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.
Drayton Manor (now demolished), the home of Sir Robert Peel
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.
St. Peter's church, Drayton Bassett, where Sir Robert Peel is buried.
Gash, N. Mr Secretary Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel to 1830. London 1985.
Gash, N. Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830. London 1986
Last modified 17 September 2002