ONSLOW, Arthur (1759-1833), of Send Grove, nr. Guildford, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1812 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 3 Aug. 1759, o.s. of Arthur Onslow, collector of customs, of Childwall, Liverpool, Lancs. and Alice, da. of Stephen Sumersett.1 educ. Trinity Hall, Camb. 1775-6; M. Temple 1775, called 1780. m. (1) 9 Apr. 1793, Mary (d. 14 May 1800), da. of Francis Eyre of Hassop, Derbys., s.p.; (2) 13 June 1801, Pooley, da. of Sir George Onslow† of Dunsborough House, Surr., wid. of Sir Francis Samuel Drake, 1st bt., s.p. suc. fa. 1807. d. 8 Oct. 1833.

Offices Held

Commr. of bankrupts 1781-1800; sjt.-at-law 16 June 1800; king’s sjt. 1816; chairman, Surr. q.sess. 1807; recorder, Guildford 1819-30.

Lt. Guildford vol. inf. 1803; capt. Liverpool custom house vols. 1804.2


Onslow, whose father’s customs post was said at his death in 1807 to be ‘one of the most lucrative offices under the government’, was the residuary legatee of his estate, which amounted to over £26,000.3 Onslow’s second marriage to a distant cousin brought him Send Grove, ‘a handsome mansion’, and closer links to the ennobled Surrey branch of the family, which paved the way for his return for Guildford in 1812. It also proved financially advantageous, for in 1826 he won a case to establish his late wife’s right to a half-share in the personalty of her first husband, which came to £9,100, in addition to her £15,000 marriage settlement.4 As a lawyer, according to the family historian, Onslow ‘acquired a considerable reputation in the court of common pleas and on the home circuit’, but a less partial biographer, recalling his ‘tall and slender’ and ‘gentlemanly, if not majestic appearance’, assessed him as ‘highly respectable ... though by no means one of the first class’. A contemporary at the bar lampooned his ponderous delivery and occasional misplaced emphasis in the epigram:

          The heavy tongu’d blow
          Of Serjeant Ons-low.5

He came in for Guildford for the third time in 1820.

He was a regular attender who continued to give general support to Lord Liverpool’s ministry, although he occasionally displayed his independence. He voted in the minority against the appointment of an additional Scottish baron of exchequer, 15 May 1820. On 14 June he claimed to have the support of Birmingham chamber of commerce for a change in standing orders to subject all trade regulation bills to the scrutiny of a select committee before they received a first reading. This proposal was itself referred to a committee, which reported on 23 June, and the standing order was adopted after he had spoken in its favour, 5 July.6 (Three years later he was appointed to a committee to reconsider it, as it was evidently found to be too restrictive, and it was duly rescinded, 30 May 1823.) When, in the debate on the Queen Caroline affair, 18 Sept. 1820, he suggested the introduction of a bill to permit the Commons to examine witnesses under oath, Creevey accused him of acting as an agent provocateur for a government intent on restricting rights of inquiry. Yet he divided against the omission of the queen’s name from the liturgy, 23, 26 Jan., 13 Feb., arguing that it should not be treated as a matter for ‘party spirit’, 23 Jan., and that it was an ‘illegal act’, 31 Jan. 1821. On the other hand, he voted in defence of ministers’ conduct towards the queen, 6 Feb. Four days later he reportedly seconded Stuart Wortley’s motion accusing the Morning Chronicle of a breach of privilege, ‘out of compassion, as for at least two minutes no one ... seemed inclined to do so’; he vainly urged the mover to withdraw.7 In presenting a Guildford petition in support of the queen, which also called for action on parliamentary reform, 12 Feb., he agreed that ‘a wholesome reform was necessary’, and later that day he spoke in favour of transferring Grampound’s seats to Leeds. However, he voted against the disfranchisement of ordnance officials, 12 Apr., and condemned Lambton’s general reform plan as ‘more obnoxious’ than universal suffrage, 18 Apr., arguing that aristocratic influence in elections to the Commons was not excessive and trusting that ‘great property, high character and amiable manners would always maintain their influence on that House’. He opposed repeal of the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act in the belief that ‘the disposition to excite the people to tumultuous meetings still existed in full force’, 8 May, and in the debate on Peterloo, 15 May, he denied that the yeomanry constituted a ‘political soldiery’. As a champion of the legal establishment and its officials he defended Justice William Draper Best† (his former colleague at Guildford) for fining a defendant for contempt of court, 23 Feb., 19 Apr. He dismissed a petition from an inmate of Lancaster gaol complaining of ill-treatment as ‘a foul and infamous calumny’, 7 Mar., and ‘saw no reason’ for the strictures passed on the commissioners inquiring into the state of the English courts, 9 May. On 12 Apr. he introduced a bill to make a university degree a condition of admission for attorneys and solicitors, which stemmed from a select committee on which he had served; the bill gained royal assent, 8 June (1 & 2 Geo. IV, c. 48). Although his first wife had been a Catholic, he continued to divide against relief, 28 Feb. He voted against repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr., but for inquiry into the currency, 9 Apr. He supported relaxation of the Navigation Acts, 25 June 1821.

Onslow’s primary interest was in securing the repeal of the usury laws, a cause he had espoused since 1816. These laws, which regulated the level of interest rates, were routinely evaded but, as with his earlier successful campaign to remove the apprenticeship laws from the statute book, he ran into strong opposition, chiefly from the landed interest. Having stated his intention of reintroducing a repeal bill, 7 July 1820, he did so on 12 Apr. 1821, when he cited Bentham as an authority against the control of interest rates. The bill made no further progress and he consented to its withdrawal, 8 June.8 Another bill, to regulate the acceptance of bills of exchange, was introduced on 12 Apr., and, after amendment by the Lords, gained royal assent, 2 July 1821 (1 & 2 Geo. IV, c. 78). He welcomed the prospect of the regulation of annuities, by which the usury laws were frequently avoided, 30 May 1822.9 When, after delays, he again brought forward his repeal bill, 22 Apr. 1823, he gave a potted history of his previous endeavours. The House finally divided by 38-15 to enter into committee, 17 June, but the bill was defeated at the report stage by 26-21, 27 June 1823. Onslow reintroduced it, 11 Feb., and having extolled the benefits of ‘full, fair and open competition in the money market’, he carried the second reading by 120-23, 16 Feb. 1824. After repeated postponements he secured the bill’s recommittal by 74-58, 8 Apr. 1824, but opponents then divided the House four times on details and finally defeated it by 67-63 on the timing of its future consideration.10 The indefatigable Onslow tried again, 8 Feb. 1825, in the hope that the prevailing spirit of free trade would make the time ripe for his measure. When his opponents tried unsuccessfully to force a division on the first reading, he was urged by his allies to abandon conciliation. The lesson he gave to the House on the principles of competition, 17 Feb., was to no avail, and the second reading was lost by 45-40. In reintroducing the bill again, 15 Feb. 1826, he asserted that had its provisions already been in force, ‘the late panic and its attendant distress would have been much mitigated’. Frustrated again by postponements, he was mollified by the home secretary Peel’s promise to consider the issue as part of a general review of fiscal policy, and agreed to withdraw the bill, 17 Apr. 1826. The government did not adopt the measure, and Onslow left its promotion thereafter to others.

He divided against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb., and abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar. 1822. However, he protested against the tax on coals, 20 Feb.11 He voted against relieving Catholic peers of their disabilities, 30 Apr., and for the aliens bill, 19 July 1822. He divided against Hume’s tax-cutting amendment, 3 Mar. 1823. He voted against repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr., and inquiries into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and delays in chancery, 5 June. He tried to thwart discussion of Scottish parliamentary reform by raising a procedural point, 2 June 1823. Early in 1824 his bid to be considered for legal promotion was not taken seriously by ministers: Henry Hobhouse, under-secretary at the home office, described as ‘very impudent’ his letter to lord chancellor Eldon ‘showing his readiness to take the vacant mastership in chancery and insinuating that he would not take the Welsh judgeship if it were offered to him’.12 He gave encouragement to an attempt to reform the bankruptcy laws, 18 Feb., and spoke in favour of the aliens bill, 2 Apr. He voted against the motion condemning the prosecution of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824. He divided for the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May (paired), and the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr. 1825. He opposed Hume’s resolutions on the Irish church establishment, 14 June.13 He voted for the financial provision for the duke of Cumberland, 30 May, 6, 10 June. He opposed a local measure of tithe commutation because it ‘interfered with the vested interests of the church’, 6 June.14 He declared that elderly judges were ‘neither deaf nor peevish’, 17 June 1825. He voted to maintain the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr. 1826. He divided against reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., but for Russell’s resolutions against electoral bribery, 26 May, although he did not think the problem was widespread. He denied that the blasphemy laws interfered with freedom of opinion, 17 Apr. 1826. He was again returned unopposed for Guildford at the general election that summer.

Onslow’s subsequent parliamentary activity was less conspicuous, probably owing to incipient blindness.15 In response to a petition, he maintained that provision for Deists and other non-Christians to swear oaths in court already existed, 29 Nov. 1826. He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827. In his familiar role as defender of the legal establishment, he attested to the ‘great talents and unimpeachable integrity’ of Eldon and the efficiency of the bankruptcy commissioners, 13 Mar. He was granted leave to go the circuit, 16 Mar. 1827. He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and against Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. He endorsed calls for his fellow king’s serjeant William Rough to be compensated for his wrongful suspension as president of the supreme court of Demerara, 15 May. That day he denied that the lower orders would be hurt by repeal of the usury laws, the promotion of which had by then passed to Chales Poulett Thomson. Instancing Guildford, he argued that borough magistrates would not resent sharing responsibility for alehouse licensing with the county authorities, 21 May. He warmly welcomed the Wellington ministry’s statement of intent to act against slavery, 25 July 1828. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, predicted that he would side with government for Catholic emancipation, but he was granted leave to go the circuit, 6 Mar. 1829, and no record of any parliamentary activity for that session has been found. His final oratorical flourish was a defence of the grant for new churches, 8 June 1830, when he blamed the dissolution of the monasteries for the failure to construct new churches and for the problems of pluralism and non-residence. He also attributed the alleged poverty of the Irish church to a tithe commutation measure carried by that country’s Parliament. He voted in the minority to postpone on-consumption in beerhouses, 1 July 1830. He retired at the dissolution that summer, owing to a ‘total loss of sight’.16

William IV, on his accession, granted Onslow precedence before other king’s serjeants, and he continued to attend court with his accustomed diligence and punctuality until his death in October 1833.17 While a legal biography speculated that his ‘considerable practice’ must have made him a wealthy man, it is apparent that an unspecified financial calamity had befallen him. In leaving small legacies to the sons of his cousin, Francis Allison of Liverpool, his will noted that ‘had not circumstances over which I had no control much reduced the fortune I once possessed, I would have left them much more substantial marks of my regard’. Send Grove passed to his brother-in-law, the Rev. Arthur Onslow. He left the residue of his estate to his barrister nephew Richard Onslow, ‘whom having lived with me from his earliest infancy ... I regard with the same affection as though he had been my own son’; his personalty was sworn under £600.18

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. Surr. Hist. Cent. 173/1/5, 4th earl of Onslow, ‘Hist. Onslow Fam.’ v. 1444.
  • 2. Ibid. v. 1445.
  • 3. Gent. Mag. (1807), ii. 1081; PROB 11/1474/134; IR26/132/192.
  • 4. Onslow, v. 1442-3; H.W. Woolrych, Eminent Serjeants-at-Law, ii. 774; The Times, 3, 14 July 1826.
  • 5. Onslow, v. 1451; Woolrych, ii. 802-4; J. Grant, Bench and Bar, ii. 26, 28.
  • 6. The Times, 6 July 1820.
  • 7. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 33.
  • 8. The Times, 9 June 1821.
  • 9. Ibid. 31 May 1822.
  • 10. Ibid. 31 Mar., 9, 10 Apr. 1824.
  • 11. Ibid. 21 Feb. 1822.
  • 12. Add. 40360, f. 82.
  • 13. The Times, 15 June 1825.
  • 14. Ibid. 7 June 1825.
  • 15. Woolrych, ii. 801.
  • 16. Gent. Mag. (1834), i. 227.
  • 17. J.H. Baker, Order of Serjeants-at-Law, 61; Grant, ii. 26-27; The Times, 10 Oct. 1833.
  • 18. Grant, ii. 25; Onslow, v. 1403; PROB 11/1823/651; IR26/1334/659.