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Monday, 22 August 2011

Clandon Park: Part One


When my new neighbour (the NN) asked to accompany the Brimstone Butterfly on one of her jaunts around a stately home, I was hard pressed to decide where to go. I finally settled upon the idea of Clandon Park as it was but a simple train journey from Wimbledon, with the prospect of a not too taxing walk to the house at the other end of the line. Moreover, it was somewhere I knew very little about. Unlike the torrential showers which had greeted my earlier forays to Syon House, the English weather was on its best behaviour when we set out for Clandon Park, allowing me to sport my venerable straw hat.

We arrived at Clandon station and decided to seek directions from the local hostelry, the Onslow Arms. This public house was built in the 1620s. Despite its exterior, which appears at first glance to date from the 20th century, inside there is a wealth of period details such as low beamed ceilings, myriad fireplaces and intriguing nooks and crannies to attest to its great age. However, the pub is graced with one distinctive modern facility that we were not able to avail ourselves of; namely the helipad in the grounds. Rather than just have a drink or two we indulged in a full Sunday roast at the bar, the restaurant being so popular it was fully booked even though we were the first to arrive. Suitably refreshed, we walked the mile or so to Clandon Park, despite an initial fear that my leg might seize up again as it had to our mutual alarm when we had walked the short distance from the rail station to the Onslow Arms.

The Onslow family first bought the then  hunting lodge and an accompanying 1,000 acres of land at Clandon Park in the 1640s. The hunting lodge was at least 100 years old by the time the Onslows acquired it and had already being significantly enlarged and altered, a practice the Onslows embraced with relish. Daniel Defoe in his “Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain” published between 1724 and 1727 wrote:
“Near to Guilford, at the village of Clendon, at the west end of this line of fine seats, is the antient mansion of the Onslow's. The seat is old, and the estate is old too (but the latter is much the better for its age) for it has been many years in the family, and has gone on, encreasing from hand to hand. The late Lord Onslow improved and beautify'd both the house and the estate too very much. The house has several times been honoured with the presence of both King William and King George; the former erected an annual race for a royal plate of 100 guineas, call'd the King's Gold Plate, to be run for every year, and the latter has been so good, as twice at least to honour the diversion with his presence”.

It was a feat of some political dexterity for the Onslows to be shown such marked preference by both a Stuart and a Hanoverian king. I wonder if King William would have been quite so keen to encourage horse racing had he known he would meet his own demise from injuries sustained when he was flung off his horse at Hampton Court Palace. It was King George I who created Richard Onslow the 1st Baron Onslow in 1716. Again, a surprising feat given that Richard’s father, Sir Arthur, had been implicated in the Rye House Plot. Unlike poor Lord Russell, the one-time denizen of CheniesManor House, who literally lost his head in the affair which centred on a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and his Catholic brother James I, Arthur Onslow suffered nothing more onerous than a heavy fine. Deeming it prudent to get out whilst he was ahead and still had a head, Arthur retired from public life. He whiled away the time engaging in his favourite hobby of fishing. Given that Sir Arthur had been accused of conspiring to assassinate both him and his brother, King James II was less than pleased by the huge throngs who turned out to mourn Arthur’s death in 1688. Few openly mourned in the streets when King James was forced into a second and final exile abroad a few months later.

Sir Arthur’s son, Sir Richard, attained high political office under Queen Anne and the Hanoverian George I who conferred a baronetcy on him. Sir Richard was the first baronet but the second Onslow to be appointed Speaker of the House of Commons. The first had been nicknamed the Black Speaker by Elizabeth I on account of his swarthy complexion. Elizabeth later gave the epithet of her “little black husband” to the equally swarthy Archbishop Whitgift, whose almshouses can be seen today near the Old Palace at Croydon. The third and last member of the Onslow family to attain the position of Speaker of the House of Commons was another Arthur. He wrote glowing about his relative and the second family Speaker, Sir Richard Onslow, describing him as being:
Sir Richard Onslow
 " Tall and very thin, not well shaped, and with a face exceeding plain, yet there was a certain sweetness with  a dignity in his countenance, and so much of life and  spirit in it, that no one who saw him ever thought him of a disagreeable aspect. His carriage was universally obliging, and he was of the most winning behaviour that ever I saw. There was an ease and openness in his address, that even at first sight gave him the heart of every man he spoke to. He had always something to say that was agreeable to everybody, and used to take as much pleasure in telling a story to a man's advantage, as others generally do to the contrary. It was this temper that made him so fit for reconciling differences between angry people, an office he frequently and readily undertook and seldom failed of succeeding in."

Arthur Irwin  Dasent in his 1911 tome “The Speakers of the House of Commons from the earliest times to the present day”  draws a less than flattering picture of Sir Richard  declaring that “Stiff Dick," as the Tories called him had “an unfortunate propensity to quarrelsomeness which led him on more than one occasion to challenge a fellow-member to a duel. He fought Mr. Oglethorpe, a young man of twenty-two, for something he had said in the course of a debate, and he was only restrained by an order of the House from prosecuting another affair of honour with Sir E. Seymour.” Dasent goes on to add that “Whatever his shortcomings, Richard Onslow ingratiated himself at Court. King William shortly before his death called him into his closet and " bade him continue the honest man he had always found him." Anne made him a Privy Councillor.  George I made him Chancellor of the Exchequer and a peer, and on his resigning the Chancellorship he succeeded in getting himself made Teller of the Exchequer for life, the first instance of that appointment being conferred for that period. His manner in the Chair was somewhat imperious.”

By contrast to his opinion of Speaker Richard Onslow, Dasent raves over his namesake Arthur Onslow. “The Chair was filled, in five successive Parliaments, by the great Arthur Onslow, the third of his family to be so honoured, and unquestionably one of the most distinguished Speakers the House has ever known.”

A peculiar postscript to the life of Speaker Richard “Stiff Dick” Onslow is that his widow, Elizabeth Tulse, was said to have been so distraught at his death a year earlier in 1717 that in a fit of melancholy she flung herself in the pond at the Archbishop’s Palace at Croydon and so drowned. I shall refrain from ribald comment.

Elizabeth and Sir Richard’s son Thomas, the second Lord Onslow, married an heiress whose family fortunes derived from owning slaves and plantations in the West Indies. With her money, Thomas was able to have the Tudor Clandon Park demolished in its entirety and in its place  have a new mansion, square redbrick with stone ornamentation in the Dutch style and designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni, erected in or around 1731. The most spectacular feature of this house is the double height marble hall, more of which anon. 
Successive generations of the Onslows lived at Clandon Park until 1951 when they were obliged to move to another smaller house in the grounds and throw open the main house to the paying public. But even this was not sufficient to secure Clandon Park’s long term fortunes. Gwendolyn, Countess of Iveagh and daughter of the 4th Earl of Onslow (the Earldom had been created in 1801) was wealthy enough and of a sufficiently philanthropic disposition to purchase both Clandon Park and a large part of the contents from off her nephew. With the addition of a generous endowment for its upkeep, Gwendolyn presented the Clandon Park to the National Trust in 1956. The latter have been running it ever since.

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