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Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850)

Robert Peel was born on 5 February 1788 at Chamber Hall near Bury in Lancashire. He was the eldest son and third of eleven children born to Robert Peel (the first Baronet) and Ellen Yates. 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 went into 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. 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. He served under three viceroys: the Duke of Richmond, Lord Whitworth, and Lord Talbot. Peel had three main duties as Chief Secretary:

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.

In 1820, Charles Williams-Wynn wrote to Lord Grenville saying of Peel:

His irritability and a certain degree of arrogance which the want of family and connection renders less tolerable, have during the last two years rendered the House (particularly the ministerial men) less favourably disposed to him, but still he combines advantages of general character in the country, of talents and habits of business which altogether place him higher than any other man in the House.

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.

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.

Mrs. Arbuthnot, a close friend of the Duke of Wellington, commented that

Mr. Peel is certainly the most unpopular leader a party can have. His low birth and vulgar manners would be not only forgiven but forgotten if he would practise the arts of conciliation, if he would be kind and gracious to those in office under him, and frank and good-natured to his supporters in Parliament; but, instead of that, nothing can exceed his arrogance and ill-temper.

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.

The political writer, Walter Bagehot, noted in 1830 that

No man has come so near our definition of a constitutional statesman, - the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man. From a certain peculiarity of intellect and fortune, he was never in advance of his time. Of almost all the great measures with which his name is associated, he attained great eminence as an opponent before he attained even greater eminence as their advocate. On the Corn Laws, on the currency, on the amelioration of the criminal code, on Catholic emancipation . . . he was not one of the earliest labourers, or quickest converts. He did not bear the heat and burden of the day; other men laboured, and he entered into their labours.

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

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

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.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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