ONSLOW, Foot (1655-1710), of London and the Friary, Guildford, 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



1689 - 24 June 1700

Family and Education

b. 2 June 1655, 2nd s. of Arthur Onslow† of Knowle and West Clandon, Surr. by Mary, da. of Sir Thomas Foot, 1st Bt.†, Grocer, of London, alderman of London 1643–8, 1660, ld. mayor 1649–50; bro. of Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt.*  educ. St. Edmund Hall, Oxf. 1672.  m. 2 Feb. 1688, Susanna (d. 1715), da. and h. of Thomas Anlaby of Etton, Yorks., widow of Arnold Colwall of Woodford, Essex, 2s. 5da.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Levant Co. 1676.

Commr. preventing wool exports 1689–92; commr. excise 1694–d.2

Freeman, Lymington 1699.3


A younger son who was destined never to emerge from the shadow of his illustrious brother Sir Richard, Foot Onslow always struggled to maintain the social and political prominence which his family had long enjoyed at the apex of Surrey society. His initial attempt to establish himself as a Levant merchant at Smyrna was doomed to end in failure, but the experience did not destroy his interest in commerce. However, on his return to England he prudently pursued more accustomed paths towards personal independence and distinction. In 1688 he married a rich heiress whose dowry included property in the Guildford area, thereby further cementing the Onslow interest in the vicinity of the family seat at Clandon Park. Even more predictably, he then won a seat at Guildford for the Convention Parliament, the first of four electoral successes in that constituency. His brother had paved the way for this victory by choosing to stand for the county, and although Foot could never match Sir Richard’s political stature, he certainly conformed to his steadfast Whig principles.4

Having supported the Sacheverell clause during the stormy corporation bill debate of January 1690, Onslow was cited by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) as a Whig at the opening of the 1690 Parliament, and was then identified as a Court supporter by Robert Harley* a year later. Any attempt to determine the extent of his parliamentary activity is a much more difficult task due to the general failure of the Journals to distinguish between Foot and his uncle Denzil Onslow, MP for Haslemere. However, the contrasting verdicts delivered on the two MPs by Foot’s son, Arthur Onslow†, who asserted that his father was ‘of good use there by his skill in matters which related to the revenue’, would suggest that Foot can be identified as the more probable actor in any of the ambiguous Journal entries, particularly on financial matters. James Vernon I*, one of his future rivals for a post at the excise office, was to dismiss Onslow’s personal fitness for a career in public finance, but his responsibilities in this sphere would at least require that he be conversant with such matters.5

Although there are few specific references to Foot in the Journals during the 1690–5 Parliament, he may well have proved an active Member, there being many appearances of ‘Mr Onslow’ in relation to financial matters. In the first two sessions Foot was evidently not conspicuous, although on 15 Oct. 1690 his full name was given among the MPs detailed to draft a bill to encourage naval recruitment, and he may also have been chosen (1 Dec.) to prepare a measure to prevent trade with France. The third session saw a continued prominence for the Onslow name, with Foot’s certain appointment to the committee to prepare a bill for the general improvement of the highways. This nomination argues for his identification with similar measures earlier in the Parliament, and later in this session he was possibly closely involved with a bill to suppress hawkers and pedlars. Foot Onslow’s familiarity with overseas trade ensured that his chief interest lay with the bitter debates over the future of the East India Company, and on 17 Dec. 1691 he acted as teller in favour of setting a minimum fund of £1.5 million for the maintenance of that trade, and the next day almost certainly figured as the Onslow who argued against the preservation of the existing Company. In the light of his recent investment in a Guildford brewery and his proposal only two months later to undertake the farm of the duty on low wines, he can with some certainty be identified as the Member who sponsored a measure to improve the collection of duties on strong waters and low wines.6

In the fourth and fifth sessions of the Parliament, the consistent appearance of the Onslow name in connexion with trade and revenue matters strongly suggests that Foot might be identified as the more ‘active’ of the two Onslows currently in the House. Moreover, Onslow’s commercial involvement can be established with even greater certainty in connexion with a bill to relax restrictions on the import of fine Italian silk. Having possibly spoken against the bill’s second reading on 19 Nov. 1692, Foot subsequently featured on 7 Dec. as one of its leading opponents, arguing that the proposed changes ‘would be very prejudicial to the woollen manufacture, ruin your Turkey trade and destroy the throwing of silk in this nation’. Eight days later it was probably Foot who presented the House with a petition against the bill, and he was undoubtedly the Onslow cited on 11 Jan. 1693 as one of the ‘Turkey merchants’ opposing its engrossment. Most significantly, he can be identified as one of the tellers who secured the bill’s rejection by four votes in a division later that day. Before the session had ended, he may have again acted as a teller on 15 Feb. in support of a bill to prevent the decay of trade in English towns. In the next session the association of the Onslow name with commercial matters was maintained, Foot possibly being intended on 14 Nov. in the nomination of ‘Mr Onslow’ to the drafting committee for a bill to encourage the clothing trade. He may likewise have assisted the solicitor-general in preparing a supply bill based on resolutions of the committee of the whole House (23 Feb. 1694). Revenue matters may also have held his attention at the time of two divisions early in 1694 when an Onslow acted as a teller in connexion with two supply bills.

Onslow’s participation in these debates would certainly help to explain his promotion to the excise commission in August 1694. But equally important as a recommendation for office was his firm adherence to the Court Whigs, particularly since some ministers had regarded the purge of the excise office as an opportune party coup as early as the summer of 1693. Having been classed as a Court supporter by Carmarthen in 1692, Onslow was one of three Whiggish commissioners appointed, although the official reason given for the purge was ‘to rectify . . . mismanagement’ in the revenue. Secretary Trenchard had alluded to the importance of the excise officials as government spokesmen in the Commons, but other reports of the final decision suggested that professional competence had not been ‘much minded, either with relation to those proposed to be left out or put in’. James Vernon’s criticism of Onslow’s abilities in office might endorse this opinion, but Foot’s success in preserving his place through a whole series of divisions and purges in the excise office would suggest that he did not owe his position solely to the machinations of favour.7

Onslow’s subsequent unopposed re-election for Guildford in October 1695 further consolidated the upward momentum of his career, bolstered not only by the prominence of his office, but by the £800 p.a. salary which accompanied it. In the new Parliament the Onslow name would continue to feature in revenue matters, particularly with regard to issues sufficiently contentious to merit a division. On 11 Feb. 1696, either Foot or Denzil tried unsuccessfully to undermine the monopoly of the Old East India Company by supporting a motion to alter the resolution of the committee of the whole House that a single joint stock was the best way to maintain the East India trade. Four days later, Foot may have been unsuccessful again when disagreeing that a maximum of 28s. be set for the price of guineas, though he, along with other Whig opponents of the ministry, was to prove ultimately victorious when a lower limit was settled by a division in late March. However, Foot’s loyalty to the Court was confirmed during that session by a forecast of the likely division on the proposed council of trade on 31 Jan. 1696, as well as by his signing of the Association.

On the key political issue of the second session, Onslow predictably voted for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick† on 25 Nov., though he divided from his brother in so doing. On 30 Dec. he appeared as a witness before the committee investigating prison standards. He had good reason to testify against the inefficiency of an unrepentant marshal of King’s bench, having suffered the galling experience of discovering that the prison had failed to secure a criminal who had robbed him.8

Signs of tension within the excise commission were the prelude for a confrontation which threatened to remove Onslow from his influential position in the revenue administration. In June 1697 he accused a colleague of entering the commission’s judgments in a ‘slovenly’ manner, and although the charge was dismissed, events soon proved that internal splits revolved around matters far more serious than the simple question of efficiency. By mid-September, James Vernon was anticipating a purge of the excise and was quick to put himself forward as a candidate for any future vacancies, boasting to the Duke of Shrewsbury that ‘methinks one might perform in any business all that Foot Onslow can do’. A month later, Onslow himself informed one of the Treasury commissioners, Thomas Pelham I*, that the excise was riddled with division, singling out his chief rival Thomas Everard as a crypto-Jacobite. The purge of 1694 had evidently not resolved political tensions among the excise commissioners, and Onslow, for one, was determined to see his rivals expelled, ‘out of my zealous duty to the King’.9

The bitterness engendered by this conflict soon attracted the notice of the Treasury, and by the end of November the King himself had attended a hearing of the matter. William was amazed at the disarray of the commission, and blamed the internecine conflict for a decline in the yield of excise duties. The meeting ended with the King resolved to conduct a further purge of the commission, but a further nine months elapsed before it was carried out, in which time both parties spared no effort to discredit their opponents. Onslow’s own position was rendered even more precarious by his involvement in a scandal surrounding the purchase of Exchequer bills, but both he and his brother were cleared of any criminal act.10

Onslow was far from prominent in the 1697–8 session, although his name was raised in the Commons in connexion with more contentious matters. In March 1698, at the instigation of the arch-Tory Sir Thomas Dyke, 1st Bt.†, it was brought to the Commons’ attention that certain excise officials had failed to take the Test Act in accordance with the Leather Act of 1697, the supervision of which had fallen to the excise office by virtue of that statute. Although Everard and his allies had been alerted to this statutory requirement within the allotted time, they had not warned their rivals on the commission, reasoning that it was ‘no breach of charity after the usage . . . from four of those gentlemen’. Onslow’s oversight here, particularly as the official who was later credited with being the architect of the Leather Act, is somewhat mystifying, but he and his allies quickly responded by introducing a bill of indemnity in the Commons on 31 March. It swiftly passed the Lower House, but the Lords threw it out after one reading, Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*) leading the attack on ‘anything that might weaken the Test Act’. The matter was therefore referred to the Treasury and was only resolved by the appointment of a new commission in August. Even though five of the nine officers were dismissed, the purge was evidently designed as a compromise solution, for both Foot and his rivals were still represented on the new commission.11

Even before Onslow could celebrate his retention of office, a bitter dispute arose over his success at Guildford at the 1698 general election. The dubious methods employed by the town’s mayor in ensuring the return of Onslow ahead of John Weston* were sufficient to bring a storm of protest against the high-handedness of the Onslows in Surrey politics, though it was Sir Richard who was the principal target of such resentment. Fortunately, the temporary political eclipse of his uncle Denzil provides a clearer impression of Foot’s subsequent activity within the House itself.12

Before the beginning of the new Parliament, Onslow was classed in separate lists as a Court supporter and dependant. Early in 1699 he acted as manager of a bill which was directly relevant to several parishes in the vicinity of his Guildford constituency. There followed a series of four tellerships: in opposition to an amendment of the resolution of the committee of privileges on the Tamworth election (17 Mar.); against a motion to make sheriffs receivers for the land tax (18 Apr.); in opposition yet again to a clause proposed for addition to the bill for the suppression of lotteries (27 Apr.); and, finally, in support of an amendment to the spirits, sweets and leather bill (2 May). Revenue matters thus absorbed much of his attention in the House, although he also had to face an uncomfortable reminder of his susceptibility to attack by anti-placemen measures, note being taken of his excise office, on 13 Feb., by a Commons inquiry. Ironically, it was to be his own brother who brought in the expected place bill only a week later, but Foot managed to survive this particular Country attack on revenue officials.

The next session saw further discomfort for Onslow as John Weston’s petition over the Guildford election was finally heard by the House. In the elections committee, Onslow’s allies had been thoroughly interrogated, and a resolution in his favour passed by five votes. In the Commons itself, the margin of victory was much greater, though the pique of the Junto lords against Sir Richard Onslow conspired to swell the ranks of Foot’s opponents. In the rest of the session he maintained his involvement in trade and revenue issues, acting as teller on another four occasions: to support the addition of a clause to the bill to continue the Old East India Company (9 Feb. 1700); to back the recommittal of the Orford election dispute (10 Feb.); to allow a petition of London merchants to be submitted to the committee of the whole House concerned with the removal of duties on exported woollen goods (13 Feb.); and to support the addition of a clause to the Irish forfeitures bill (1 Apr.). This last-named bill was to spell the end of his parliamentary career as well as the end of a particularly stormy session.13

Ever since the Country attack of Feb. 1699, the position of the excisemen within the Commons had been under threat, and such was the unpopularity of the commissioners that Harley’s amendments to the Irish forfeitures bill required not only their exclusion from the House, but also the farming out of excise duties. Hope for Onslow came with the Lords’ rejection of the excise clause on 6 Apr., but this decision was quickly reversed under intense pressure from an opposition sensing the disintegration of the ministry. Onslow was present in the Commons on 10 Apr., acting as a teller in support of an unsuccessful motion to adjourn the House after it had voted to petition the crown to remove Lord Somers. Once the Parliament had been dissolved, Onslow was faced with the choice of his place or his parliamentary seat, and in common with two other excise officials in the House he quickly chose the former, having offered himself for reappointment should the King think him ‘able and fit’. At the subsequent general election, his uncle Denzil was able to take advantage of the strength of the family interest at Guildford where he succeeded Foot as MP.14

For the rest of his career, Onslow channelled all his energies into the revenue and there is no clear evidence of his endeavouring to regain a seat in Parliament. He managed to survive yet another regulation of the excise at the accession of Queen Anne, and, from the testimony of his son Arthur, it would seem that his tenure of that office was a vital support to his financial position. Completing the process of his removal from the parliamentary arena, he even exchanged his family’s Surrey power-base in favour of a move to his wife’s paternal estate at Woodford, Essex. By the time of his death in May 1710, his household was under severe financial strain, Onslow having ‘almost all his life affected a part in his living more suited to his rank and family than his fortune’. However, the heir who had to suffer the privations caused by such excess could still recall his father as ‘a sensible and worthy man, handsome, well-bred, modest and very brave’. From these inauspicious beginnings, it was left to Foot’s son to add the greatest lustre to the Onslow name.15

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci


  • 1. Manning and Bray, Surr. iii. 54.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 739.
  • 3. C. St. Barbe, Recs. of Lymington, 10.
  • 4. C. E. Vulliamy, Onslow Fam. 36–37; Manning and Bray, i. 22–23.
  • 5. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 488, 496.
  • 6. Luttrell Diary, 17, 74, 85, 88, 173; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1012, 1532.
  • 7. Luttrell Diary, 239, 300, 320, 361–2, 424; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 134; Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 38–39; CSP Dom. 1694–95, p. 186; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 471.
  • 8. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 302.
  • 9. Cal. Treas. Bks. xii. 59; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 376; Add. 33084, f. 119.
  • 10. Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 38–39; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/176, Vernon to Duke of Shrewsbury, 6 Jan. 1698.
  • 11. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1699–1702, pp. 161–2; Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 93–94, 393; C. Davenant, True Picture of a Modern Whig (1701), 25; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 207.
  • 12. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 147.
  • 13. Manning and Bray, i. 57; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 393.
  • 14. Horwitz, 266–7; Cal. Treas. Bks. xv. 96.
  • 15. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 488, 499.