young man who would ‘do his country credit in all foreign countries’. He was also allowed to attend the Earl of Portland’s embassy to Paris in January 1698, and his subsequent involvement in parliamentary debates on foreign affairs probably owed much to these early experiences. His travels certainly had more of an impact on him than a brief sojourn at Oxford in 1698, and even as severe a critic as his cousin Arthur Onslow† admitted that ‘he was not without parts and spirit and some knowledge of the world’.2

Described by John Evelyn as ‘a very hopeful gentleman’ in 1699, Onslow managed to secure a seat at the tiny constituency of Gatton soon after he became eligible to stand for Parliament. This success was no doubt facilitated by the retiring MP Thomas Turgis, a Whig stalwart who had sat for the borough in every Parliament since 1659, and Onslow soon revealed his Whiggish credentials at Westminster. On 13 Feb. 1703 he voted for the Lords’ amendment to debar from reinstatement any MP who had failed to take the abjuration oath, and later voted against the Tack (or was absent), having been forecast as one of its probable opponents. The impossibility of resolving the ambiguity of the numerous references to ‘Mr Onslow’ in the Journals undermines any attempt to determine the extent of his activity at Westminster while he and his great-uncle Denzil Onslow both sat in the House. However, Denzil’s known penchant for the back benches would suggest that Thomas may generally be identified as the more active of the two MPs.

Onslow’s only definite appearance of note in his first Parliament came early in 1704 when he featured prominently in connexion with a bill to enable George Evelyn II* to raise portions for his offspring. Even such a seemingly minor matter carried some political significance, for the two men would later share the seats at Bletchingley. Beyond this, there remains a long series of appearances for ‘Mr Onslow’, some of which relate to major political issues, but which cannot with certainty be ascribed to Thomas.

At the 1705 election Onslow found some difficulty in ensuring his place in the House, Thomas Turgis’ death in 1704 having undermined his interest at Gatton. An attempt to secure a seat at Cirencester instead ended in disastrous failure, a defeat which may have prompted his decision to embark on a continental progress during that summer. He accompanied Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) to Vienna in June, but was back in England by November, when he contested a by-election at Chichester, thereby underlining the strength of his desire to return to Westminster. His father displayed a similar resolve when expending over £400 of his own money to ensure his son’s victory at the November poll. Although unfamiliar with his new constituency, Onslow did not shirk his responsibilities as its Member, presenting in July 1706 the town’s address congratulating the Queen on the victory of Ramillies.3

Having twice been identified as a Whig by parliamentary lists in early 1708, Onslow decided to test his political interest at no fewer than three boroughs at the general election of May 1708. Ignoring his poor showing at the previous Cirencester election, he fought and lost another contest there on 3 May, and had to rely on the support of the electorates of two of his home county’s smaller constituencies. Despite the distance between Haslemere and Bletchingley, he managed to secure a seat at both boroughs without a contest, a success which was regarded as a Whig gain by Lord Sunderland. His subsequent decision to sit for Bletchingley was probably influenced by his close association with the Evelyns of Nutfield, whose interest in the town was well established. Having served notice of his political standing, he then secured his financial future in November by marrying the double heiress Elizabeth Knight, whose wealth had earned her the title of the ‘Indian Queen’. The Duke of Grafton had reportedly been a rival for her affections, but Onslow prevailed, despite having ‘more of his vices and less of quality and estate’. This happy event was marred to some extent by Onslow’s involvement in a scandal based on allegations of his prior betrothal to Lady Harriet Vere, an embarrassing situation which, it was rumoured, may have been resolved by a handsome payment for her silence. However, his wife’s ‘great fortune’ set him up for the rest of his career as he embarked on a programme of extensive investment in Surrey properties, most immediately in the vicinity of Guildford.4

During the 1708–10 Parliament, Onslow’s apparent support for Country measures would have placed him squarely in opposition to the Whig-dominated Court. His attachment to self-denying legislation, indicated by his later parliamentary activity, remains the surest indicator of his father’s ideological influence, while his position within Whig ranks was confirmed by his voting in favour of the naturalization of the Palatines in late March 1709. On 18 Mar. he was nominated to assist in drafting bills to regulate the payment of seamen’s wages, and to establish a new company to regulate the African trade. The concern of both Onslow and his great-uncle for his constituents was revealed on 26 Jan. 1710 by their involvement in a bill to establish a land registry in Surrey. The following month he achieved some prominence as the chairman of the committee which oversaw the organization of the House’s seating at the Sacheverell trial in Westminster Hall, reporting to the House on 23 Feb. 1710. Onslow predictably sided with the Whigs over the Sacheverell affair, and his party identity was noted in the ‘Hanover list’ of 1710. In the general election he found himself in a very defensive position as he sought to retain his seat by standing again at both Haslemere and Bletchingley. Onslow was first returned for Bletchingley, but on the next day came bottom of the poll in the contest at Haslemere. Rumours of his family’s preparedness to spend £1,000 on the Haslemere election underlined the determination of the Onslows to halt the victorious Tory tide sweeping both county and country.5

In December Onslow played an important role in support of a bill to limit the number of placemen in the House, seconding the motion to introduce the measure, and subsequently proposing its second reading. Although his involvement in this measure only confirmed his attachment to Country issues (and may, in fact, be suggested by earlier entries in the Journals), the timing of the bill probably owed more to party manoeuvring than to the influence of political principle. He revealed a more assured Whig stance on 25 May 1711 when he voted for the amendment to the South Sea bill as part of a campaign to forestall a Tory majority on the new company’s first board of governors.6

On the opening day of the next session, 7 Dec. 1711, Onslow voted in favour of the motion for ‘No Peace without Spain’, and may have acted as a teller alongside Robert Walpole II. In one of the few references to him by full name in the Journals, Onslow acted as a teller on 16 Feb. 1712 in opposition to the Tory motion to agree with the resolution of the committee of the whole House that the Barrier Treaty had been ‘destructive to the trade and interest of Great Britain’. In addition, having on 17 June seconded the motion for an address to the crown requesting that the allies be formally appointed as guarantors of the peace secured by any subsequent treaty, he acted as teller in its favour. In a more factional guise, on 22 May 1712, he was one of the Members who leapt to defend Richard Hampden II against the attack of Henry St. John II after the former had dared to criticize the allies for dilatoriness over signing a European peace.7

It is not absolutely certain whether it was Onslow or his uncle Denzil who on 8 May 1713 spoke for the Whigs in the debate on the embargo of French wines, and who six days later argued the party line on the French commerce bill. Similarly, either Thomas or Denzil acted as a teller on 30 May in support of a motion calling for the publication of the bill to enforce the 8th and 9th articles of the French commerce treaty, although Thomas certainly did oppose the measure in the division of 18 June. Despite his attacks on the ministry’s handling of recent negotiations with foreign powers, he had, by October 1713, revealed his own accommodation to the peace, warning Matthew Ducie Moreton* that ‘’tis a weakness to dread the growing power of France with whom we have so strict a friendship’. In this same letter, Onslow showed that his principal concern centred on the protection of the Protestant succession, for even though he acknowledged the harmful effect that the Anglo-French commercial agreement would have on the English cloth industry, he still supported the European settlement.8

Despite the personal boost afforded by Onslow’s unopposed election at both Haslemere and Bletchingley in August 1713, his uncertainty over the country’s immediate future remained. On the eve of the new Parliament he sensed ‘a sudden great change in public affairs’, a prediction which was borne out on the opening day, 16 Feb. 1714, by his speech in support of Sir Thomas Hanmer, 4th Bt., the Hanoverian Tory candidate for Speaker. Significantly, he was reported to have endorsed Hanmer on account of ‘his steadiness for the House of Hanover and for opposing the bill of commerce last session’, and he also took this opportunity to lambast the partiality of ex-Speaker William Bromley II. Such anxiety over the immediate future might have been revealed again on 15 Apr. when an Onslow brought attention to the ‘continued act of conspiracy against succession’ during a debate on the dangers facing the House of Hanover. Earlier, on 18 Mar., he had once again closed ranks with his Whig colleagues to oppose the expulsion of Richard Steele from the House.9

The short session after the death of the Queen witnessed Onslow’s unmistakeable support for the new dynasty when he moved on 5 Aug. that congratulations rather than condolences should be the ‘principal stress’ of the Commons’ address to the new King, and he was duly named to a committee to draft it. He was not unfamiliar with the Hanoverian court since he had attended Prince George’s marriage to Caroline of Ansbach at Herrenhausen in September 1705, and, taking a cue from his father, he was quick to identify himself with the new regime. The favour of the new King was not long in coming, for he was appointed as an out-ranger of Windsor Forest in November 1715, a post which brought him a salary of £600 p.a. On account of this appointment he relinquished his seat at Bletchingley, but only with the intention of securing his first county seat in succession to his father, who had been forced to resign it for similar reasons. Although cited by the Worsley list as a Whig who might sometimes vote Tory, two other political observers placed him firmly in Whig ranks at the start of the new reign. The steadfastness of his support for the Hanoverians later ensured that when he succeeded his father as 2nd Lord Onslow, he was soon afterwards given his father’s place as a teller of the Exchequer.10

Despite these promising beginnings, however, Onslow did not use his father’s position as a springboard for further political advancement. Although in favour with both George I and George II, his achievements were largely confined to the development of the Onslow estates, crowned by the new mansion which he built at Clandon Park to a design by Leoni. An inelegant figure whose stoutness earned him the sobriquet of ‘dicky duck-legs’, his character endeared him to few. He died on 5 June 1740. His cousin Speaker Onslow afterwards alluded to ‘his pride and covetousness’, and recalled that ‘his behaviour, conversation and dealings with people were generally distasteful and sometimes shocking’. However, his commitment to the consolidation of his family’s influence within Surrey, as shown by the property investments set out in his will, was an enduring basis for the prominence of the Onslow name in county society.11

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci


  • 1. Manning and Bray, Surr. i. pp. lxii, lxxv, 41; iii. 54; Surr. RO (Guildford), 97/11/6, Sir Richard Onslow’s account, 29 Apr. 1698; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 374; C. E. Vulliamy, Onslow Fam. 53; Pittis, Present Parl. 351.
  • 2. HMC 6th Rep. 391; HMC Devonshire, i. 732; HMC Hastings, ii. 303; Surr. RO (Guildford), 97/11/6; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 494.
  • 3. Evelyn Diary, v. 312; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 222; S. Spens, Geo. Stepney, 257; Surr. RO (Guildford), 97/11/6.
  • 4. Add. 31143, f. 249; Northants. RO, IC 3745, John Isham to Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, 28 Oct. 1708; Manley, Secret Mems. 171; Manning and Bray, i. 21–22, 26; iii. 66.
  • 5. Party and Management, ed. C. Jones, p. 81; G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 118; HMC Portland, iv. 590–1.
  • 6. Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletter 7 Dec. 1710; Strathmore mss at Glamis Castle, box 74, bdle. 10, newsletter 7 Dec. 1710; SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1020/5, Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt., to Ld. Grange (James Erskine†), 21 Dec. 1710; Hist. Jnl. iv. 197–8; NSA, Kreienberg despatch 12 June 1711.
  • 7. Scots Courant, 20–23 June 1712; Chandler, iv. 261, 310.
  • 8. Kreienberg despatches 21 Apr., 8, 15 May 1713; Glos. RO, Ducie mss, D340a/C22/3, Thomas Onslow to Matthew Ducie Moreton, 14 Oct. 1713.
  • 9. BL, Trumbull Alphab. mss 52, Thomas Bateman to Sir William Trumbull*, 17 Feb. 1714; Kreienberg despatch 19 Feb. 1714; Douglas diary (Hist. of Parl. trans.), 15 Apr. 1714.
  • 10. Boyer, Pol. State, viii. 153; Vulliamy, 50; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxix. 848; NMM, Vernon mss 1/1F, James Vernon I* to Edward Vernon†, 25 Nov. 1715.
  • 11. Vulliamy, 50–51, 54–56, 74–78; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 495; PCC 179 Browne.