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Sir Robert Peel
1788 - 1850

The English statesman Sir Robert Peel served as prime minister during 1834-1835 and 1841-1846. He played an important role in modernizing the British government's social and economic policies and sponsored the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.


Sir Robert Peel was in the great tradition of 19th-century administrative reformers. Though not a doctrinaire, he drew on the most advanced thinking of his day in his reform of British criminal law, the prisons, the police, and fiscal and economic policies. By making government a positive instrument in social reform and by his pragmatic approach to social and political problems, Peel also made an important contribution to shaping the philosophy of the modern Conservative party. Despite the fact that his repeal of the Corn Laws broke his party, Peelite traditions lingered on. Peelites such as William Gladstone also carried these traditions into the Liberal party.

Robert Peel was born on Feb. 5, 1788, at Chamber Hall, Bury, Lancashire, close to the cotton mills that had made his father's immense fortune. The elder Peel had become one of the greatest manufacturers in England. He was not, however, content with business success. In 1790 he bought a great agricultural estate in Staffordshire, and in the same year he entered Parliament for the neighbouring borough of Tamworth, where he had also acquired property and parliamentary influence. The younger Peel was brought up as a country gentleman. In 1800 his father was made a baronet, the title his son later inherited.

Sir Robert intended his son for the governing class, and he gave him an aristocratic education at Harrow and at Christ Church, Oxford. At both institutions the younger Peel distinguished himself as a scholar. Oxford was only commencing to offer the opportunity for a rigorous education, and Peel chose the harder path. He was the first scholar in the history of the university to graduate with first-class honours both in the classics and in mathematics.

Early Political Career

In 1809, the year after his graduation from Oxford, Peel's father bought him entry into Parliament for the borough of Cashel in Ireland. His maiden speech in the House of Commons was generally acclaimed. The next year, at the age of 22, Peel joined the government as undersecretary for war and the colonies.

Peel's chief at the War Office was Lord Liverpool, and when Liverpool became prime minister in 1812, he offered his young subordinate the critical post of chief secretary for Ireland. Though the office did not carry a Cabinet seat, it was one of the most challenging the government had to offer. After the English union with Ireland in 1801, the chief secretary had become not only a key figure in the administration of Ireland but also the representative of the Irish government in the British Parliament. The social and religious conflicts that rent Ireland throughout the 19th century made it almost impossible to govern. Peel achieved the impossible. As chief secretary for 6 years, until 1818, he established a reputation for a happy mixture of firmness and compassion. Among other reforms, Peel pioneered in the establishment of a permanent Irish police force and laid the foundations for famine relief.

After his retirement from the chief secretaryship, Peel stayed out of office for 4 years. He remained, however, one of the government's most distinguished supporters on the back benches. In 1817 Oxford had conferred on him its highest honour by electing him to one of the university's two parliamentary seats. In 1819 Peel chaired the committee of the House of Commons that made the crucial recommendation that Britain return to the gold standard, and the statute that accomplished this was commonly known as "Peel's Act." It was also during this period that Peel made a singularly happy marriage with society belle Julia Floyd.

Home Secretary

In 1821 Peel was recalled to high office as home secretary in Lord Liverpool's government. He remained in that office, with one brief interlude in 1827-1828, until 1830. In large part because of him, this period is known as the "age of liberal Toryism." Benthamite and evangelical reformers had long argued against Britain's legal and penal system which attempted little more than frightening citizens not to commit crimes. Peel went a long way toward meeting their demands by establishing a system aimed at preventing crimes and at reforming criminals rather than simply punishing them. Savage death penalties for minor crimes were largely abolished, and the criminal laws were made simpler and more humane. Prisons were also reformed and brought under the supervision of the central government. And, in the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, Peel laid the foundations of a modern professional police force. This act established the London police force, whose members were called, after him, "Peelers" or "Bobbies."

Catholic Emancipation

Though Peel helped to introduce liberal elements into Toryism, he was also long associated with the illiberal opposition to full civil and political rights for Roman Catholics. There were few Catholics in England; but they were in the overwhelming majority in Ireland, and the Catholic question became closely tied with the Irish question. Those who favored Catholic emancipation became known as "Catholics." The people who opposed were known as "Protestants." Peel, a fervent Anglican, became the leading "Protestant" spokesman. He argued that emancipation would exacerbate the already bitter feelings between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and that it would weaken the established Anglican Church in both countries. It was largely for his stand on this topic that Peel refused to join the government of the "Catholic" Tory George Canning in 1827. In 1829, however, as home secretary and leader of the House of Commons in the government of the Duke of Wellington, Peel played a leading role in carrying Catholic emancipation. The reason for his reversal was simple. In 1828 the Irish had demonstrated their ability to return Roman Catholic members to a House of Commons in which they could not legally sit. Wellington argued that to enforce the law would mean civil war. Peel agreed with him. The specter of civil war overcame their scruples. They felt that it was their duty to King and to country to avert that disaster by carrying emancipation. By so doing they splintered the Tory party. Peel particularly was denounced as a turncoat, and strongly "Protestant" Oxford humiliated him by defeating him for reelection.

Peel's First Ministry

Peel was deeply wounded. About this time he began commonly to be described as cold and haughty. However, his reputation among his close friends was very different. Strikingly tall and handsome, with curly red hair, he was a plesant and jovial companion. In his immediate circle, he was much loved. He had always been sensitive and shy with strangers, and his experiences in 1829 only increased these tendencies; Peel retreated behind a cold and reserved exterior.

Attacked by some of its own former supporters and under pressure from the advocates of parliamentary reform, the government of Wellington and Peel staggered to its dissolution late in 1830. Its place was taken by the Whig administration of Lord Grey of Reform Bill fame. Peel led the battle against the bill in the Commons, but it became law in 1832. For a brief period in 1834-1835 the King quarreled with his Whig ministers and called on Peel to head a Tory government. But the King could no longer appoint whom he wished to office, and Peel's government was soon defeated by a hostile majority in the Commons and by the electorate in 1835. Peel's first government is notable mainly in that it allowed him to redefine Tory goals, particularly in the Tamworth Manifesto, which he issued to his constituents on the eve of the general election. On behalf of what he now called the Conservative party, Peel accepted the Reform Act and its implications and pledged constructive reforms that would strengthen the basic institutions of the country. And though he was in opposition, Peel came to play a dominating role in the years after 1835 as Whig support in Parliament and in the country steadily diminished. The government of Lord Melbourne came to exist largely on Peel's sufferance. Hence the great reforms of the period, particularly municipal and Church reforms, bore Peel's imprint and filled in the outlines of the Tamworth Manifesto.

The Great Years

Peel might easily have come to power in 1839 had not his coldness offended the young Queen Victoria. By 1841, however, the Whig government had reached the end of the road, and the Queen was forced to accept Peel as her prime minister. The greatest achievement of Peel's ministry was to establish the principle of free trade. The best economic thought of the day favored it, and the academics were backed by the vociferous demands of the industrial middle classes. Peel favored it because he thought it was in the best interests of the country. He felt that free trade would bring prosperity to manufacturers and increased employment to the working classes, and that it would lower the cost of living. Gradually from 1842 onward trade was freed, and by 1845 the only outstanding anomaly in the system was the protection of agriculture afforded by the Corn Laws. These laws were ardently supported by Tory squires, who composed a large section of Peel's support in Parliament. Peel was therefore not anxious to press this issue, but he was ready to do so if the Corn Laws caused real suffering. In the autumn of 1845 the Irish potato crop rotted in the ground. There was not enough grain in the British Isles to fill the need. The alternatives were quite simply repeal of the Corn Laws or starvation. Peel would have preferred the Whigs to carry repeal, but they would not. He therefore did it himself in 1846. Once more he was denounced as a traitor, and the party broke apart. Again Peel had done his duty to Queen and to country, knowing full well that in so doing he was probably ending his brilliant political career.

This time it was the end. For 4 years after 1846 Peel remained active and influential as the leader of a loyal Peelite remnant of his party. But on July 2, 1850, he died following a riding accident, and his great career was ended.


Robert Peel twice served as Prime Minister: from 10 December 1834 to 8 April 1835 and from 30 August 1841 to 29 June 1846. Peel, the the eldest son and third of eleven children of Robert Peel (the first Baronet) and Ellen Yates, was born on 5 February 1788 at Chamber Hall near Bury in Lancashire. Originally the Peels were Lancashire weavers and farmers but had moved into textile manufacture and made their fortune. Peel was educated at home until he was ten years old, by the Rev. James Hargreaves; when the family moved to Drayton Manor in 1798 he went to a small school in Tamworth. Between 1800 and 1804 Peel attended Harrow and then was admitted as a gentleman-commoner to Christ Church Oxford where he was awarded a double First in Classics and Mathematics and Physics in 1808. In 1814 he was awarded his MA. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1809 and began to work towards a career in Law; however, his father bought him the seat of Cashel in Co. Tipperary on the influence of the Duke of Wellington, and Peel began a parliamentary career that lasted until his death in 1850.

Peel made his forty-minute long maiden speech on 23 January 1810 in which he seconded the reply to the King's speech at the opening of parliament; for his efforts, he was applauded by those who heard him speak. Since Peel was a Tory by nature and persuasion he supported Portland's government. In June 1810 he was appointed as Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies in Spencer Perceval's ministry; in this post he worked with Lord Liverpool. Other members of Perceval's Cabinet included Lord Sidmouth, Castlereagh and the Duke of Portland. All these men influenced Peel's political thinking.


Chief Secretary for Ireland

When Liverpool formed a new ministry after Perceval was assassinated in May 1812, Peel was appointed to one of the most difficult offices in government — that of Chief Secretary for Ireland. He also became a Privy Counsellor. He took up his post in Dublin in September 1812 and held the office until 1818, serving under three viceroys: the Duke of Richmond, Lord Whitworth, and Lord Talbot. Peel had three main duties as Chief Secretary:

* to administer the patronage of Ireland on behalf of the English government. He attempted not to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants in appointments that were open to both; he opposed the practice of selling public offices and of dismissing civil servants for political action.
* to maintain order in Ireland. Peel wanted to rule by the existing law, but disorders in June 1814 were so bad that he revived partially the repealed Insurrection Act of 1807. He also established the peace preservation force, members of which were called ‘Peelers’: subsequently this force became the Royal Irish Constabulary.
* to maintain the Protestant ascendancy. There were those in parliament who favoured Catholic Emancipation: They included most of the Whigs and a few Tories led by Canning and Wellesley. Vansittart and Castlereagh, who were Cabinet members favoured Catholic Emancipation, as did Vesey Fitzgerald, the Irish chancellor of the Exchequer, and Charles Kendal Bushe, the Solicitor-General. Peel opposed all Catholic claims for emancipation and, for his trouble, was nicknamed 'Orange Peel' by Daniel O'Connell in May 1813. Their enmity was so great that the pair agreed to go to Ostend fight a duel in August 1815, but it never took place since O'Connell was arrested as soon as he arrived in London.

In 1817, a debate on Catholic Emancipation took place in the House of Commons in which Peel spoke against it, making a name for himself in the country. As a result of this, he was elected in June as MP for Oxford University on the resignation of Charles Abbot. By 1818, Peel was exhausted from his work in Ireland which demanded not only that he conducted affairs in Dublin but also attended the House of Commons to answer parliamentary questions on Ireland. This involved a lengthy journey by sea and road at frequent intervals. He decided to resign in August and for four years held no office. He married Julia Floyd in 1820 and the couple had five sons and two daughters. Lady Peel was always supportive of her husband but was neither interested in politics nor was she a society hostess.


Peel and the Gold Standard

In 1819 Peel became chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry into the return to the gold standard: the so-called currency, or bullion committee that included men such as Canning and Huskisson. Peel was convinced that the system of paper currency that had been introduced by Pitt in 1797 had resulted in a depreciated currency. In May he introduced legislation for a return to the gold standard on 1 May 1823.


Peel as Home Secretary

In 1822 Peel accepted the position of Home Secretary in Liverpool's cabinet reshuffle; he began to look into the state of criminal law almost immediately. The technique that Peel used throughout his time in office was that of summoning experts in the area on which he was working, so that he always appeared before the House of Commons with an extensive knowledge of his subject. He was able to pass eight pieces of legislation between 1822 and 1827 that changed and/or consolidated the criminal law. He repealed, either wholly or partially, more than 250 statutes that he deemed to be outdated. Canning thought that Peel was 'the most efficient home secretary that this country ever saw'. In March 1822 Peel proposed that a House of Commons Select Committee under his chairmanship should be set up to investigate the policing of London. However, in June the committee reported that an effective system of policing could not be reconciled with a free society: Peel was not convinced of this and continued to work towards the establishment of a civilian police force: his ideas finally came to fruition when the Metropolitan Police Force came into existence in 1829.

In March 1825, Sir Francis Burdett's Bill for Catholic Emancipation was introduced into the House of Commons. Despite Peel's opposition it went though the processes of law and Peel offered to resign, seeing his position as untenable. However, the Bill failed in the Lords so Peel continued in post. This action did mark him out as a supporter of Anglicanism, however, and made his dealings with Catholics more difficult in the future.

From about 1822 until 1826 the domestic economy had seen an upturn but in 1826 a further trade depression and industrial slump resulted in widespread distress and discontent. As working hours were reduced and wages were cut by the manufacturers in efforts to save themselves from bankruptcy, unemployment increased causing a series of riots and a crime wave that swept the country. Because there was no civilian police force to deal with the situation, Peel used the army to quash the unrest.

In March 1827 Lord Liverpool resigned following a stroke that left him incapacitated, and the post of PM was offered to Canning. Peel refused to serve under Canning because of their diametrically opposing views on Catholic Emancipation. Seven other members of Liverpool's Cabinet — the Duke of Wellington, Westmorland, Bexley, Melville, Eldon and Bathurst — also resigned their posts, leaving Canning with a curtailed choice of ministers. Consequently he turned to the Whigs for some of his Cabinet. Peel remained out of office until the Duke of Wellington became PM in January 1828, when he took up the post of Home Secretary once more and also became Leader of the House of Commons.

In February 1828 Peel proposed the establishment of a Committee of Enquiry into the state of the police and the increase in crime in London' the committee recommended the setting up of a police force for London — except the City of London — under the control of the Home Secretary. The following year the Metropolitan Police Act was passed, and by September the 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers' were on the streets. They were not always successful, certainly they were not popular, but the force proved to be the foundation of the modern police force in Britain.

Much of the remainder of Wellington's ministry was absorbed in dealing with concessions to the religious minorities in the nation by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts (1828) and passing the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829). In February 1829, Peel resigned his seat for Oxford and called an election there. He was defeated, but another seat was found for him after the 'resignation' of another MP. A couplet that became the catch-phrase of the anti-Peelites was published in the Birmingham Argos:

   Oh Member for Oxford, you shuffle and wheel
   You have changed your name from R Peel to Repeal

In May 1830 Peel inherited the baronetcy on the death of his father and had become MP for the family borough of Tamworth; by November he was out of office when the Whigs took power following the anti-reform stance of Wellington. By this time the Tories had split into the Ultras and the moderates: this latter group had taken to calling themselves 'conservatives' because although they would contemplate reform they wanted to conserve all that they believed was best in society. Peel headed this group although he refused to lead it; there is little doubt that the single most important person in the House of Commons from about 1820 until 1850 was Sir Robert Peel. He did not hold office between 1830 and 1841, apart from the 'Hundred Days" that began in December 1834 following the dismissal of Melbourne's ministry by the king who then invited Wellington to form a ministry. The Duke declined but suggested Peel as PM. Peel was on holiday in Italy but eventually was tracked down on 25 November; he returned and took up the post of both PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer on 9 December 1834.

Having accepted a post that paid a salary he was obliged to stand for re-election and took the opportunity to send out the Tamworth Manifesto to his voters as a means of reaching the electorate at large in preparation for the general election that was held in January 1835. Although Peel did gain some seats for his party, he was still in a minority and lost a series of votes partly because of the Lichfield House Compact, and agreement between the Whigs and Irish MPs. On 8 April 1835 he resigned. Some of his measures later were carried into law by the Whigs: these included the Dissenters' Marriage Bill, the English Tithe Bill, and the Irish Tithe Bill.

However, despite the setbacks, Peel attracted men of talent into the Conservative party. Sir James Graham and Edward Stanley joined him from the Whigs; Gladstone and Disraeli were Conservatives together although they were rivals and opponents later in their lives when Gladstone became a Liberal. By 1837 there were over 300 men in Peel's opposition party. Many of the pieces of Whig legislation in the period 1833-41 had Peel's backing and it is difficult to see how they could have been passed without his support. They included the

* 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act
* 1835 Municipal Corporations Act
* 1839 Jamaica Act

Queen Victoria comes to the throne

On the accession of Queen Victoria there had to be a general election, which was won by Lord Melbourne; however, his support in parliament declined and on 7 May he resigned following a very close vote on the suspension of the constitution in Jamaica. Victoria asked Peel to form a ministry but precipitated the Bedchamber Crisis when she refused to give up her Whig ladies in waiting. Peel refused to take office under those circumstances, and Melbourne resumed office but continued to lose support until he resigned in June 1841 leaving Peel to take the post of PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer following a Conservative victory at the general election. The ministry included seven men who either had been or would become PMs in their own right: Peel, Wellington, Ripon, Stanley, Aberdeen, Gladstone and Disraeli.

Peel's second ministry saw a range of economic reforms including

* the implementation of income tax as a five-year temporary measure
* a series of Railway Acts
* a rationalisation and reduction or abolition in duties on goods
* the 1844 Bank Charter Act
* 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws following the start of the Irish potato famine

Following the repeal of the Corn Laws, Peel resigned and did not hold office again. He fell from his horse on Constitution Hill on 29 June 1850; the horse stumbled on top of him and Peel died from his injuries on 2 July 1850. He was buried in St. Peter's church at Drayton Bassett.










This web page was last updated on: 14 December, 2008