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Reference group
Peelites (act. 1846–1859) were a group of parliamentarians who dedicated themselves to upholding the policies and principles of government associated with the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel, second baronet. Peel's decision in 1846 to repeal the corn laws, which marked the culmination of his general policy of free trade, split the Conservative Party, and he relied on assistance from the opposition whigs to force his measure through. At this point some 120 Conservative MPs and 90 peers supported repeal. Peel was driven from office soon afterwards and occupied an independent position in the House of Commons, determined to prop up where necessary the whig ministry formed by Lord John Russell, until the main body of Conservatives had abandoned their commitment to protectionism.

The core of the Peelite group consisted of former office-holders who had served under Peel. George Hamilton Gordon, fourth earl of Aberdeen, Henry Goulburn, and Sir James Graham, second baronet, were contemporaries of Peel. Others, notably Charles John Canning, first Viscount Canning, Edward Cardwell, Henry Pelham Clinton, Lord Lincoln (later fifth duke of Newcastle), William Ewart Gladstone, Sidney Herbert, later first Baron Herbert of Lea, and Sir John Young, later first Baron Lisgar, were much younger men who had received their training in the art of government from Peel himself, and were intensely devoted to him. An analysis of Commons division lists for the parliament of 1847–52 shows that nearly fifty former office-holders and other MPs took a fairly consistent ‘Peelite’ line, and about seventy more avowed Conservative free traders gave varying degrees of support. There was little difference between the consistent Peelites and the protectionist Conservatives in their social background, which was predominantly aristocratic and landed, or in the kind of constituencies which they represented (typically small and medium-sized boroughs), except that only a handful of Peelites were elected for English and Welsh county seats.

Peel's reluctance to take office again, and his characteristically disdainful attitude towards the very notion of party connection and obligation, meant that he never sought to act as the leader of an organized Peelite party. For instance he refused to countenance any attempt to send out circulars or ‘whips’ to those peers and MPs who might have been well disposed towards him. Similarly no club was ever established in London to provide a social and political headquarters for the Peelites. The only significant initiative came in 1848 with the purchase, arranged by Cardwell, Herbert, and Lincoln, of the Morning Chronicle newspaper, which served as an organ of Peelite opinion. In the Commons the Peelites sat until 1852 on the opposition benches, alongside the protectionist Conservatives, and it is clear that many of them, particularly the occasional Peelite voters, were simply waiting for the Conservative Party to reunite, once the obstacle of protectionism had been removed.

After Peel's sudden death in July 1850 no one was able or willing to set himself up as the leader of the Peelites, who therefore remained a loosely co-ordinated group, detached from the two main parties. During the ministerial crisis of February 1851 individual Peelites rejected invitations to take office made, in turn, by Russell and the Conservative leader, Edward George Smith Stanley, Baron Stanley, later fourteenth earl of Derby. These refusals, which were neither the first nor the last to be tendered, reinforced the Peelites' political isolation.

The Peelites were as deeply committed as all other Conservatives to the defence of the country's existing ruling institutions: the crown, the Church of England, and a parliament controlled by an aristocratic and landed élite. But they were also imbued with Peel's doctrines of fiscal and commercial reform, economical government, and administrative efficiency, which had evolved in response to the reality of a Britain that was becoming increasingly urban and industrial in nature. Like their inspirational leader the Peelites devoted themselves to the high-minded, dispassionate pursuit of what they perceived to be the ‘national interest’, regardless of the selfish demands of particular classes. It did not matter to them if their opponents saw this merely as insufferable priggishness.

The defence of Peel's free trade settlement naturally provided a starting point for action by his followers. In 1848, for example, the Russell ministry's proposal to renew the income tax, which Peel had introduced six years earlier as an integral part of his scheme to adjust the fiscal and commercial system, received virtually unanimous support from Conservative free traders. Attempts to bring back protectionism in disguise, as through the Conservative motions on the state of the nation in 1849 and on agricultural distress in 1850, also prompted a robust response, especially from the band of regular Peelite voters. On the other hand a cleverly worded motion, like that of February 1850 on the revision of local taxation, could divide even the Peelite former office-holders: Goulburn, Graham, and Peel himself opposed it, but Gladstone and Young were among fifty-six Conservative free traders who supported it. Practical dilemmas sometimes arose over the application of free trade principles, as in the case of the reduction of the sugar duties, where there was disagreement about the maintenance or abolition of differential rates between the colonial (‘free’) and slave grown product.

Religious toleration was another key principle with which Peel's government had been associated, and which he was anxious to assert after 1846. This was connected above all to his policy of conciliating the Roman Catholic population in Ireland, and the Maynooth grant of 1845 had split the Conservative Party in a way that largely prefigured the schism over the corn laws. During the general election campaigns of 1847 and 1852 a number of Peelite candidates found the cry of ‘No Popery’ being raised against them by Conservative opponents. The fact that some leading Peelites—notably Gladstone and Herbert and also the Peelite lawyers Roundell Palmer and Robert Phillimore—held high-church Anglican sympathies made them deeply suspect in the eyes of mainstream Conservatives. The strong condemnation by all the leading Peelites (except Goulburn) of the anti-papal Ecclesiastical Titles Bill in 1851 confirmed the widespread distrust in which they were held. There was a marked divergence on this issue between the Peelite former office-holders and other Conservative free traders. This was also apparent, to a lesser extent, in the case of the Oaths Bill of 1849, which proposed to relieve Jews of their civil disabilities and which the Peelite former office-holders, such as Sir George Clerk, supported.

The conduct of foreign policy after 1846 became a cause of increasing disquiet for the Peelites, who were appalled by the crudely populist, bellicose style adopted by Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. In his final speech to the Commons in June 1850, just days before his death, Peel opposed the Russell ministry for the only time, by delivering a scathing indictment of Palmerston's behaviour towards Greece and France in the Don Pacifico affair. This attack, which was supported by all of the former office-holders and the great majority of Conservative free traders, firmly identified the Peelites as the proponents of a more pacific line of foreign policy, which was proudly reasserted in the years that followed.

Early in 1852, when Derby formed a minority government with Benjamin Disraeli as leader of the Commons, the Peelite former office-holders decided, after some disagreement, to stay on the opposition benches. Although the Conservatives soon abandoned the idea of restoring agricultural protection, serious differences between them and the leading Peelites remained in various areas of policy, and considerable personal antipathy had developed over the years, especially towards Disraeli. In December 1852 forty-one Conservative free traders helped to bring down Derby's government over the budget: they included Henry Bingham Baring; Edmund Denison [see Beckett, Sir Edmund]; Francis Wemyss-Charteris-Douglas (later Lord Elcho); Henry Fitzroy; John Hanmer; Frederick Peel; and James Stuart-Wortley. A whig-Peelite coalition was thereupon arranged, with active encouragement from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who had been admirers of Peel. Aberdeen was appointed prime minister, five of the twelve other cabinet posts were filled by Peelites—Gladstone, Graham, Herbert, Newcastle, and George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll—and nine more were given junior offices or positions in the royal household. The Peelites brought with them the reliable support of between forty and fifty MPs.

Gladstone, as chancellor of the exchequer, was the acknowledged heir to Peel in the field of finance, and his budget of 1853 was a notable attempt to carry free trade principles further, by abolishing or reducing the customs duties on nearly 300 items. With regard to administrative reform the government carried legislation in 1853 to open the higher levels of the Indian Civil Service to recruitment by competitive examination, and the following year Gladstone endorsed the recommendation of the Northcote–Trevelyan commission that this policy should be applied at home. In 1854 Gladstone, as MP for Oxford University, also played a crucial role in promoting a bill to reform the university's structures and make appointments to college fellowships more open. While there had never been an agreed Peelite line on parliamentary reform it was increasingly recognized that action on this issue was unavoidable, and Russell was allowed to introduce an (abortive) bill in 1854 to extend the franchise and redistribute sixty-six seats.

However, the reputation of the Aberdeen coalition was shattered by newspaper revelations of the mismanagement of the British military expedition to the Crimea, and in January 1855 the government suffered a humiliating defeat in the Commons. Aberdeen and Newcastle were made the scapegoats for the Crimean fiasco, denting the Peelites' claim to be superior administrators, and Palmerston eventually assumed the premiership. Within weeks his decision to concede an inquiry into the management of the war prompted Cardwell, Gladstone, Graham, Herbert, and four other Peelites to resign in protest, but significantly Argyll, Canning, Young, and five of their colleagues remained in office. The experience of coalition government with the whigs was thus to weaken the Peelites, while delaying the logical process of permanent fusion.

In a memorandum of April 1856 Gladstone noted how he, Cardwell, Graham, and Herbert ‘communicated together habitually and confidentially’, but that they ‘eschewed acting as a party’ (Brooke and Sorensen, 202). There were, in any case, only a dwindling number of sympathetic MPs, certainly no more than twenty-five after the general election of 1857, whom they could have tried to organize had they wished. No meaningful Peelite presence remained at all in the Lords. Personal hostility towards Palmerston continued to be a powerful motivation, and the leading Peelites joined in the successful attacks on his government over the Second Opium War in March 1857, and the Orsini affair in February 1858. Gladstone was alone, however, in believing that reunion with the Conservatives was still a realistic option. It was not until June 1859 that a rapprochement with Palmerston finally took place, ostensibly on the common ground of their sympathy for Italian independence. With Aberdeen and Graham too old to take office again, Cardwell, Gladstone, Herbert, and Newcastle were included in Palmerston's new cabinet. This represented not another coalition, but rather the absorption of the Peelites, largely on Palmerston's terms, into what was now regarded as a ‘Liberal’ government, a point that was underlined by the subsequent premature deaths of Herbert (1861) and Newcastle (1864).

The Peelite contribution to the mid-Victorian Liberal Party, the dominant political force of the age, was nevertheless considerable. At least thirty-five Conservative free trade MPs, according to the most recent analysis, can be identified as having become Liberals at some stage during the 1850s. More specifically, of forty-nine MPs who voted regularly as Peelites in the parliament of 1847–52, at least twenty-eight eventually went over to the Liberals, whereas only five definitely returned to the Conservatives (by comparison, only three of the occasional Peelite voters in that parliament later became Liberals for certain). Above all, the Peelites brought with them the priceless legacy of their revered leader's fiscal and commercial settlement, which was generally seen by the 1860s to have laid the foundations for a period of sustained economic growth and relative social stability. Commitment to institutional reforms, greater purity of administration, and the extension of religious liberty were also reinforced as characteristically Liberal political traits, thanks to the Peelite presence. And in Gladstone, the single greatest exponent of Peelite principles, the Liberal Party gained a dynamic and charismatic leader for a generation to come.

T. A. Jenkins


W. D. Jones and A. B. Erickson, The Peelites, 1846–1857 (1972) · J. B. Conacher, The Peelites and the party system, 1846–1852 (1972) · J. B. Conacher, The Aberdeen coalition, 1852–1855 (1968) · W. E. Gladstone, ed. J. Brooke and M. Sorensen, 3: Autobiographical memoranda, 1845–1866 (1978) · P. M. Gurowich, ‘Party and independence in the early and mid-Victorian House of Commons’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1986