HENLEY ONGLEY, Robert (c.1721-85), of Old Warden, Beds.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1754 - 1761
1761 - 1780
1 July 1784 - 19 May 1785

Family and Education

b. c.1721, 3rd s. of Robert Henley of St. Clement Danes, London by Anne, da. of [?Thomas] Merryam, niece of Sir Samuel Ongley, M.P.  educ. Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1741; M. Temple 1737, called 1744.  m. 4 May 1763, Frances, da. and coh. of Richard Gosfright of Langton Hall, Essex, 2s. 4da.  suc. to Old Warden estate of cos. Samuel Ongley and assumed add. name of Ongley 1747;  cr. Baron Ongley [I] 30 July 1776.

Offices Held


Sir Samuel Ongley was a linen draper in Cornhill, a director of the East India Company and of the South Sea Company, ‘very rich, said £10,000 per annum, 5 to be sure’.1 His heir, Samuel Ongley, was M.P. for Bedford from 1734 till his death on 15 June 1747—Old Warden is about six miles from Bedford. Besides landed estates Robert Henley Ongley inherited an interest in East Indian affairs and City connexions; he frequently dabbled in Government stock, as subscriber or purchaser, usually in partnership with City men.

When the Duke of Bedford agreed to bring in Ongley for Bedford, Lord Hardwicke wrote from London to his son Philip, 22 Aug. 1753: ‘It is strongly affirmed here that your neighbour Mr. Ongley is a determined Tory, but I thought you had told me otherwise.’2 In the House he acted with the Bedford group, but guarding a measure of independence. His one reported speech in his first Parliament, 8 May 1760, was ‘against the militia in general’.3 Returned in 1761 for Bedfordshire with the Duke’s support, he spoke on 9 Dec. 1761 against the German war: he had heard ‘a great many words ... but no one real argument’ in its support—‘I never approved of that measure from the first beginning.’4 Harris notes: ‘’twas late and he was ill heard’. He took up subjects of interest to country gentlemen: spoke on the game bill, and was co-author of a bill concerning the powers of justices which none of the lawyers to whom Harris showed it approved of.5 In December 1762 Fox listed him as favourable to the peace, and in the autumn of 1763 Jenkinson marked him as a Government supporter. On 15 Feb. 1764 Ongley wrote to Bedford:6

As it has ever been my desire to see the administration of affairs in the hands of those who have the greatest stake in the country, so I shall always be extremely happy never to differ in opinion from your Grace, and will do everything in my power to assist Government when in such hands; always endeavouring to act in matters of great consequence according to the best of my judgment. I have not divided in any question with the minority, but I must own that I am far from being clear, at present, that a secretary of state has, or ought to have, the power to seize persons and papers, in matters relative only to misdemeanours ... I will, my Lord, attend the House on Friday, and ... do everything which I can answer to my own judgment.

That Friday, 17 Feb., he spoke and voted with the Opposition, and was listed by Jenkinson among the straying ‘friends’; while Newcastle marked him for the future merely as ‘doubtful’ (10 May).

In July 1765 Ongley followed Bedford into opposition. He repeatedly spoke against the repeal of the Stamp Act,7 and voted accordingly. When Sir George Osborn, on 30 July 1766, asked Bedford for his support in the county at the next general election, the Duke replied that Ongley’s parliamentary conduct had been so agreeable to him that he would be very sorry if the county was not willing to reelect him.8 On 27 Feb. 1767 Ongley spoke and voted against the Government on the land tax. He was returned unopposed in 1768.

In the Parliament of 1768-74 Ongley very frequently intervened in debate but his speeches were seldom on major political topics and none was of much weight. The description given of him in the Public Ledger in 1779 is about correct: ‘He is a very narrow-minded, selfish man, and a tedious, bad speaker.’ On 29 Nov. 1768 his speech on Wilkes’s petition as reported by Cavendish is unclear, and so is the pattern of his subsequent voting: he was not with the Opposition on 27 Jan. 1769; voted with them on Wilkes’s libel and expulsion (2 and 3 Feb.); and then, on 8 May, surprisingly, voted for declaring Luttrell duly elected. On 12 Dec. 1770 he spoke for postponing consideration of the land tax till after the Christmas recess: wherein he acted with the ‘Bedford squadron’, temporarily discontented with Lord North.9 Over the printers’ case and the commitment of the lord mayor to the Tower, he spoke and voted with the Government. He deprecated unauthorized publication of debates as leading to misrepresentation, 12 Mar. 1771; or admitting anyone into the gallery, 14 May 1777—‘he knew no business strangers had there’.10 He supported the royal marriage bill.

In December 1770 he acted as nominee for Sir Thomas Rumbold over the New Shoreham by-election; and he frequently spoke on East India affairs. On 6 Dec. 1768 he opposed a petition for opening the East India trade: the national credit would be affected, and monopoly may be beneficial to trade. In May 1773 he supported Burgoyne’s resolutions against Clive, and, disclaiming all animosity against him, remarked: ‘I have riches enough and I envy not those of Lord Clive.’ His attitude to those who had none, appears over the bill to prevent the vexatious removal of the poor, 2 Mar. 1774:

This bill would be the most pernicious ... Justices should have a discretionary power ... Men should be confined to districts where they would be known ... Working men will extort wages from their employers.11

And on the Act respecting imprisonment of debtors, 24 Feb. 1780: ‘he verily believed 19 out of 20 debtors now in jail were fraudulent debtors.’12

In 1774 Ongley stood as a Government supporter, strongly backed by the Woburn interest, and was returned after a hot contest. Walpole, writing to Lady Ossory, 14 Nov. 1774, remarks on her husband’s ‘flinging away so much money on an election, and not for himself, who was sure of his own seat’: besides being purse-proud, Ongley seems to have been parsimonious. He was one of the 18 Irish peers created in July-August 1776. He was a determined advocate of coercion toward America. Thus on 9 May 1777: ‘He was satisfied the nation ... was a match for all her foreign and domestic enemies, whether in America or Europe’; and her situation forbade her to make any concessions ‘unbecoming her dignity, or short of her constitutional supreme rights over all the dominions of the British Crown’. On 28 Nov.: ‘it is but reasonable that when we shall compel the colonies to their duty’, they should be made to contribute to the support of the Government. When North moved his conciliatory proposals, 11 Feb. 1778, Ongley opposed ‘any measure of accommodation, short of compelling America ... to acknowledge the supreme right of Parliament’. But he supported the bill to exclude Government contractors from the House, 12 Feb. 1779. Over Keppel he still voted with the Government, 3 Mar. 1779; and on 11 Feb. 1780 objected to the Bedfordshire petition for economical reform. But an extraordinary change occurred on the 21st: Ongley voted with the Opposition on a motion calling for an account of pensions. Similarly on 8 Mar., over Burke’s motion for economical reform. Almon’s reporter states, however, that ‘Lord Ongley spoke in very strong terms against the motion’, which was probably a guess from past experience: judging by the brevity with which his speeches were reported, he was hardly listened to. Thus on Dunning’s motion on the influence of the Crown, 6 Apr. 1780: ‘Lord Ongley spoke in support of the original motion.’ On Crewe’s bill for disfranchising revenue officers, 13 Apr.: ‘Lord Ongley spoke in favour of the bill.’ On both occasions he again voted with the Opposition. Was it from conviction or with a view to securing in the county the continued support of the Woburn interest, directed by Ossory and the Duchess, now both siding with the Opposition? Only in the last division of 24 Apr., against prorogation, Ongley again voted with the Government; and Robinson, in his survey of July 1780, put him down as ‘pro’,

because he generally is so except in some of the questions of economy and reformation and I think he may be mostly depended upon, if attended to and humoured a little, for I have generally on trial found him practicable.13

At the general election of September 1780 the Woburn interest backed St. Andrew St. John against Ongley, who declined after canvass; on 16 Sept. the Rev. Hadley Cox, archdeacon of Bedford, had written to Hardwicke, who supported Ongley, that ‘he will never carry the day ... except he will untie the hard knot of his purse strings’.14 But next, ‘not being fond of an idle life’, he appealed to Sandwich to remember him ‘if any reasonable opportunity should offer of coming into Parliament’.15 In 1784 Ongley stood for Bedfordshire as an adherent of Pitt; was defeated by one vote; was seated on petition, 1 July 1784; and unseated on a counter-petition, 19 May 1785.  He died 23 Oct. 1785.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. Le Neve, Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 508.
  • 2. Add. 35351, ff. 265-6.
  • 3. Jas. West to Newcastle, 8 May 1760, Add. 32905, f. 339.
  • 4. Add. 38334, ff. 25-26.
  • 5. Harris’s ‘Debates’, 27 Apr. 1762.
  • 6. Bedford mss 49, f. 46.
  • 7. Fortescue, i. 205, 247; Harris’s ‘Debates’, 24 Feb. 1766.
  • 8. Bedford mss 53, f. 208.
  • 9. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, iv. 151.
  • 10. Almon, vii. 194.
  • 11. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 12. Almon, xvii. 179.
  • 13. Ibid. vii. 173; viii. 367; xvii. 92, 278, 522.
  • 14. Add. 35693, f. 367.
  • 15. 31 Oct. 1780, Sandwich mss.