Robert Peel

Robert Peel

Robert Peel was born in Bury, Lancashire, on 5th February, 1788. His father, Sir Robert Peel (1750-1830), was a wealthy cotton manufacturer and member of parliament for Tamworth. Robert was trained as a child to become a future politician. Every Sunday evening he had to repeat the two church sermons that he had heard that day.

Robert Peel was educated at Harrow School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he won a double first in classics and mathematics. In 1809 Sir Robert Peel rewarded his son academic success by buying him the parliamentary seat of Cashel in County Tipperary (exchanged for Chippenham in 1812).

Robert Peel entered the House of Commons in April 1809, at the age of twenty-one. Like his father, Robert Peel supported the Duke of Portland's Tory government. He made an immediate impact and Charles Abbott, the Speaker of the Commons, described Peel's first contribution to a debate as the "the best first speech since that of William Pitt."

After only a year in the House of Commons the Duke of Portland offered him the post of under-secretary of war and the colonies. Working under Lord Liverpool, Peel helped to direct the military operations against the French.

When Lord Liverpool became prime minister in May 1812, Peel was appointed as chief secretary for Ireland. In his new post Peel attempted to bring an end to corruption in Irish government. He tried to stop the practice of selling public offices and the dismissal of civil servants for their political views. At first Peel also attempted to end those aspects of government that gave preference to Protestants over Catholics. However, Robert Peel was not successful in carrying out this policy and eventually he became seen as one of the leading opponents to Catholic Emancipation.

In 1814 he decided to suppress the Catholic Board, an organisation started by Daniel O'Connell. This was the start of a long conflict between the two men. In 1815 Peel challenged O'Connell to a duel. Peel travelled to Ostend but O'Connell was arrested on the way to fight the duel.

In 1817 Robert Peel decided to retire from his post in Ireland. This upset the Irish Protestants in the House of Commons and fifty-seven of them signed a petition urging him not to leave a post that they believed he had "administered with masterly ability". Oxford University acknowledged Peel's "services to Protestantism" by inviting him to become its member of the House of Commons.

In 1822 Peel rejoined Lord Liverpool's government when he accepted the post of Home Secretary. Over the next five years Peel was responsible for large-scale reform in the legal system. This involved repealing over 250 old statutes.

Lord Liverpool was struck down by paralysis in February 1827 and was replaced by George Canning as prime minister. Canning was an advocate of Catholic Emancipation and as Peel was strongly opposed to this, he felt he could not serve under the new prime minister and resigned from office. After the death of Canning he returned to government as Home Secretary in the government led by the Duke of Wellington.

On 26th July, 1828, Lord Anglesey, wrote to Peel arguing that Ireland was on the verge of rebellion and asked him to use his influence to gain concessions for the Catholics. Although Peel had opposed Catholic Emancipation for twenty years, Lord Anglesey's letter encouraged him to reconsider his position. Peel now wrote to Wellington saying that "though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger". He also added that as William Pitt had rightly said: "to maintain a consistent attitude amid changed circumstances is to be a slave of the most idle vanity".

Although the Duke of Wellington agreed with Peel, King George III was violently opposed to Catholic Emancipation. When Wellington's government threatened to resign the king reluctantly agreed to a change in the law. When Peel introduced the Catholic Emancipation Act on 5th March, 1829, he told the House of Commons that the credit for the measure belonged to his long-time opponents, Charles Fox and George Canning.

For a long time politicians had been concerned about the problems of law and order in London. In 1829 Robert Peel decided to reorganize the way London was policed. As a result of this reform, the new metropolitan police force became known as "Peelers" or "Bobbies".

In November 1830, Wellington's government was replaced by a new administration headed by Earl Grey. For the first time in over twenty years in the House of Commons, Peel was now a member of the opposition. Peel was totally against Grey's proposals for parliamentary reform. Between 12th and 27th July 1831, Peel made forty-eight speeches in the Commons against this measure. One of Peel's main arguments was that the system of rotten boroughs had enabled distinguished men to enter parliament.

Robert Peel by Robert Scanlon (c. 1830)
Robert Peel by Robert Scanlon (c. 1830)

After the passing of the 1832 Reform Act the Tories were heavily defeated in the general election that followed. Although victorious at Tamworth, Peel, now leader of the Tories, only had just over hundred MPs he could rely on to support him against Earl Grey's government.

In November 1834 King William IV dismissed the Whig government and appointed Robert Peel as his new prime minister. Peel immediately called a general election and during the campaign issued what became known as the Tamworth Manifesto. In his election address to his constituents in Tamworth, Peel pledged his acceptance of the 1832 Reform Act and argued for a policy of moderate reforms while preserving Britain's important traditions. The Tamworth Manifesto marked the shift from the old, repressive Toryism to a new, more enlightened Conservatism.

The general election gave Peel more supporters although there were still more Whigs than Tories in the House of Commons. Despite this, the king invited Peel to form a new administration. With the support of the Whigs, Peel's government was able to pass the Dissenters' Marriage Bill and the English Tithe Bill. However, Peel was constantly being outvoted in the House of Commons and on 8th April 1835 he resigned from office.

In August 1841 Robert Peel was once again invited to form a Conservative administration. Over the last few years Britain had been spending more than it was earning. Peel decided the government had to increase revenue. On 11th March, 1842, he announced the introduction of income-tax at sevenpence in the pound. He added, that he hoped that this was enable the government to reduce duties on imported goods.

In 1843 Peel once more had problems with Daniel O'Connell, who was leading the campaign against the Act of Union. O'Connell announced a large meeting to be held at Clontarf. The British government pronounced it illegal and when O'Connell continued to go ahead with his planned Clontarf meeting he was arrested and imprisoned for conspiracy. Peel attempted to overcome the religious conflict in Ireland by setting up the Devon Commission to inquire into the "state of the law and practice in respect to the occupation of land in Ireland." He also increased the grant to Maynooth College for the education of the Irish priesthood, from £9,000 to £26,000 a year.

However, Peel's attempts to improve the situation in Ireland was severely damaged by the 1845 potato blight. The Irish crop failed, therefore depriving the people of their staple food. Peel was informed that three million poor people in Ireland who had previously lived on potatoes would require cheap imported corn. Peel realised that they only way to avert starvation was to remove the duties on imported corn. Although the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, the policy split the Conservative Party and Peel was forced to resign.

Robert Peel continued to attend the House of Commons and gave considerable support to Lord John Russell and his administration in 1846-47. On 28th June 1850 he gave an important speech on Greece and the foreign policy of Lord Palmerston. The following day, while riding up Constitution Hill, he was thrown from his horse. Peel was badly hurt and on 2nd July, 1850, he died from his injuries.

Primary Sources

(1) Mrs. Arbuthnot, journal (8th June 1831)

Peel appears to hate every body and every body hates him. If any of the young men are anxious to speak, he throws cold water on it because speaking well would give claims; and yet, while he was in office, he never ceased to complain of getting no support. He is supercilious, hauty and arrogant and a most bitter and determined hater. He has been down as his place in Staffordshire almost ever since the dissolution, and has scarcely had any communication with any one. He is, however, firm and determined against reform and, being a very honest man, we must hope he will so manage as to make our party as formidable as good management certainly can make it.

(2) Horace Twiss, Under Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (1828-1830)

Peel was the best man of business and the best debater in England - but always thinking of his reputation and his outward character - never decided and courageous - thinking more of getting well through a business into which he had been led by circumstances, than bold and decided in his pursuit and assertion of great principles and worthy objects. With great occasional show of affability and condescension, he was in reality selfish, cold and unconcilatory - and therefore never had, and never would have a personal following.

(3) Charles Greville, journal, February 1833

Under that placid exterior he conceals, I believe, a boundless ambition, and hatred and jealously lurk under his professions of esteem and political attachment. He is one of those contradictory characters, containing in it so much of mixed good and evil, that it is difficult to strike an accurate balance between the two, and the acts of his political life are of a corresponding description, of questionable utility and merit, though always marked by great ability. Opposition to Reform in Parliament and to religious emancipation of every kind. His resistance to alterations with great ability, and for a long time with success; but he was endeavouring to uphold a system which was no longer supportable.

(4) Lord Hatherton writing at the time of Peel's death in 1850.

Peel always seemed to me the most faultless of Ministers. The steadiness of his application and his facility of research, acquired from habit and good memory, were quite wonderful; he always appeared to me to do everything with great ease. He seemed to me not to have a particle of vanity or of undue ambition about him, but a constant of love of truth and desire to give it the victory. Naturally he did not appear to me good-tempered, but his temperament was not hasty, and his feelings were held under wonderful control. His friends, and even his most intimate colleagues, all complained that they could never learn his mind; yet at table or in the society of those he liked, or in a country ride or walk, he seemed unreserved and cordial, and at such times the good sense of his remarks and the liveliness of his anecdotes were very charming. He frequently carried the House away with him, but it was by his greater knowledge of his subject, and his superior power in handling facts, and by the moral character of his sentiments.