Coram and Speaker Arthur Onslow

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One of the most treasured items in the Coram archives is a prayer book, given to the Foundling Hospital by Coram’s founder, Thomas Coram.

The flyleaf of the book has a dedication, professionally inscribed:

The GIFT of The Right Honourable Arthur Onslow Esq., Speaker of the House of Commons of Great Britain to Thomas Coram, Gent.19th August 1736 

Underneath is another inscription, written by Thomas Coram himself:

Hatton Garden 19th March 1740-41

The General Committee of the governors and Guardians of the Hospital for Expos’d and Deserted Young Children were requested to accept this Book of Common Prayer for the use of the hospital as a gift to the same by Thomas Coram. 

The prayer book in our archives is one of several given by Onslow to Thomas Coram in 1736.

When, a year later, in July 1737, Thomas Coram presented his petition for a Foundling Hospital to King George II, Arthur Onslow’s name was prominent among the supporters. The two men lived near to each other and were friends. Though they were from very different backgrounds, Thomas Coram and Arthur Onslow had much in common; both were practical and religious men, each known for their integrity and each believing that their Anglican faith should be practised through good deeds.

At this time, another inscribed prayer book was among volumes given by Onslow which Thomas Coram sent to America. Coram had lived in Taunton, Massachusetts as a young man and left money and land to establish a church in the town. Eventually, the church, named the Episcopal Church of St Thomas, was built and the books ensured it had a substantial library – a collection it still has today, with the Onslow prayer book at its centre.

Thomas Coram’s family was without title or wealth. Onslow, by contrast, was the eldest son of a wealthy and well-known political family: his younger brother, father, great-grandfather and uncle were all politicians for the Whig party, and his mother was an heiress. Educated at Winchester and Oxford, he was set for a legal career but had abandoned that by 1720, when he was elected to Parliament as MP for the family seat of Guildford.

At the opening of parliament, on 23 Jan. 1728, Onslow was unanimously elected speaker of the House of Commons, an office to which he was re-elected in 1735, 1741, 1747, and 1754.

Coram’s core belief was that “I believe every one ought, in duty to do any good they can”. Onslow had a similar view, writing that as Speaker, “I endeavoured to found my character rather upon the rectitude of my actings than upon any other fame, and therefore often voted with both parties as I thought them to be in the right. I loved independency and pursued it”.

The first modern Speaker

Arthur Onslow created the modern role of the Speaker, setting new standards for impartiality and independence. This often brought him into conflict with MPs, and, especially, the Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

The Dictionary of National Biography described him as:

“…a man of rare integrity in an age of corruption, and he realized that the stability of parliament was being undermined by the sordid political intrigues of the day. He was the first speaker to recognise the crucial importance of distancing the chair from all such discreditable activity and of asserting its independence and authority…”

Onslow is still the longest-serving Speaker of the House, having been elected and re-elected for 33 successive years and through five parliaments. Such was the high regard for him, in his retirement in 1861 Parliament voted to give him a pension – the first speaker to receive one.

The tradition continues

In January 2018, some 280 years after Onslow was elected as Speaker of the House, Coram called for all children to be ‘Respected and Protected’ at a reception at the Speaker’s House at The House of Commons.  Though much has improved since Thomas Coram’s time, there are still too many children alone and afraid on the streets, traumatised or abused, excluded from education and unable to influence decisions that matter to them.  The report identifies where change is needed and how Coram will realise it’s vision that all children have the best possible chance in life.

Find out more about the Respected & Protected exhibition and report

Speaker Arthur Onslow, after a Hans Hysing painting of 1728