• March of the Women

Lord and Lady Onslow and the Suffrage campaign

Violet, Countess of Onslow (1885-1954) and Richard, 5th Earl of Onslow (1876-1945)

Photograph of Richard 5th Earl of Onslow from article in Daily Mirror, ‘Earl as fireman’, 28 Oct 1913 (SHC ref G173/225/5 p.43)

Photograph of Richard 5th Earl of Onslow from article in Daily Mirror, ‘Earl as fireman’, 28 Oct 1913 (SHC ref G173/225/5 p.43). Click on the image to see a larger copy.

Richard, 5th Earl and Violet, Countess of Onslow inherited the family title on the death of William Hillier, 4th Earl of Onslow in 1911. Richard, then working as assistant private secretary to the Liberal foreign minister Sir Edward Grey, had enjoyed a diplomatic career in the early years of the century, including in Tangier, Madrid, St Petersburg and Berlin, but further thoughts of foreign postings ended abruptly as the couple moved to the splendid family seat of Clandon Park, West Clandon, and took on the responsibility of managing the extensive Onslow estates.

Richard Onslow, then Viscount Cranley, had married the Hon Violet Bampfylde, daughter of the 3rd Baron Poltimore, in 1906. On returning to England in 1909, they were living in Hampstead with their daughter Mary (b.1908) before Surrey became their principal home. Their son Arthur was born in 1913. In their early pre-war years at Clandon, no evidence has been found that the Countess of Onslow undertook any active involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, either locally or in London.

As a Conservative peer, with a voice and a vote in the House of Lords, the Earl did find himself invited to consider the cause. In 1908, his mother Florence, then Countess of Onslow, had gone so far as to request a correction from a newspaper reporting the presence of ‘Lady Onslow’ at the Suffragist procession of June, pointing out that the supporter in question was the wife of Sir Alexander Onslow rather than herself, who had ‘no sympathy with the movement’ (SHC ref G173/225/3 p.274), but he had spent this significant year for the suffrage campaign in Berlin. In February 1912, at the request of the anti-Suffragist Liberal MP Lewis Harcourt, the Earl attended a cross party meeting at the Albert Hall raised to motivate opposition (SHC ref G173/20/1). Immersed as he was in foreign policy affairs in the lead up to World War I, he was perhaps insufficiently interested to commit himself to a view, however. Commenting in his autobiography ‘Sixty Three Years’ that party politics ‘were very bitter in 1914’, he refers principally to the issues of Irish Home Rule, and never mentions the divisive effects of the campaign for women’s franchise.

The war years saw both Onslows wholeheartedly supporting the war effort, at home and abroad. ‘Our first preoccupation was to know what we could do to be of use. We felt that a big house must be useful for something, so our thoughts turned to how Clandon might be put to that account’ (op. cit.): Clandon became a war hospital, with the Countess of Onslow as its commandant, which she remained until 1919, as well as supervising another hospital at Horsley. In 1915, the Earl of Onslow was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and undertook work associated with the Red Cross, as an intelligence officer for the War Office, and as head of censorship and publicity in France. Left to manage the estate, Violet also took an active interest in Surrey home farm and the agriculture of the tenanted farms.

Perhaps it was only as the war approached its end that the case for the enfranchisement of women was brought home to Clandon. Violet Onslow had been contacted by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1917 as one of ‘500 prominent women workers’ whose support it was hoped would promote the case for inclusion of clauses relating to women in the Representation of the People Bill. She replied that ‘I am very pleased to sign the enclosed memorial, with which I am entirely in sympathy’ (SHC ref G173/149/2, 4); she appears not to have got round to signing a similar memorial from the Guildford and District Women’s Suffrage Society (SHC ref G173/149/3). Letters from other NUWSS branches are known at this time, rallying for support as a direct result of the extensive efforts of women during the war, see https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/transcript/g4cs4s4t.htm. Surely it is likely that Violet persuaded her husband, both in word and energetic deed, that women had proved themselves capable and deserving of the vote, particularly in the light of their contribution to the war effort. Whatever his former opinion might have been, the Earl considered speaking in the Lords on the subject (SHC ref G173/77/8), and although in the event he did not do so, he voted to retain the clauses relating to women’s suffrage in the Bill on 10 January 1918.

Contributed by Isabel Sullivan, cataloguing archivist for the Onslow suffrage papers as part of The March of the Women project.


Richard Earl of Onslow, Sixty-Three Years. Diplomacy, the Great War and politics with notes on sport, travel and other things (1944)
Hansard online – the edited verbatim report of proceedings of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The Onslow archive held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref G173), including Onslow family newspaper cuttings albums (SHC ref G173/225/3-5)

2 thoughts on “Lord and Lady Onslow and the Suffrage campaign”

  1. Peter Eatenton says:

    I have been informed that a boat that I once owned was commissioned for Lady Onslow in 1923. It has been fully restored and currently
    Moored on the River Thames at Chelsea. I would be happy to send you pics if required.

    1. Onslow says:

      I have read this article again and only noticed the comment about one of the Lady Onslows once commissioning a boat which is apparently now moored at Chelsea. What is the name of the boat ? Do you have any photographs ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *