ONSLOW, Arthur (1691-1768), of Imber Court, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer



15 Feb. 1720 - 1727
1727 - 1761

Family and Education

b. 3 Sept. 1691, 1st s. of Foot Onslow, M.P., by Susanna, da. and h. of Thomas Anlaby of Etton, Yorks., wid. of Arnold Coldwall of Guildford. educ. Guildford g.s. 1698; Winchester 1706; Wadham, Oxf. 1708; M. Temple 1707, called 1713, bencher 1728. m. 8 Oct. 1720, Anne, da. and coh. of John Bridges, niece and coh. of Henry Bridges, of Imber Court, 1s. 1da. suc. fa. 1710.

Offices Held

Sec. to chancellor of the Exchequer 1714-15; receiver gen. of Post Office 1715-20; recorder, Guildford 1719; Speaker of the House of Commons 1728-61; P.C. 25 June 1728; chancellor to Queen Caroline 1729-37; treasurer of the navy 1734-42.


At George I’s accession Onslow, then an unsuccessful barrister, was appointed secretary to his uncle, Sir Richard Onslow, the new Whig chancellor of the Exchequer. Returned in 1720 on the Onslow interest for Guildford, which he exchanged for the county in 1727, he quickly made his mark in Parliament. At the opening of the Parliament of 1722 he was one of the leading ministerial supporters in the Commons who were invited to Walpole’s house to discuss the bill for suspending the Habeas Corpus Act on the discovery of the Atterbury conspiracy, subsequently taking a leading part in the passing of a bill of pains and penalties against one of the conspirators.1He was one of the managers of Lord Macclesfield’s impeachment in 1725, when he also spoke against the reversal of Bolingbroke’s attainder. ‘I endeavoured’, he wrote,

to found my character rather upon the rectitude of my actings than upon any other fame, and therefore often voted with both parties as I thought them to be in the right. I loved independency and pursued it. I kept firm to my original Whig principles, upon conscience, and never deviated from them to serve any party cause whatsoever: and all this I hope and am persuaded, was what chiefly laid the foundation of my rise to the chair of the House of Commons without any the least opposition, although Sir Robert Walpole sometimes said to me, that the road to that station lay through the gates of St. James’s.

On 17 Jan. 1727 he was chosen to move the Address.

Soon after George II’s accession, when most people were expecting that Walpole would be displaced by Sir Spencer Compton, the then Speaker, Onslow

went to wait upon him at Chelsea, a place he had for retreat, as much as a first minister can enjoy, so near the town. I found him at that time, alone, and he kept me a great while with him. At first he seemed a little shy of talking, and I imagine he thought I came by direction ... to report what he should say in our conversation; but I had no such base view, nor ever was an instrument of that sort for any person, and he soon perceived I had no such motive, and came only out of pure respect and affection for him, as was the truth, I really believing that all power was to be in other hands. Upon this he took me into his arms with a flood of tears that came immediately from him, crying out, that this kindness of his friends had drawn a weakness from him, which his enemies never could do. He then made me sit down by him, for I was going away, and entered into a long discourse of his ministry ... and in this conversation, or some other not long after, I found he would not dislike my being the next Speaker; but of that nothing was ever said by him to me till he was in the full return of his former power, and which soon came about, with very ample increase of it.2

Walpole’s reasons for preferring Onslow to Compton as Speaker were that Compton, as a defeated rival, might be dangerous in the chair of the new House of Commons, whereas Onslow,

as he had no great pretensions to it from his age, his character, his weight in the House, or his particular knowledge of the business ... must look upon his promotion entirely as an act of his favour, and consequently think himself obliged, in honour, interest, and gratitude, to show all the complaisance in his power to his patron and benefactor.

Onslow, however, had other ideas.

No man [Hervey writes] courted popularity more, and to no man popularity was ever more coy. He cajoled both parties and obliged neither; he disobliged his patron by seeming to favour his opponents, and gained no credit with them because it was only seeming.3

By 1731 it was known that Walpole ‘was not well with the Speaker, and consequently the Speaker not well at court’. Horace Walpole relates that Onslow

one day judiciously bragged to the Queen of some compliments that had been made him on his impartiality by Sir J. Rushout and Mr. Gybbon, then in the Opposition; and added, ‘These, Madam, are the honours I carry with me to Ember Court’. She replied, ‘Oh, you are in the right ... There was Sir Spencer Compton [who had combined the post of Speaker with that of paymaster of the forces], who was so simple as to prefer carrying a hundred thousand pound to his Ember Court’.4

In 1732 Onslow, who was entitled to speak and vote when the House was in committee, voted with the Opposition on the army estimates. Next year he made amends by voting for the excise bill and supporting Walpole at the ensuing party meeting at the Cockpit; on 6 Feb. 1734 he spoke for the Government in a debate on an increase in the army; and at the dissolution in April he followed the example of his predecessor by accepting a lucrative sinecure.

In the next Parliament Onslow, having been unanimously re-elected Speaker, voted with Walpole on the Spanish convention in 1739, subsequently denouncing the secession of the Opposition.5 When the opposition leaders were considering their plan of campaign against the ministry at the opening of the Parliament of 1741, Chesterfield expressed the opinion that, ‘as for opposition to their Speaker, if it be Onslow, we shall be but weak, he having, by a certain decency of behaviour made himself many personal friends in the minority’.6 After his unanimous re-election, the Opposition, ‘to flatter his pretence to popularity and impartiality, call him their own Speaker’. On a tie for the last two places on the secret committee set up by the Commons to inquire into Walpole’s Administration, it was agreed that the choice should be left to Onslow. He, ‘with a resolution not supposed to be in him, as he has been the most notorious affecter of popularity’, chose the court candidates. Accused of having done so because of his sinecure, he at once resigned it, ‘to show his disinterestedness’. Nevertheless, Walpole is said to have ‘always thought the Speaker not enough attached to him and treated him very roughly on his first visit after his disgrace’.7

Onslow voted with the Government on the Hanoverians in 1742 and 1744. In he attended the meeting of the leading ministerial Members of the Commons at Pelham’s house two nights before the opening of the new Parliament.8 He spoke against the regency bill in 1751 and the clandestine marriage bill in 1753. Shortly before his re-election as Speaker in 1754, he told Pelham

that if I was to be Speaker again, he must not expect that I would act otherwise than I had always done, and which he knew was not always pleasing to ministers, his answer was, ‘Sir, I shall as little like, as any one else in my station, to have a Speaker in a set opposition to me and the measures I carry on; but I shall as little like to have a Speaker over-complaisant, either to me or to them’.9

The first career Speaker, he died 17 Feb. 1768.

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Author: Romney R. Sedgwick


  • 1. Knatchbull Diary, 15-16, 115.
  • 2. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 516-17.
  • 3. Hervey, Mems. 39, 74-75.
  • 4. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 205-6; Corresp. H. Walpole, xxx. 292, n. 25.
  • 5. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 366; ii. 24; iii. 43.
  • 6. Coxe, Walpole, iii. 580.
  • 7. Walpole to Mann, 3 Dec. 1741, 1 and 8 Apr. 1742; Mems. Geo. II, i. 129 n.
  • 8. Owen, Pelhams, 143, n. 4.
  • 9. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 516-17.