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Peel's proposals on the Corn Laws (1845)

In mid-October, when reports of the progress of the potato-blight in Ireland were becoming serious, Peel sent two scientists, John Lindley, professor of botany at London University, and Lyon Playfair, an eminent chemist, to Ireland to talk to local experts, report on the disease and suggest possible remedies. From their first reports it was clear that the danger was greater than the general public realised and that immediate steps should be taken to prepare for famine conditions especially in the late winter and spring.

The cabinet met on 31 October to hear all the information gathered by the Home Office and on 1 November, Peel read his memorandum to them. In the discussions which followed serious differences of opinion showed themselves. At a further meeting on 6 November only three members of the cabinet (Graham, Aberdeen and Herbert) supported Peel's proposal to suspend immediately the duties on grain by order in council - which removed the need for parliamentary debate and legislation - summon parliament at the end of the month, and announce that the government would bring forward a bill after Christmas to modify the existing corn law. The rest of the cabinet were either opposed in principle to any change in the law or not convinced that the danger warranted such a step.

After the meetings of early November, the cabinet agreed to meet again at the end of the month, when Peel had made up his mind to resign if he could not get the full support of his colleagues. Meanwhile reports from Ireland grew steadily worse and in the middle of the month he arranged for the secret purchase of large quantities of maize from America through the merchant banking house of Baring. On 22 November Lord John Russell wrote an open letter to his constituents in the City of London announcing his conversion to a policy of total repeal of the Corn Laws and calling on the public for an immediate agitation for their removal. The cabinet met three days later and approved detailed instructions to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on measures to meet the now certain famine.

On 26 November Peel read a second memorandum to the cabinet stating that he could not consent to the issue of these instructions and at the same time undertake the maintenance of the existing corn laws. Suspension was now inevitable, in his view and this in turn made necessary a critical review of the whole question of corn protection. A third supporting memorandum was circulated on 29 November which brought forth replies from several ministers, including one from Henry Goulburn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Most of them showed a reluctance on various grounds, economic and political, to accept Peel's proposals but they were also unwilling to see him retire from office.

In a fourth memorandum on 2 December Peel gave a detailed proposal for a gradual progressive reduction in the duties on grain until they were finally extinguished. The proposal won over all his colleagues except Lord Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch. Since Peel considered that the unanimous support of the cabinet was indispensable for the success of his policy, he resigned office on 5 December.

Russell reluctantly accepted the call to form a government but encountered a number of difficulties. He abandoned his task and Peel resumed office on 20 December. A memorandum written by Prince Albert five days later refers to a long conversation the previous day when, elated by his success in retaining all his old cabinet except Stanley, Peel had spoken with great freedom. Peel's opinions appear to have shifted considerably between 1842 and 1845 and it was probably an accepted view among his close confidants that the next step in corn policy would be total repeal. On 5 November Lord Lincoln had proposed the course which Albert says Peel had been considering before the potato disease precipitated events.

The debate on the third reading of the Corn Importation Bill was marked by one of Disraeli's most brilliant pieces of invective and savage interruptions of Peel's speech which almost broke his self-control. It was the last of six great speeches (22 and 27 January, 16 February, 27 March, 4 and 15 May) with which Peel sustained his policy. The January speeches contained specific corn proposals that were simply items in a general complex programme of tariff reform and agricultural compensation. Later, Peel was faced with the defection of two-thirds of his party and bitter parliamentary debates that centred on the personal issues of political consistency and party leadership. His last four speeches were much sharper and more uncompromising. Peel justified his decision on the need and justification of repeal.

A contemporary cartoon: "Papa Cobden taking Master Robert a Free Trade walk"

On 26 June, a few hours after the Corn Bill passed the House of Lords, the government was defeated on the Protection of Life (Ireland) Bill. Peel had already made it plain to his colleagues that the government no longer had the power to carry on normal administration and that he was opposed to the policy of dissolving parliament and fighting a general election on the issues of either Irish coercion or free trade. He resigned on 27 June and on 29 June announced this in a speech to the House of Commons. He made a deliberate reference to Cobden as the man whose name should be associated with the success of repeal. This tribute gave great offence, as did the closing sentences of the speech. Greville said,

His unnecessary panegyric of Cobden, his allusion to the selfish monopolists, and his clap-trap about cheap bread in the peroration, exasperated to the last degree his former friends and adherents, were unpalatable to those he had kept, were condemned by all parties indiscriminately'.

This was a general upper class view: it was not shared by the public at large. However, the speech was reproduced until it became the most quoted passage of all Peel's speeches.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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