The Great Speaker

‘Great’ is an epithet rarely used in history. When it is, it is commonly attached to figures well known and ingrained in national consciousness: Frederick, Peter, Alfred and Catherine, to name a few. Here, I explore the career of a lesser known ‘great’; namely, Arthur Onslow (1691–1768), the Great Speaker of the House of Commons. 

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Onslow entered Parliament on 16 February 1720 as a Whig MP for the borough of Guildford. He had been trained in the Law, but, perceiving that he ‘was not made for the business of [that] profession’, he had had a short stint as secretary to his ‘uncle Onslow’, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and subsequently as Treasurer of the Post Office. [1] On taking up his seat, he soon made his mark: establishing himself ‘as a man of independent mind who voted in accordance with his convictions’. [2] He kept firm to his ‘original Whig principles […] and never deviated from them to serve any party cause.’ [3] For example, on 23 November 1722, he opposed a motion to plunder the estates of Roman Catholics: declaring ‘his abhorrence of persecuting anybody on account of their opinions in religion’. [4] At the same time, he gained the support of Sir Robert Walpole: being invited to his house on 14 October, that same year, to consider the suspension of Habeus Corpus on the discovery of the Atterbury conspiracy (or a plot to overthrow the king).

Onslow’s early career, then, makes it hard to recognise him as the bridled member depicted by Lord Hervey as Walpole’s choice of Speaker in 1727: [5] ‘As he had no great pretensions to it from his age, his character, his weight in the House, or his particular knowledge, […] Walpole imagined that he must look upon his promotion entirely as an act of favour, and consequently think himself obliged […] to show all the complaisance in his power to his patron and benefactor’. [6] In reality, the man had already proven himself to be a leading personality of the Commons; important enough to rise with prominent members on 13 March 1727 to express ‘highest indignation and resentment’ of recent behaviour by the Imperial ambassador. [7] Hervey might have been correct in suggesting that one motive behind Walpole’s decision was a desire to avoid advancing a possible rival. However, Onslow was chosen, above all, for his genuine ‘independency’ and ‘unshaken zeal in the service of the kingdom’. [8] He was called to the chair, by ‘the most general concurrence that was ever known’, on 23 January 1728. [9]

This independency would serve him well in his new role. ‘He was the first Speaker to recognise the crucial importance of distancing the chair from […] discreditable activity’ or corruption, [10] and corruption was manifest in the long eighteenth century. Indeed, in 1740, Onslow wrote to Sir More Molineux: ‘God knows there is so much of it about everywhere […] and to tell you the truth I am quite sick of the world’. [11] Jumping forward slightly to 1742 – and jumping is required, for want of primary source material – there is one example which illustrates his integrity. At this time, a secret committee was called to investigate the affairs of the Walpole-Townshend ministry. There being a tie for the last two places, Onslow was required to name these members: only to be criticised for choosing those friendly to the fallen minister. In order to refute the assertion that he was influenced by personal interest, and so ‘remain active as the custodian of constitutional correctness’, [12] he resigned from his (lucrative) post as Treasurer of the Navy the very next day.

Onslow also set the pattern for the impartiality of the Chair (although he did not shed his party associations). Again, he recognised that to be successful in his role he could be no respecter of persons, and ‘the lash of his tongue’ fell on such leading members as Pulteney, Pelham, Pitt and Fox. [13] As he put it on 4 February 1734, ‘It is no business of mine to appear on either side of the question. But it is my duty to take notice, when gentlemen are disorderly.’ [14] On the other hand, he was not impartial according to our modern conception of the speakership. He apparently voted, for example, in six out of seven divisions in Committee for which lists survive during the first twenty years of his tenure in office. [15] In particular, he actively criticised matters relating to the army, about which he held strong prejudices. Then, in his fifth and final parliament he was ‘obliged to speak his opinion’ on two legislative measures he disliked; namely, the Regency Bill of 1751 and Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Bill of 1753. [16]

The foregoing is evidence for two, not unrelated themes. First, Onslow’s contemporary fame as Speaker was based primarily on his success as Chairman of the House. Horace Walpole recorded for posterity an account of how, as a young Member, he once baited Speaker Onslow into a ‘great rage’ in the chamber, and, in 1764, he commented on Sir Fletcher Norton’s notorious comparison between the Commons and a group of drunken porters, that ‘had Onslow been in the chair […] he would have knocked him down with the mace’. [17] In other words, ‘he filled the Chair with unblemished integrity during the long reign of George the Second’ and, consequently, earned the unanimous acclaim of his fellow-members. [18] Richard Rigby, for example, made this critical comparison of Speaker Norton with Onslow on 14 May, 1777: ‘When Mr Onslow was Speaker, he would not let members stand on the floor, or by the chair, or behind the chair talking; and when the House was disorderly, he used to call out and say, he hoped the House would support him in keeping order’. [19]

Second, Onslow saw his role to protect the institution of Parliament. Indeed, ‘the distinguishing feature of [his] public character was a regard and veneration for the British constitution, as it was declared and established at the revolution’ of 1688. [20] On the Regency Bill, for example, ‘he professed that he would not have begun an opposition’ but, alas, he could not avoid declaring ‘that he thought the regulations dangerous’. [21] This was because the Pelham Administration proposed the division of power between the Princess of Wales and the Duke of Cumberland, contrary to the preservation of the constitution. His concern was also manifest in his staunch belief ‘that the form of proceedings, as instituted by our ancestors, operated as a check and a control on the action of ministers’ [22] – a belief which probably explains his reactionary stand in the matter of the reporting of parliamentary debates. On 13 April 1738, he brought this matter before the attention of the House and passed the resolution that publication was ‘a notorious breach of [parliamentary] privilege’. [23]

Onslow retired from the Chair and from the House on 18 March 1761. To mark the occasion, the House resolved that its thanks ‘be given to Mr Speaker, for his constant and unwearied attendance in the chair, during the course of above thirty-three years, in five successive parliaments’. Members praised, in particular, ‘the indefatigable pains’ he had taken ‘to promote the real interest of his king and country, to maintain the honour and dignity of parliament, and to preserve inviolable the rights and privileges of the Commons of Great Britain.’ [24] The House then called upon the King to ‘confer some signal mark of his royal favour’ upon Onslow ‘for his great and eminent services’, thereby laying the precedent for the Speaker’s pension. [25] Finally, Onslow was the first ex-Speaker to receive the freedom of the City of London, ‘as a grateful and lasting testimony of the respectful love and veneration which the citizens of London [entertained] of his person’.[26] He died at his home on Great Russell Street – close to the British Museum, of which he was a principal trustee – on 17 February 1768.

Endnotes:

[1] Historic Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report, Part IX (1895), p. 501.
[2] Laundy, P. The office of speaker (London, 1964), p. 262.
[3] Historic Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report, Part IX (1895), p. 516.
[4] Cobbett, W. Parliamentary history of England. Vol. VIII (London, 1811) col. 51.
[5] Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 296.
[6] Some materials towards memoirs of the reign of King George II. By John, Lord Hervey. Ed. Roger Sedgwick. (London, 1931). Vol. I. p.74; cited in Thomas, The House of Commons in the eighteenth century, p. 296.
[7] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary history of England. Vol. VIII (London, 1811), col. 560.
[8] Historic Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report, Part IX (1895), p. 516; Cobbett, W. Parliamentary History of England. Vol. VIII, col. 630.
[9] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary history of England. Vol. VIII (London, 1811), col. 629.
[10] Laundy, P. ‘Onslow, Arthur (1691–1768)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004); online ed., Jan. 2008 [accessed 25 June 2015].
[11] Quoted by Vullliamy, C. E. The Onslow family 1528–1874: With some account of their times (London, 1953), p. 107.
[12] Watson, J.S. ‘Arthur Onslow and party politics’, Essays in British history: Presented to Sir Keith Feiling. Ed. Hugh Trevor-Roper. (London, 1965), p. 154.
[13] Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 351.
[14] Chandler, R. The History and proceedings of the House of Commons. Vol. VIII (London, 1742), p. 64; cit. in [ibid.] p. 352.
[15] Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 299.
[16] Memoirs of the reign of King George the Second by Horace Walpole. Eds. Henry Fox, Lord Holland. (London, 1847), p. 126; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 303.
[17] The Letters of Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford. Ed. Paget Tonybee. (Oxford, 1905), vol. I, p. xxxix; vol. VII, p. 9; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 351.
[18] Memoirs of the reign of King George Third by Horace Walpole. Ed. Henry Fox, Lord Holland. (London, 1894), vol. I, p. 39.
[19] Almon, J. The parliamentary register. Vol. VII (London, 1777), p. 194; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 355.
[20] Hatsell, cit. in Cobbett, W. The parliamentary history of England. Vol. XV (London, 1813), col. 1014.
[21] Memoirs of the reign of King George the Second by Horace Walpole. Eds. Henry Fox, Lord Holland. (London, 1847), p. 126; cit. in Thomas, P.D.G. The House of Commons in the eighteenth century (Aldershot, 1992), p. 303.
[22] Quoted by Laundy, P. in The office of speaker (London, 1964), p. 265.
[23] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary History of England. Vol. IX (London, 1811), col. 812.
[24] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary History of England. Vol. XV (London, 1813), cols. 1013–1014.
[25] Cobbett, W. The parliamentary History of England. Vol. XV (London, 1813), col. 1015.
[26] Annual Register, 1761, p. 106; cit. in Laundy, P. The office of speaker (London, 1964), p. 272.

Contributed by Jack Nicholson, History Editor 

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