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The Onslow family at Clandon Park

Inside the Speakers' Parlour with portraits on the wall above a fireplace and a laid dining table at Clandon Park, Surrey
Inside the Speakers' Parlour | © National Trust Images / Nadia Mackenzie

The Onslow family bought Clandon Park in 1641. Over the next two centuries, the family’s political, financial and social position grew. Uniquely, three members of the Onslow family became Speakers in the House of Commons. The fortunes of the house and family have waxed and waned over four centuries and the house has been a home, a hospital, a business and a repository for the National Archives.

The Onslows’ early history

The Onslow family can trace their origins back to at least the 11th century in Shropshire, where they were landowners, lawyers and local administrators.

They became guild members by selling commodities such as wool. Then, in the 1500s, their work and marriages brought them to London and Surrey.

The first Onslow MP

Born in 1528, Richard was the first Onslow to become an MP and he later rose to be appointed as Speaker in the House of Commons in 1566.

Known as the ‘Black Speaker’, he gained the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and is said to have written the document ‘Arguments relating to sea, landse and salt shores’ for her.

Moving to Clandon Park

The house was originally described as a hunting lodge. However, by the time the Black Speaker’s grandson, also called Richard, bought Clandon Park in 1641, it was an impressive house at the centre of a large deer park and farm.

The English Civil War

Richard was called the ‘Red Fox of Surrey’ by Oliver Cromwell after his cunning behaviour during the English Civil War. His son, Sir Arthur Onslow, went on to become MP for Surrey like his father.

However, he was also a suspect in the failed Rye House plot to assassinate King Charles II. He was fined, but the family’s position remained secure and Arthur turned his attention to country pursuits.

He was so popular with the locals that when he died it’s said the procession stretched from Clandon to Guildford.

Portrait of Lady Gwendolen Florence Mary Onslow, Countess of Iveagh by the 19th- and early 20th-century artist Dorofield Hardy, held at Clandon Park, Surrey
Portrait of Lady Gwendolen Onslow, Countess of Iveagh | © National Trust

Clandon Park's makeover

Clandon Park was inherited by Sir Richard Onslow, who had married the heiress Elizabeth Tulse. She was the daughter of Sir Henry Tulse, the Lord Mayor of London.

Together, the married couple set about laying out huge formal gardens on the estate, featuring parterres, pools, fountains and avenues by the royal gardeners London & Wise.

Sir Richard Onslow

Sir Richard also entered politics, becoming MP for Guildford, the family’s second Speaker of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Shortly before his death, he was rewarded with a peerage by King George I to become the 1st Lord Onslow.

Elizabeth Onslow

Richard's wife Elizabeth sadly drowned in the pond at the Archbishop’s Palace at Croydon a year later. It’s said that she committed suicide due to ‘melancholy’ at the death of her husband.

However, as with many of the Onslow women, we don’t know enough about Elizabeth to be able to tell her story with any surety.

The Palladian transformation

Richard Onslow improved the existing house. However, it was his son Thomas, 2nd Lord of Onslow, who demolished and then rebuilt Clandon as the fashionable Palladian mansion that we see today.

At 29 years old Thomas married the young heiress Elizabeth Knight, who was only about 15. Elizabeth's fortune when they married was an estimated £70,000, (approximately £4 million today).

Elizabeth Knight's inheritance

Clandon house was built partly with this money, which Elizabeth had inherited from her uncle, who profited from the transatlantic slave trade.

Elizabeth also inherited a large working plantation from her uncle, which the Onslow family continued to own and manage remotely until just before the abolition of slavery in around 1832.

The Great Speaker

Thomas’ younger cousin Arthur spent much of his youth at Clandon and his political career was supported by his uncle Richard. Arthur became MP for Guildford and then became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1728.

Arthur was the third member of the family to hold this position and served for a record-breaking 33 years in five successive parliaments, for which he was given the name the ‘Great Speaker’. He remains the longest-serving Speaker in British history.

George Earl of Onslow

It was Arthur’s son George who inherited Clandon Park when his uncle, who had no legitimate children, died in 1776. George soon made improvements to both the house and garden.

He employed the famous gardener Capability Brown to landscape the park, building new stables and lodges, creating picturesque views and enlarging the lake.

The Speakers' Parlour

George honoured his father and earlier Onslow Speakers by transforming the family dining room into ‘The Speakers’ Parlour’ in 1801. This was the same year that he was made Earl of Onslow and Viscount Cranley by King George III.

The French Revolution

Sources describe that when George and Henrietta's youngest surviving son, Edward, met his wife, Marie de Bourdeilles, it was ‘le coup de foudre’ (love at first sight). Once married, the young couple immediately faced prejudice due to their Catholic-Anglican relationship.

On the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Edward and his growing family lived in a château in Clermont-Ferrand in central France. The revolution only brought them more trouble.

Edward on the run

Despite having become a French citizen, Edward’s home was searched in 1793 before he was arrested and imprisoned. He was freed the following year and it seemed like danger had passed for a time.

Edward was forced to flee once in his youth – from his home in England to escape accusations of ‘infamous familiarity’ with a young man.

The French Beethoven

In 1798 Edward was on the run again and in fear for his life, leaving his wife and three of his sons behind. This was because he'd been suspected of having 'uncivil feelings' by the French authorities. Fortunately Edward survived and was back with his family in Clermont-Ferrand as a free man by 1803.

The son that he’d taken into exile, George, had honed his musical talents on their travels. He went on to become a well-known composer, earning the nickname ‘The French Beethoven’.

Royal connections

Thomas 2nd Earl of Onslow is remembered as an eccentric lover of carriage driving and an enthusiastic but unpublished poet. He was a close friend to the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, who often visited Clandon.

However, there was a rupture in their friendship for unknown reasons in 1790. After this, Thomas lost the prince’s favour.

Fortunately, Thomas maintained royal connections through his second wife Charlotte Duncombe. She was an intimate friend and lady-in-waiting to the prince’s mother, Queen Charlotte.

Thomas and his heir

Thomas and Charlotte had three children who survived to adulthood: two sons and a daughter. The relationship with his heir, Arthur, was sadly unhappy and fraught.

The story goes that after an argument one night, Arthur left Clandon for good, only to set up home in a rival house across the road called Clandon Regis.

Arthur 3rd Earl of Onslow

Arthur inherited the Clandon estate in 1827. However, the cloud of family discord hung over the house so much that Arthur chose not to live there. He began to sell its contents, including the Great Speaker’s collection of portraits and the library.

After his wife Mary, to whom he was devoted, died in 1830, he moved from Surrey to Richmond. Arthur’s only son and heir also died at the age of 36 in 1856.

Patron of the arts

Arthur 3rd Earl of Onslow is remembered as being a collector and patron of the arts. He commissioned the well-known French painter Paul Hippolyte Delaroche to portray Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps in 1848.

This was inspired by an earlier painting by Jacques-Louis David of the same subject. The painting hung at Clandon for a while after Arthur died and is now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Selling the family plantation

In 1832–33, when Britain was on the verge of the abolition of slavery, Arthur sold the Onslow family plantation in Jamaica. It was sold to Charles Orlando Hodgson, who lived in the Guildford area.

Hodgson received compensation from the government for ‘his losses’ when slavery was abolished a year later.

Arthur was Earl of Onslow for more than 40 years and in that time no Onslow family members actually lived at Clandon. It was maintained by the gamekeeper Edmund Hook and the housekeeper Mrs Dallon, who lived in a small suite of rooms with a family companion.

Portrait of Sir Richard Onslow, 1st Baron of Onslow and Speaker of the House of Commons, by Robert Walker, at Clandon Park, Surrey
Portrait of Sir Richard Onslow, 1st Baron of Onslow | © National Trust Images / John Hammond

A Victorian revival

Arthur died with no male heirs. So, as was common at the time, the Clandon estate and Earldom passed over his three granddaughters to his great-nephew, William Hillier Onslow.

Sadly, the family friction had endured, as William was estranged from his great-uncle and wasn’t even invited to attend his funeral.

William 4th Earl of Onslow

William was only 17 years old when he became the 4th Earl and owner of Clandon Park in 1870. He began immediately repairing and redecorating, selling land to pay for works on the house and estate.

He also started buying back family heirlooms that had been sold at auction.

Improving Clandon’s garden

William was a keen gardener and did a lot to improve the garden at Clandon. He created an iris walk, a pergola, a bulb park and a Dutch Garden. We know about his plans thanks to his garden notebook and diary, where he recorded his ideas and ambitions as well as his successes and failures.

William married the Honorable Florence Gardner in 1875. The young couple enjoyed travelling, country sports and theatrical performances, which they often staged at Clandon.

Governor of New Zealand

After reviving Clandon Park, William went on to become Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. He’s remembered best as Governor of New Zealand, which is a post he held from 1888–1892.

When he returned to England, William brought with him a carved Māori meeting house called Hinemihi.

William and Florence's son Huia

Florence and William’s second son was born in 1890, while the family were still in New Zealand. One of his given names was Huia, after a species of New Zealand bird that’s now extinct.

Huia was honoured at a ceremony as a member of the Ngati Huia subtribe when he was only 10 months old.

As an adult, Huia studied at Cambridge and went on to make important discoveries in the field of genetics. Sadly, he died at 31 years old, due to health complications following a diving accident in 1911.

The First World War

The Clandon estate and Earldom had passed to William’s son Richard by the time the First World War broke out in 1914. The new Lord Onslow and his wife Violet Onslow (née Bampfylde) were keen to support the war effort and so converted Clandon into a military hospital.

Violet Onslow

Violet was the daughter of the 3rd Baron Politmore and a prominent society figure. As the First World War raged on mainland Europe, Violet took charge as Commandant of Clandon Park Hospital and was also responsible for two nearby convalescent hospitals.

She proudly wore her uniform in public, but described the lack of respect women in uniform often experienced. She wrote about being pushed aside in taxi ranks and ignored by society friends.

Lord Onslow in the war

Before marrying Violet, Richard Onslow was a career diplomat who enjoyed a career that took him to Morocco, Spain, Germany and Russia. When the war broke out, Lord Onslow became a special constable and then joined the army as an intelligence officer before eventually becoming a colonel.

He was awarded the Légion d'honneur for his work in France after the war and then entered politics as Under Secretary of War.

Lady Iveagh saves Clandon Park

Lady Gwendolen Onslow was the daughter of William 4th Earl of Onslow. Born in 1881, she grew up with Clandon Park as a family home, but also lived in New Zealand when her father was Governor.

Following in her family’s footsteps, Gwendolen had a passion for politics. Together with her husband Rupert Guinness, she was involved in providing social housing in poor areas of London. After the First World War she was also awarded the CBE for organising relief efforts for prisoners of war.

Clandon park after the Second World War

Clandon Park remained special to Gwendolen. However, the house, which was used by the Public Records Office during the Second World War, began to decline in the post-war years.

In response, Lady Iveagh purchased Clandon Park from her nephew, the 6th Earl of Onslow, and gave it to the National Trust to care for in 1956.

A Korean stoneware water dropper in the shape of a duck, at Clandon Park 13th Jan 2016 - damaged after the fire.

Clandon Park's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Clandon Park on the National Trust Collections website.

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