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Peel, Sir Robert, second baronetunlocked

  • John Prest

Sir Robert Peel, second baronet (1788–1850)

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1825

private collection; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Peel, Sir Robert, second baronet (1788–1850), prime minister, was born on 5 February 1788 at Chamber Hall, Bury, the third child and the eldest boy among the eleven children of Sir Robert Peel, first baronet (1750–1830), printed calico manufacturer, landowner, and MP, and his first wife, Ellen Yates (1766–1803), who was the daughter of one of his two partners, Haworth and Yates. Two sisters died in infancy. Three sisters and five brothers survived, and all married. Peel was only two when his father bought a property in Tamworth and entered parliament as the member for the borough in 1790.


Peel showed an aptitude for his first lessons, taken with the rector of Bury, the Revd James Hargreaves, and may have preferred the schoolroom to the streets, where his red hair and curls exposed him to insult. Peel was eight when his father took possession of Drayton Manor, Tamworth, in 1796, and ten when the family moved in. He brought with him a Lancashire accent, traces of which could be detected in his speech throughout his life. At Drayton, he received his lessons from the Revd Francis Blick. Out of school, he had the run of the park. He learned to ride, but preferred to exercise on foot, with a gun, rambling and rough shooting. In 1800, when he was twelve, his father, a supporter of government, was made a baronet. In January 1801, when Peel was already beginning to grow tall, he was sent away from home to board at the Revd Mark Drury's house at Harrow School. He had been there two years, and was fifteen, when his mother died. Years later, he said that he had misspent his time at Harrow, and reminiscences tell of long excursions through the countryside with his guns, which he kept at a nearby cottage. But Latin and Greek came easily to him, and his schoolfellows ran to him for help with their translations and verses. In 1804 Byron and Peel declaimed together, Byron taking the part of the judicious Latinus, which allowed him—he was lame—to sit down, and Peel that of the impetuous Turnus. Peel left school at Christmas 1804, and resided for some months at his father's London house in Upper Grosvenor Street, attending lectures at the Royal Institution and listening to debates in the House of Commons. It is said that Pitt himself asked Sir Robert who the young man was, and led him into the chamber.

Peel spent the summer of 1805 at Drayton studying mathematics with the Revd R. Bridge, a senior wrangler from Cambridge, before going up to Oxford in October. At Christ Church, Oxford, his first tutor was Thomas Gaisford and his second Charles Lloyd, the future bishop of Oxford, with whom Peel continued to correspond about church and state until Lloyd's death in 1829. Peel's closest friend was Henry Vane, son and heir of Lord Darlington, and later duke of Cleveland. Peel expanded at Christ Church. Cricket is mentioned, and rowing, and he dressed for effect. He entered his name for (oral) examination in both literae humaniores and mathematics in November 1808. In the weeks leading up to the examinations he overworked, could not sleep, and talked of withdrawing. The day before the exams he played tennis. Peel did not disappoint his examiners, or his audience. He was the first person ever to be placed in the first class in both schools, and his performance became legendary.

A young MP

Peel did not follow his father and grandfather into the family business, and within a few weeks of his coming of age in February 1809, his father used his influence with the Portland ministry to secure him a seat in the House of Commons. There was a vacancy at Cashel, a corrupt borough with a couple of dozen voters. A deal was arranged by Sir Arthur Wellesley, and Peel was elected on 14 April. He took his seat straight away, but did not speak until 23 January 1810, when he was invited to second the reply to the king's speech. Acceptance signified allegiance to the ministry, and Peel took a patriotic line, urging resistance to Napoleon, support for Sir Arthur Wellesley's renewed campaign in the Peninsula, and confidence in British commerce. Four months later Lord Liverpool, the secretary of state for war and colonies (and another Christ Church man), offered Peel his first post as an under-secretary. Peel took charge of departmental correspondence with the colonies—everything, he said, from Botany Bay to Prince Edward Island. As his chief sat in the upper house, he was also called upon to answer questions in the House of Commons. His departmental and his parliamentary skills, his administrative abilities, and his authority as a speaker thus grew together. Lord Liverpool found Peel an official house, and here he began to entertain. It was in this period, rather than at school or university, that his enduring friendships were formed, with Henry Goulburn and John Wilson Croker.

Irish secretary

In May 1812 Liverpool became prime minister and invited Peel to join the Irish administration as chief secretary. Peel held the post for six years—the longest tenure in the nineteenth century—and served three lord lieutenants, the duke of Richmond, Lord Whitworth, and Lord Talbot. Nothing in Peel's upbringing gave him the historical imagination to question the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland, and he cheerfully joined a regime which was locked into reliance upon penal laws and the protestant ascendancy. As chief secretary he was required to attend to business upon both sides of the water. In Ireland he stage-managed the election of sound protestants to parliament in 1812 and 1818, and persuaded Whitworth to dissolve the principal—and far from revolutionary—organization representing Catholics, the ‘Catholic board’, in 1814. In London, where politicians were, in the eyes of the administration in Dublin, embarrassingly soft about Catholic claims for political rights, he opposed every proposal for relief. Peel delivered an outspoken expression of the case against the Catholics in 1817 (Hansard 1, 36.404–23). Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign power, he was not prepared to erect the influence of the pope into ‘a fourth estate’, and he tied his belief in the future of the Union to his faith in the exclusive principle. What religion suggested was confirmed by political economy. Ireland was, in Peel's opinion, a primitive and backward land, and at this stage in his career Peel appears to have felt that in the long run the best hope for the country was that popery was something which a more prosperous people would grow out of. In the meantime Peel had to cope with the secret societies, the intimidation, and the crimes which resulted from the alienation of seven-eighths of the population. Like other chief secretaries he called for troop reinforcements, and renewed an Insurrection Act (in 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1817). More promisingly, he declared that he would always prefer an army of police to an army of soldiers, and established a new Peace Preservation Force, controlled by the government in Dublin. In 1817 he responded to a famine by the procurement of food and the distribution of money.

As chief secretary Peel proved his capacity to serve the lord lieutenant as 'his friend, his adviser, [and] his representative in parliament'. But the office had also begun to shape his life in other ways. His conduct in Ireland brought him the sobriquet Orange, bestowed by Daniel O'Connell, and led, in 1815, to a challenge to a duel, which did not take place, in Ostend. Peel was to carry with him for ever after a settled dislike for the great Irish patriot and all his ways. Peel's antagonism to Catholic claims for relief secured him the invitation, brought by Charles Lloyd, to stand, in preference to George Canning, for one of the two Oxford University seats in 1818. Peel was elected, but he had, perhaps, allowed himself to be miscast. His protestantism ran deep. But he acknowledged that Ireland had been misruled in the past. He had found the tools with which he was constrained to work—a jobbing aristocracy with a 'vortex of local patronage', and loyalist associations—distasteful, and he had spoken out in favour of the protestant ascendancy because he had been called upon to govern Ireland 'circumstanced as Ireland now is'.

The committee on cash payments

For six years Peel took but one real holiday, in 1815, when he met Wellington in Paris, heard from his own lips how the battle of Waterloo had been fought, and went on to stay with the duke of Richmond in Brussels and view the ground where the victory had been won. Peel left Ireland in August 1818 (he never went back), and did not rejoin Lord Liverpool's administration until January 1822. In the meantime he chaired a committee considering the expediency of requiring the Bank of England to resume paying gold, on demand, for its notes, and in due course he drafted the report and introduced the bill embodying the committee's proposals. The evidence taken before the bullion committee in 1811 had shown that the over-issue of paper currency since the suspension of cash payments in 1797 had resulted in a depreciation of the pound and a rise in the price of gold. The question was, did this matter? In 1811 the house had decided that the answer was yes, but not while there was a war on, and Peel himself had voted against resumption. Post-war experience persuaded him that over-issue also led to speculation, crises, unemployment, and political unrest. Now Peel thought the committee's first responsibility was to protect the public creditor, who was morally entitled to be repaid in the coin which he had lent and not in a depreciated one. The committee moved swiftly into a consideration of the when and how (Peel's favourite ground), the accumulation of a reserve of gold, and the successive steps by which, starting with the larger notes, paper was to be made convertible into gold bullion, at the current price of £4 1s. 0d. the ounce (1 February 1820), at £3 19s. 6d. (1 October 1820), and at the 'ancient and permanent standard of value' £3 17s. 10 ½d. (1 May 1821), until finally all notes, however small, were to be exchanged for £3 17s. 10 ½d. in specie (1 May 1823). In thus rounding up the theoretical complexities of an issue, and giving effect to the solution he favoured in the clauses of a durable act of parliament, Peel was to have no equal.

Marriage and family

It is not clear whether, when he left Ireland, Peel had already fallen in love with Julia Floyd (1795–1859), the daughter of General Sir John Floyd, who was, when Peel arrived in Ireland in 1812, the second in command of the military forces, and his first wife, Rebecca Juliana, daughter of Charles Darke, a merchant in Madras. Julia had been born in India, and like Peel she had lost her mother (in 1802). She and her stepmother, Lady Denny, were entertained at the chief secretary's house in Phoenix Park. Peel, we are told, was unusually attentive to them when, in 1817, they left Dublin for London. When Peel himself returned to England in 1818 he wondered whether Julia 'would be able to abandon her gay fashionable world for the severer climate of a professional politician's wife. “You are my world”, she replied disarmingly' (Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, 257). They became engaged in March 1820, and were married on 8 June. During the next twelve years, while Peel rose towards the top in politics, seven children were born: Julia (1821), Robert Peel (1822), Frederick Peel (1823), William Peel (1824), John Floyd (1827), Arthur Wellesley Peel (1829), and Eliza (1832). In London, they lived in a new house designed by Robert Smirke and built in 1824 at 4 Whitehall Gardens. Here, in a specially commissioned long gallery, Peel hung his collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings. These were purchased, with assistance from his father and advice from David Wilkie, in a period when the European salerooms were still busy following the upheavals of revolution and restoration, and included Hobbema's The Avenue, Middelharnis and Rubens's Chapeau de paille. Whenever Peel found himself alone in London he wrote to Julia every day, and no breath of scandal has ever attached to his name.

Home secretary

In 1820 and 1821 Peel refused offers of a place in the cabinet as president of the Board of Control. But on 17 January 1822 he rejoined the administration as home secretary, a post he was to hold until Lord Liverpool suffered a stroke in 1827, and again, under the duke of Wellington, from 1828 to 1830. As home secretary Peel's primary responsibility was for law and order, and here he distinguished himself from other contemporary reformers by his ability to see the process whole and to attend to all aspects, from the formulation of the criminal law and the mechanics of policing, through indictment, trial, and sentencing, to punishment on the scaffold, in prison, and in penal colonies.

Contemporaries gave Peel credit for reducing the number of offences which carried the death penalty. But there was no fall in the number of executions, and the most striking achievement of his period at the Home Office, and perhaps of his whole career, was the consolidation of the criminal law. He began in 1823 where his predecessor, Lord Sidmouth, had left off, with the law relating to prisons. The following year he attended to the laws relating to transportation, and began to coax the Scottish judges towards a reform of Scottish criminal law. In 1825 he consolidated eighty-five laws relating to juries into a single act. In 1826 he proposed to consolidate the laws relating to theft. Out of 14,437 persons in England and Wales charged with various crimes in the course of the previous year, 12,500 (at least) had been accused of theft, which was the most important category of crime. Consolidation was needed because, year by year throughout the eighteenth century, specific acts (he cited the stealing of hollies, thorns, and quicksets) had been made into crimes instead of species of acts. There were now ninety-two statutes relating to theft, dating from the reign of Henry III, and Peel sought to unite them in a single statute of thirty pages. Upon this occasion his attempt to reduce the law to a single act proved to be too ambitious, and the bill emerged, finally, as four separate acts in 1827.

Peel's talents were never more apparent than in this labour of consolidation. In 1824 a select committee had recommended that consolidation and amendment should be kept distinct. Peel decided that they were not separable. He interpreted consolidation to mean the collection 'of dispersed statutes under one head' followed by the rejection of what was 'superfluous', the clearing up of what was 'obscure', the weighing of 'the precise force of each expression', and 'ascertaining the doubts that have arisen in practice and the solution which may have been given to those doubts by decisions of the courts of law' (Hansard 2, 14.1236). Where he found any gap 'through which notorious guilt escapes' (he instanced the theft of stock certificates in the funds which was not at that time an offence), he would remedy it (ibid., 14.1222–3). In Peel's hands, then, a consolidating act was a reforming act which incorporated case law and supplied omissions. As he turned from one aspect of the law to another, Peel circulated drafts of his consolidating bills among the judges, and took pains to win their support, flattering Lord Eldon with a bag of game (which perhaps he had shot himself). He succeeded because nine-tenths of criminal law was statute law, which judges loved to criticize, and one-tenth, only, common law, the anomalies of which judges might seek to preserve.

On 9 March 1826 Peel's method of presenting a case came to maturity in his great speech on theft (Hansard 2, 14.1214–39). There was an apology (a preference really) for a topic which could 'borrow no excitement from political feelings' and might appear 'barren and uninviting'. There was a reference to a hypothetical fresh start ('if we were legislating de novo, without reference to previous customs and formed habits'). There was a glance at more radical proposals for 'rapid progress, which is inconsistent with mature deliberation', and a promise that, if he was allowed to have his way, there would be 'no rash subversion of ancient institutions' and 'no relinquishment of what is practically good, for the chance of speculative and uncertain improvement'. His own proposals were then presented as a middle way 'between the redundancy of our own legal enactments and the conciseness of the French code'. Finally he avowed his ambition to leave behind him 'some record of the trust I have held', and to connect his name with 'permanent improvements' to the institutions of the country.

The Catholic question, Liverpool, Canning, and Goderich

So long as Lord Liverpool was prime minister Catholic emancipation remained an open question, and Peel, who as home secretary had overall responsibility for the administration in Ireland, continued to act as the protestant champion in the House of Commons. But the issue was beginning to pass out of control, both at Westminster and in Ireland. In 1825 the pro-Catholics won the annual vote in the House of Commons. Peel offered to resign, but was told that his resignation would bring Liverpool's government down. Understandably, he was unwilling to terminate the career of the statesman who had given him his first step up the ladder, and he allowed himself to be persuaded to continue. In 1826 there was a general election, and early in the following year Liverpool suffered a stroke. When the succession passed to George Canning, the leader, since 1822, of the Catholic party within Liverpool's administration, Peel (and others) did resign, and when Canning, too, died in August 1827 and was succeeded by Lord Goderich, Peel remained out of office. Early in 1828, when Goderich's administration collapsed and the king invited the duke of Wellington to form a government, Wellington asked Peel to return to the Home Office and to take the lead in the House of Commons.

Home secretary again

At the Home Office, Peel resumed consolidating where he had left off. In 1828 he dealt with the law of offences against the person, reducing it from fifty-seven acts to one, and in 1830 he turned the twenty-seven acts relating to forgeries punishable with death into a single statute. Even more important in his eyes, he began at last to make progress with the police. In 1822 a committee had refused to recommend any reform. In 1828 Peel secured a new inquiry into the police of the metropolis, and the following year he was able to legislate. He had already given an indication of the way his mind was working when he praised the small force of full-time professional magistrates and constables established in London in 1793. But this efficient superstructure rested upon a complex of autonomous parochial and district watches. In St Pancras alone there were eighteen different night watches, many of which had no authority to intervene in a brawl on the other side of the street. Peel resolved to create a unified body under the control of the home secretary and paid for out of a general rate. The new force started patrolling the streets on 29 September 1829. They were not there to carry out sophisticated criminal detective work, but to restrain the thousands of vagrants, thieves, prostitutes, and drunks who tried to beg, steal, earn, or expend a living upon the streets of the capital, and to keep order. Peel's 'vigorous preventive police' carried truncheons but not firearms, and their secret (or innovatory) weapon was their military discipline. This 'unconstitutional' police force, as it was called in the Chartist petition, was bitterly resented, and there were many assaults upon policemen at first. But a force of just over 3000 men won control of the streets. The thin blue line penning vice back into the rookeries and shielding gentility from coarseness was a huge step up from the parish constables and night watchmen. In sterner times of supposedly revolutionary turmoil, it was also a reassuring step down from the use of soldiers and the risk of bloodshed. Like so many of Peel's reforms this one lasted. Fears of the police developing into a secret police on the continental model proved to have been exaggerated, and hostility to the very idea of an efficient police force ebbed away. By the mid-century the policeman's image was becoming a friendly, neighbourly one, and constables were being called ‘bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ after their founder Robert Peel.

Catholic emancipation

In the meantime, as leader of the House of Commons, Peel was obliged to grapple with the Catholic question. In 1827 the protestants had won the annual vote in the House of Commons. The following year, when the protestant dissenters and the Roman Catholics, in effect, came to terms, the government was heavily defeated on a motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and it was defeated again on a motion for Catholic emancipation. The first defeat was easy to deal with—Wellington and Peel gave way and brought in a bill of their own. The second was compounded by the rise of the Catholic Association and the defeat of Vesey Fitzgerald, a popular protestant landlord and government minister, by O'Connell, who was not eligible to take his seat, at a by-election in co. Clare. The protestant ascendancy had collapsed, and emancipation was now imperative. The only question was whether it should be undertaken by the king's present ministers or by a new political combination. Once again Peel offered to resign, and once again he was persuaded to stay. That decision taken, he offered to vacate his seat for Oxford University. His friends renominated him, but at the end of February he was defeated in a poll by Sir Robert Inglis by 609 votes to 755, and the government had to ask Sir Manasseh Lopes to vacate his pocket borough at Westbury in Peel's favour. Peel was aware, then, when he rose on 5 March 1829 to introduce the cabinet's bill to emancipate the Catholics, that he would be asked why he saw 'a necessity for concession now, which was not evident before'. He answered that it was the condition of Ireland. '[The protestant] Reformation in Ireland' had hitherto 'made no advance', and after twenty years he was convinced that 'the evil' was 'not casual and temporary, but permanent and inveterate'. The time had come when less danger was to be apprehended from 'attempting to adjust the Catholic Question, than in allowing it to remain any longer in its present state'. 'I yield … unwilling to push resistance to a point which might endanger the Establishments that I wish to defend' (Hansard 2, 20.728–80). He ignored O'Connell, and saved face by announcing that the details of the measure had not been discussed with the Roman Catholics themselves. Catholics were to be allowed to enter both houses of parliament and to hold any office except regent, lord chancellor, and (more strangely) lord lieutenant of Ireland. In return Peel asked the Irish to accept the disfranchisement of the 40s. freeholders and a reduction of the electorate. The government did not ask for any control over the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops, because no British government, Peel said, could enter into negotiation with the court of Rome.

Coming to terms with parliamentary reform and whig government

The bill passed, but it split the tory party, and politics were never to be the same again. Peel had spent his formative years in parliaments where ministers relied for their majority upon the sweetening effects of royal patronage, and where, for want of such influence, the opposition was weak. It was a situation in which a secretary of state could devote the greater part of his day to his department, and one in which, when he had framed a measure, he could come before the House of Commons with a reasonable expectation that he would prevail. Now, the ultra-tories began to mutter that a more popular parliament would never have passed an emancipation act. Their disaffection helped the whigs back into the mainstream of politics, and parliamentary reform became a practical issue. Between 1826 and 1830 Peel himself had been willing to transfer the two seats taken away from Penryn to Manchester. But he had acquiesced in the Lords' refusal to enfranchise any large town. Now, in 1830, reform motions were already being debated by the old parliament before George IV died in June, and new elections were held in July and August. The year was a watershed in Peel's personal as in his public life, for his father died on 3 May, and Peel became the second baronet, inherited the property at Drayton Manor (which, together with his dividends from the funds, brought him an income of £40,000 p.a.), and succeeded his father as the member for Tamworth, which he continued to represent until the end of his life. Wellington and Peel met the new parliament without any increase in strength. The ministry could not make overtures to the ultra-tories, and the followers of William Huskisson did not welcome the advances made to them. Peel felt that he was in a false position, and he was scarcely on speaking terms with the duke. When the ministry was defeated in a vote on the new civil list, on 15 November 1830, he was glad to go. He had been in office for fourteen of the past eighteen years, and he was wounded by charges of ‘ratting’ on the Catholic question.

In the course of the next two years—while a government headed by Lord Grey introduced a reform bill, called another general election, and sought to persuade William IV to create peers in order to carry their bill through the House of Lords—Peel was obliged to learn a new role, as leader of an opposition. He did not, at first, find it easy. In March 1831 he was appalled by the magnitude of the whig scheme, and on 9 April he was actually on his feet, and had lost his temper, when black rod arrived to summon the Commons to hear the announcement of the dissolution of parliament. During the election which followed, Peel's house in London had to be protected by the new Metropolitan Police, and Peel himself had to be stopped by his friends from becoming involved in a duel with Sir John Hobhouse. When the excitement over the bill moved on from the Commons to the Lords, Peel surprised Lord Harrowby and the waverers by saying that he would prefer the bill to pass by a creation of peers (whose effects, he believed, would be temporary, because the newly created peers would not remain radical for long) rather than a threat to create peers (which might establish a precedent for permanent revolution).

In May 1832, when ministers resigned, Peel declined the king's invitation either to form or to join a new administration. The bill, he thought, should be passed by the men who had introduced it. Once the bill became law, Peel accepted it as the settlement of a great question, and demonstrated confidence in the future by commissioning Robert Smirke to design him a new mansion, complete with every modern convenience of heating and plumbing, at Drayton. There it became a tradition for the family to lunch off silver and dine off gilt. Thither Peel transferred many of his British paintings. These included portraits, commissioned from Sir Thomas Lawrence, of his political colleagues Liverpool, Canning, Huskisson, Wellington, and Aberdeen—canvases to inspire him during the parliamentary recesses when he was considering how to block any further increase in popular power at the expense of the traditional institutions, crown, church, and aristocracy. At first the instruments to hand for this defensive warfare were weak. There were about 150 tories, only, of all kinds, returned at the general election in December 1832, and the party in the House of Lords was not his to control. Peel felt his way. Sitting for Tamworth, he had no experience of how respectable a contest in a newly enfranchised large borough might be, and he shared many of the ultra-tories' fears for the constitution. But he avoided making any premature attempt to reunite the party, and he waited for the tories to gather round him on his own terms. In the meantime he was fortunate. The whigs began to fall out with their radical allies, and among themselves. This gave Peel the opportunity to step in and save the moderate whigs from the extremists, and in this way the new Conservatism was born.

Prime minister, 1834–1835

In July 1834, when Grey resigned, the king invited Peel to coalesce with Melbourne. But that was impracticable. Melbourne became prime minister, and when autumn came Peel took Julia and his elder daughter to Italy. They were in Rome when William IV dismissed Melbourne, and the duke of Wellington advised the king to send for Peel (and agreed to act as caretaker until Peel arrived). The king's messenger reached Rome on 25 November, and Peel was back in London on 9 December and kissed hands the same day. He never doubted that he must accept the commission—it had, in effect, been accepted for him, and refusal would injure the crown. The whig dissidents, Sir James Graham and Lord Stanley, were not yet ready to join Peel, whose cabinet could not then differ much from the duke of Wellington's cabinet in 1830. But Peel took the office of chancellor of the exchequer for himself, and he found new blood for junior offices—Gladstone, Sidney Herbert, and Praed. The ministry could not survive in the existing House of Commons, and Peel asked the king to dissolve parliament.

The Tamworth manifesto

Next, Peel found an imaginative way of communicating with the electorate. The Tamworth manifesto was addressed to his own constituents, but it was distributed to the national newspapers and published on 19 December 1834. Peel appealed, in inspired words, 'to that great and intelligent class of society … which is far less interested in the contentions of party, than in the maintenance of order and the cause of good government'. He promised 'a careful review of institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical' and 'the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances'. It did not take him long to show that this was no mere rhetoric. For his own part he found religiosity almost as distressing as impiety, and avoided religion as a topic of conversation. But he valued the church as an institution, and he persuaded the bishops to embrace an ecclesiastical commission, which would enable the church to reform itself and save it from its enemies. Hopefully this would atone, among the ultras, for his actions in 1829. Simultaneously, ministers let it be known that they were willing to consider the whole range of dissenters' grievances. In the elections which followed, early in 1835, Peel's supporters won 290 seats and became the largest single party in the House of Commons. It was not enough to give them a majority, and Peel was surprised by the skill with which Lord John Russell persuaded the whigs, the radicals, and the Irish to combine against him. First, they threw out the former speaker. Next they carried an amendment to the address. But the margin was small, Russell dared not take up Peel's challenge to move a motion of no confidence, and Peel gained time in which to introduce his Irish Tithe Bill. In the first week of April, Peel was defeated three times, and on 8 April he resigned. In the space of four months the king had elevated Peel into the leader of the party of resistance, and Peel had earned high praise. He had not been able to pass his own measure, but he had stayed in office long enough to get his opponents committed to the (unpopular) appropriation of the surplus revenues of the Irish church to the education of all classes of Christians. The contest thus begun, across the floor of the House of Commons, between Peel, with his tall stature, huge frame, and uneven, slightly wobbly legs (caught even better in Political Sketches by H. B. than in the portraits at age thirty-seven by Sir Thomas Lawrence, at fifty by John Linnell, and at fifty-six by F. X. Winterhalter), and the diminutive Russell, was to last, with many changes of fortune, to the end of his life.

An opposition leader

For six years between 1835 and 1841 Peel showed a wonderful patience waiting for the whig ministry to perish, and for the premiership to return to him unencumbered by any debt to any man. At first he was extremely apprehensive. Party feeling reached a new peak in the summer and autumn of 1835. Inside parliament, Peel was afraid lest the tory peers, by challenging the government's Municipal Corporations Bill, bring about their own destruction. The reform was an inescapable postscript to the Reform Act, and he wanted it out of the way. He tried, as he expressed it in 1838, to 'diminish the risk and deaden the shock of collisions between the two deliberative branches of the legislature'. He lent his aid to see the bill safely through the House of Commons and onto the statute book, and then passed the recess reading Guizot's history of the French Revolution. The following year he continued to proclaim selective opposition. But he was happy to see the House of Lords block every whig measure for Ireland (tithe, corporations, poor law). Outside parliament he continued to develop the theme of the new Conservatism—in a speech in the City in May 1835, and in Glasgow (where he had been elected lord rector of the university) in January 1837.

Party and its organization was something Peel felt ambiguous about. He was not in love with parties, and he regretted the high profile of party warfare after 1830, which demanded more frequent attendance in parliament and took ministers away from their offices. But he did well what he had to do. He selected the chief whips, Sir George Clerk in 1835 and Sir Thomas Fremantle in 1837. He directed Lord Granville Somerset to operate—to the extent that the constituencies would allow it—a central clearing house for parliamentary candidates. He encouraged F. R. Bonham (a frequent visitor to Drayton) to brief him about the state of the electorate, and he reminded his supporters in the constituencies that 'the battle of the constitution must be fought in the registration courts'. At the general election of 1837, following the death of the king, the party won another twenty-three seats in the English counties. This left the whigs dependent for their majority upon O'Connell's Irish members. It was an inconsistency in Peel that, having sat for an Irish seat himself, he now thought it unconstitutional, almost, for the course of the United Kingdom to be determined by Irish votes when they were not to his liking. But it was a prejudice shared by Graham and Stanley, who joined forces with Peel in 1838. Even after the whigs abandoned the appropriation clause in 1838, Peel denounced their plan for the state to construct the main lines of railway in Ireland (1839), and confined the Irish Municipal Corporations Act (1840) to almost the narrowest possible compass.

Whatever Peel gained in popular franchises in 1837 he lost, for the time being, with the accession of Queen Victoria. Melbourne had a hold upon her affections, and a partisan whig for a queen was a novelty. Peel kept Conservative spirits up with another speech in May 1838 at the Merchant Taylors' Hall. In 1839, when the whig majority fell to five upon a proposal to suspend the constitution of Jamaica, and the ministry resigned, Peel was unable to take Melbourne's place because the queen would not grant him the expression of confidence for which he asked—the dismissal of some (the queen thought he demanded all) of the whig ladies of the bedchamber. Peel could have forced the issue, but given his respect for royalty he preferred to yield and allow Melbourne to carry on. The ministry was weak, but Peel still lacked the means to topple it, and in the following year, when the Conservatives essayed a motion of no confidence, it was emphatically defeated. Peel did not exploit the ministry's difficulties over Canada.

The general election of 1841

In 1841 the whigs addressed themselves to the budget deficit. In trying to take politics onto new ground, they proposed to reduce the duties on sugar, timber, and corn. Peel made sport with them by drawing a picture of the chancellor of the exchequer 'seated on an empty chest, by the pool of bottomless deficiency, fishing for a budget', and defeated them upon sugar. He then moved a vote of no confidence which was carried by one vote on 4 June 1841. At the general election which followed, 'every Conservative candidate', J. W. Croker said, 'professed himself … to be Sir Robert Peel's man', and all turned on the name of Sir Robert Peel. The whigs campaigned upon a small fixed duty on corn. Peel skilfully avoided pledging himself to any particular course of action about the corn laws or anything else. The Conservatives won a majority of about 76. In the English and Welsh counties they won 137 out of the 159 seats. In the English and Welsh boroughs they took almost as many seats as the whigs, 165 to 176. In Scotland the Conservatives held 20 out of the 30 county seats, but two only of the 23 borough seats. In Ireland, where they made some gains, they held 43 out of 105 seats.

Prime minister, 1841–1846

The whigs met the new parliament towards the end of August and were ejected. The queen, who was now guided by Prince Albert, made no difficulty about the bedchamber, and on 30 August Peel at last became prime minister upon his own terms. Or so it seemed at the time. But in fact, for all his attempts to modernize the party and to broaden its appeal to the industrious middle classes, he was more dependent than ever upon the country squires. Analysis of the borough seats shows that Peel's success was concentrated in the small English boroughs, with fewer than 1000 electors, and that in the large English boroughs, with more than 2000 electors, he had actually won two fewer seats—15 to his opponents' 43—than in 1837. The triumph and the tragedy of the ministry of 1841–6 were written into the results.

Peel appointed Sir James Graham to the Home Office and Aberdeen to the Foreign Office. Goulburn became chancellor of the exchequer, and the earl of Ripon president of the Board of Trade (with Gladstone as his junior). Thus far, everything was under Peel's control. Graham acted as his lieutenant, Peel himself took responsibility for explaining Aberdeen's conciliatory conduct of foreign affairs to the House of Commons, and Goulburn and Ripon, survivors of the governments of the 1820s, both turned, by long habit, to Peel himself for advice. Stanley, who took the colonies, was more independent, and he was given early promotion to the House of Lords in 1844. Ellenborough became president of the Board of Control, and then, a month later, governor-general of India. The forward policy which he adopted towards Afghanistan and China, the annexation of Sind, and the conquest of Gwalior were not much to Peel's taste. Among the less-effectives, Knatchbull (paymaster-general) represented the ultras, as he had in 1835, and Buckingham was offered a place (lord privy seal) as a spokesman for the agricultural interest.

Peel's first objective was to restore the authority of government. Throughout the 1830s, the whigs (as he saw it) had allowed their policies to be suggested to them, and their measures to be amended, by their radical and Irish supporters. This was dangerous. Ministers should be seen to be in charge. It was imperative to put the political pyramid back the right way up again. Legislation should be prepared by ministers, with deliberation. Considered measures should then be respected as the work of professionals, and they should be seen to pass without amendment. Peel would exercise power upon his own 'conception of public duty', and he took pride in never having proposed anything which he had not carried.

The economy and the budget of 1842

Peel had now to grapple with the problem which had faced his predecessors, the recession, which had begun in 1838 and would not go away. He had come to power in the middle of structural changes in the economy, which led many to question whether the country had taken a wrong turning. Would manufacturing towns ever be loyal? Was poverty eating up capital? Was it safe to depend upon imports for food and raw materials? Could the fleet keep the seas open? Or should government encourage emigration and require those who remained behind to support themselves by spade husbandry? These were the ‘condition of England’ questions which Peel faced, together with the phenomena which rode upon them, Chartism and the agitation to repeal the corn laws. In accordance with Peel's governmental ethic, he did not introduce emergency measures in haste in the autumn of 1841. He and his cabinet spent the autumn and winter of 1841–2 taking stock, and then brought forward proposals fit for the hour.

Land, as Peel's supporters reminded him, was the historic basis of the constitution. It was a ‘permanent’ interest which appreciated in value with cultivation. Commercial capital, by contrast, put down no roots and might be taken to another country, while manufacturing capital depreciated with use. But commerce and manufactures had borne Britain to its pre-eminence in the world. Writing to J. W. Croker on 27 July 1842, Peel agreed that one might, if one 'had to constitute new Societies', 'prefer Corn fields to Cotton factories', but 'our lot' was cast (Sir Robert Peel: from his Private Papers, 2.529). The decision had already been taken in Peel's father's or in his grandfather's day, and there could be no turning back now. What was wrong with the economy was not that population had outrun capital, but that the power of production had overtaken the capacity to consume. The way to 'remove the burden which presses upon the springs of manufactures and commerce' was to make Britain a cheap country to live in (Hansard 3, 61.460).

In 1842, then, Peel was addressing himself through the fiscal system to the health of the economy and to the morale of the nation as a whole. He resolved to redistribute the tax burden by reducing duties upon articles of mass consumption and reintroducing the income tax which had been abolished after a back-bench revolt in 1815. Reducing duties would help to get the nation back to work and take the momentum out of the Chartist movement. Peel did not recognize the political aspirations of the Chartists, and (unlike his father) he would never himself propose statutory restrictions upon the hours of labour. But he understood hunger, and he wanted thoughts of 'sedition' to be forgotten 'in consequence of greater command over the necessaries and minor luxuries of life' (Hansard 3, 87.1048). Imposing a peacetime income tax would demonstrate that the British state was an equitable one, in which burdens were placed (despite the warnings of political economists who identified income as the source of savings and the route to capital formation) upon those best able to bear them.

These measures had to be sold to a party which was still solidly protectionist. Accordingly, in 1842, grain was singled out for separate treatment and dealt with first, and on 9 February Peel announced a thorough revision of the sliding scale of 1828—to make it more defensible. Then, on 11 March, when he introduced the budget—which he did himself (the complaisant Goulburn stepping aside)—he began by making much of the deficit. Having worked up a sense of urgency he explored and rejected alternative remedies (lower expenditure, increased duties, and the 'wretched expedient' of borrowing). Finally he came to his own plan. An income tax of 7d. in the pound on incomes over £150 p.a. was to be imposed for three years. This would turn the deficit into a surplus. With that surplus Peel proposed to undertake 'a complete review, on general principles, of all the articles of the tariff'. No duty should ever again be prohibitive. Imports were to be categorized (the word ‘consolidated’ was not mentioned but might not have been out of place) into raw materials, semi-finished articles, and manufactured products, which were not to pay more than 5 per cent, 12 per cent, and 20 per cent respectively. Duties were reduced on 750 out of the 1200 articles in the tariff (Hansard 3, 61.422–76). It was Peel's finest hour; the crisis of the century was met by the fiscal reform of all the centuries. The budget brought the resignation of the duke of Buckingham, and Peel recalled that 'these changes … were not effected without great murmuring and some open opposition to the Government on the part of many of its supporters' (Memoirs, 2.100–01). But in fact it was a wonderfully ambiguous measure. He had rationalized the tariff: he had taken a step towards free trade. He could still move in either direction.

The Canada Corn Act of 1843

In 1843 it appeared that the best way to save Canada from a future invasion by the United States was to try and interest the farmers in the American mid-west in selling their grain to Britain. The Canada Corn Act granted wheat shipped from Canada a privileged position in the British market (above other colonies), and nobody could doubt that the greater part of all the wheat which would come down the St Lawrence would have originated in the United States. In 1843 the protectionists in the party scarcely knew what to make of the Canada Corn Bill. They feared the consequences of opening the door to American grain, but they wanted to retain Canada, and the bill was introduced by Stanley who was known to sympathize with their own views.

The Bank Charter Act of 1844

The Bank Act of 1819 had imposed upon the Bank of England the duty of honouring its notes in gold if asked to do so. In normal times the bank's customers did not wish to exchange their notes for gold, and in 1819 Peel had believed that the bank could be trusted to decide how many more notes it would be prudent to put into circulation than it had gold to back. Upon several occasions since, when speculation was rife and sound management was called for, the bank had still been increasing its note issue when prices were rising and gold had already begun to leave the country. The Bank of England, then, paid too little attention to the state of the foreign exchanges, and the English country banks, which had about one-quarter of the circulation, paid none. The result was that the collapse, when it came, and the consequent business failures and distress were all the greater. Here was another factor bearing upon the condition of England question. Peel determined to end the discretion allowed to the bank. If gold was leaving the country, notes must be withdrawn from circulation until prices fell, British goods became attractive to foreign buyers, and gold returned to the country again to pay for them.

The bank's charter had been renewed in 1833. But there was a break clause, and Peel waited until he could move in and place note issue under statutory control. By the act of 1844 there were to be no new banks of issue. Existing country bank issues were frozen at their present levels, and no bank which gave up issuing its own notes would ever be allowed to resume. Note issue would imperceptibly become concentrated in the hands of the Bank of England. The bank itself was to be separated into a banking department and an issue department—the first free, the second regulated. Notes to the value of £14 million—the minimum amount needed if the business of the country was to continue—might be issued, backed by securities (the credit of the British government). Beyond that amount notes were only to be issued when there was gold in hand to back them, and the figures were to be published every week. The act had interesting overtones. It was a vindication of the right of the state to interfere with powerful interests, and, in a period when other monopolies were being swept aside, it established a new one. It has been criticized in detail for paying too little attention to other negotiable instruments such as cheques and bills of exchange and to the bank's role as lender of last resort, but it was a marvellous demonstration of Peel's command of an abstruse subject, and the act (which applied to England and Wales and was followed the next year by comparable measures for Scotland and Ireland) did help to reduce the severity of crises and lasted until 1914.

Gathering disaffection

In other ways 1844 was not such a good year. There was a dispute with France over Tahiti which necessitated an increase in the defence estimates. The ministry was defeated by Lord Ashley, a tory paternalist, on the ten-hours issue, and by Philip Miles on its proposals to revise the sugar duties (with their complicated links to the issue of slavery). Both defeats were reversed by the threat of resignation. The tactic was sufficient unto the day, but it helped to accumulate resentment for the future. Then, in 1845, matters began to come to a head. The income tax was about to expire. But the economy was now in a position to benefit from another virtuous circle of tariff reductions, and Peel chose, once again, to introduce the budget himself, on 14 February. He renewed the income tax for another three years explicitly in order to enable him 'to make a great experiment' in reducing other taxes, 'the removal of which will give more scope to commercial enterprise, and occasion an increased demand for labour'. Customs duties were to be abolished on 430 articles which provided 'the raw materials of our manufactures'. The excise duty on glass was abolished too. Peel believed that the result of this 'extension of industry and encouragement of enterprise' would be 'the benefit of all classes of the community, whether they are directly or indirectly connected with commerce, manufactures, or agriculture' (Hansard 3, 77.455–97). But the distinguishing mark of this budget was abolition not rationalization. Peel had dropped the mask, and now appeared as a convinced free-trader. What, then, would happen to the corn laws? Nothing, perhaps, in that parliament, had it not been for Ireland.

Ireland lay athwart Britain's transoceanic trade routes. Peel dared not contemplate a repeal of the union, and in 1841 he invited an ultra-protestant, Earl De Grey, to become lord lieutenant. In thus signalling his determination to reverse the Irish policies of Lord Melbourne's administration Peel reignited the repeal movement. The government succeeded in banning a monster meeting at Clontarf in 1843, but an attempt to prosecute O'Connell failed. Realizing his mistake, Peel changed tack in 1843, and appointed the Devon commission to investigate the problems of Irish land tenure. The following year he began to send Ireland what Disraeli termed 'messages of peace', replacing De Grey with Heytesbury and passing a Charitable Bequests Act (to enable Catholics to bequeath money for the support of their clergy). In 1845 he passed a bill to establish three Queen's colleges, which would offer a university education to the Irish middle classes, and attended to the condition of the Roman Catholic college at Maynooth. Ireland could not be governed unless the priests preached obedience to the powers that be. If the British government did not see to the repair and upkeep of the seminary, then the priests would go abroad for their training, and who knew what they would preach then? Peel proposed to increase the existing grant to Maynooth, which had been paid for half a century, from £9000 to £26,000 p.a., to make a non-recurrent advance for new buildings, and to place the cost of repairs and maintenance upon the board of works. It was a small price to pay for the chance of peace in Ireland. But it led to Gladstone's resignation from the cabinet, it jarred nerves frayed by the ‘betrayal’ of 1829, and it roused protestants throughout the United Kingdom to a frenzy. The connections between protestants and protectionists in the Conservative Party were close: the bill was passed; but 148 Conservatives voted for the measure, 149 against. The government was saved by whig votes. So much for not consenting to hold office on sufferance. Peel's party was already in an ill humour, then, before the potato harvest failed in the wet summer of 1845, and Peel and his ministers met in the autumn to consider what to do about the corn laws.

Repeal of the corn laws

Peel said later that 'in the interval between the passing of the Corn Bill in 1842, and the close of the Session of 1845' the opinions he had 'previously entertained on the subject of protection to agriculture had undergone a great change', and that 'many concurring proofs' had demonstrated to him that 'the wages of labour do not vary [he meant fall] with the price of corn' (Memoirs, 2.101). In 1844 he found himself unable to answer the arguments used by Cobden, and in 1845 he agreed with Graham, who said that, following the failure of the potato, 'the Anti-Corn Law pressure' would become 'the most formidable movement in modern times' (Sir Robert Peel: from his Private Papers, 3.224). Peel did not think it would be possible to suspend the corn laws and then reimpose them again afterwards; he did not think it would be wise to put the issue to the electorate, and on 15 October he wrote to inform Lord Heytesbury that he was considering 'the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence'. His cabinet were not convinced of the necessity. Meeting followed meeting and still they could not agree whether to maintain, modify, suspend, or abolish the law of 1842. On 26 November the Morning Chronicle published Lord John Russell's 'Edinburgh letter', announcing his conversion to total and immediate repeal, and on 4 December Peel asked his cabinet to agree to a phased extinction of the corn laws over a period of eight years. Stanley warned him that this would break up the ministry, and on 5 December Peel decided to resign. In the ensuing two weeks, Stanley himself declined even to try and form a protectionist government, and Lord John Russell failed to form a whig one. Peel was not sorry to be required to carry on. He was always inclined to suppose that if a thing was good to be done it would be better done by himself. Now he believed that, with the elimination of the only possible alternatives, he would resume power 'with greater means of rendering public service' than he would have enjoyed had he 'not relinquished it' (Memoirs, 2.251). Others were more aware of the shame of abandoning their own law of 1842 and the likely effect upon the party. The ministry was recalled upon the understanding that it would propose a repeal of the corn laws. Wellington expressed the view that 'a good Government for the country' was 'more important than Corn Laws or any other consideration' (ibid., 2.200). Stanley and the duke of Buccleuch were the only members of the government who refused to return, and Peel brought Gladstone back into the cabinet as colonial secretary, though he had no seat in the Commons.

Peel introduced the bill to repeal the corn laws on 27 January 1846. In order to allow the landed interest time to prepare for the change the laws were to be abolished in three years' time, on 1 February 1849, after which all imported grains would pay only a 'nominal' registration duty of 1s. a quarter. In the meantime new scales of duty were to operate. Colonial grains were to be admitted at 1s., and foreign maize, too, was to be admitted at 1s. Other foreign grains were to pay duties ranging between 4s. and 10s. according to the price. Nobody got what they wanted. The Irish did not secure the suspension appropriate to their emergency, partly, perhaps, because Peel had already arranged for the government to buy maize on their behalf. The landowners lost their protection, and were offered cheap drainage loans by way of compensation. The Anti-Corn Law League did not win total and immediate repeal, but was, in effect, made an offer which it could not refuse. The Conservative Party split: Lord George Bentinck arose to lead the protectionists, and on 7 February the second reading found 112 Conservatives supporting Peel and no fewer than 231 following Bentinck in voting against the government's bill. The rancour was unbelievable, and from February to June the ministry was supported by whig and radical votes. The bill received the royal assent on 25 June, and the following day the whigs combined with the protectionists to defeat the government's Coercion Bill for Ireland. In his resignation speech on 28 June, Peel widened the breach with his former supporters by giving the whole credit for repeal to Richard Cobden, who was in their eyes no better than a demagogue. He ended with a prayer that he might

leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.

Hansard 3, 87.1055

Death by accident

Peel felt worn out. For twenty years he had been troubled by deafness following a mishap with a gun. In 1843 he had been the intended victim of an assassination which cost the life of his secretary, Edward Drummond. Above all there was the incessant work. There was so much more to do now than there had been in the 1820s, and Peel had shouldered responsibility for the operation of every department. He knew his back-benchers had found him cold, aloof, and unresponsive. He knew also that many tories, who had come to terms with Catholic emancipation and one betrayal, would never forgive him two. But he, too, felt let down. He had fought the battle for the squires stoutly until 1844. But he had received little support in the House of Commons from them, and being expected, for the sake of party, 'to adopt the opinions of men who have not access to your knowledge, and could not profit by it if they had, who spend their time in eating and drinking, and hunting, shooting, gambling, horse-racing, and so forth' was 'an odious servitude' to which he would not submit (Peel to Lord Hardinge, Sir Robert Peel: from his Private Papers, 3.474). He never wished to hold office again, and he showed little inclination to lead the ninety or so Peelites who were returned at the general election of 1847. He remained a favourite with the royal family, and, while still holding his distance, gave a general kind of support to Lord John Russell who succeeded him. In 1847 he was consulted about a possible suspension of the Bank Charter Act. In 1848 he laid a finger on the defects in the Encumbered Estates Act for Ireland. In 1849, when corn prices were low and Lord John was considering reverting to a fixed duty, Peel joined in a council at Woburn which stiffened the whigs' resolve to defend the free-trade policy. On 28 June 1850 he spoke against the government in the Don Pacifico debate. The following day, he was thrown by his horse at the top of Constitution Hill. He fell face downwards, and the horse then trampled on his back, causing internal injuries. He was carried home to Whitehall Gardens, and several long and very painful days later, on 2 July, he died. On 3 July the Commons adjourned on the motion of Joseph Hume and Gladstone, and on 4 July the house again adjourned after formal tributes had been paid. Lord John Russell, as prime minister, offered a public funeral, but Goulburn, on behalf of the Peel family, declined it, Peel having earlier in the year declared his wish to be buried in the churchyard of Drayton Bassett beside his mother and father. The interment took place in a private ceremony on 9 July. Upon that day, in an exceptional expression of national mourning, the mills in the great northern towns stopped work, shops closed, and in the ports ships' flags flew at half-mast. Peel had left firm instructions, Lord John Russell told the Commons on 12 July, that his wife and family were to accept no titles or rewards for his services. Julia Peel died on 27 October 1859 and was buried beside her husband.


The Peelite wing of the Conservative Party was gradually absorbed, between 1846 and 1859, into the Liberal Party. In his budget speeches of 1853–4 and 1860–66 Gladstone spoke of continuing and completing the free-trade policies of Sir Robert Peel. Within the family, Peel's second son, Frederick, entered parliament as a Liberal in 1849; his eldest son, the third Sir Robert, who succeeded to the representation of Tamworth, served for four years as Irish secretary in Palmerston's Liberal ministry of 1859–65; and his youngest son, Arthur Wellesley, began his political career as Liberal member for Warwick in 1865. It has therefore sometimes been suggested that Peel had all along been in the wrong party. But this is to ignore the fact that Peel himself, with his background, perceived no contradiction between manufacturing interests and tory principles. To portray him as a Liberal manqué overlooks his abhorrence of whig principles, and his contempt for the whigs' levity and carelessness in government. It overlooks, too, the extent to which Peel's supporters and the Peel dynasty did not so much choose to be Liberal as have Liberalism thrust upon them.

Historians have often professed to see continuity between the Conservatism of the Tamworth manifesto and the Conservatism of subsequent generations. Certainly, a reverential attitude to crown, church, and aristocracy may be said to link Peel with Lord Salisbury, and even with Stanley Baldwin. But Salisbury still referred unforgivingly to Peel as the man who had betrayed his party twice, and other Conservative leaders who conceded that one of Peel's two changes of course might have been a principled one did not agree which one. Catholic emancipation ceased, after a generation, to be an emotive issue, but protection and free trade continued, as Balfour and Baldwin found, to divide the Conservative Party. Far into the twentieth century, the party related more easily to the pragmatism and balance of the 1842 budget than it did to the capitulation of 1846. The shade of the supreme workman, who dominated the parliamentary debates of his age, found no assured resting place among succeeding generations of Conservatives.

In the Dictionary of National Biography Peel's grandson G. V. Peel wrote that in an age of revolutions Peel alone had had 'the foresight and the strength to form a conservative party, resting not on force or corruption, but on administrative capacity and the more stable portion of the public will'. Certainly Peel re-educated the party after the débâcle of 1831–2, and returned it to power in 1841. The case is strong, but the question then remains, why did Peel, in 1845–6, follow a course which led to the destruction of the party he himself had made? Peel explained that his 'earnest wish', during his tenure of power, had been 'to impress the people of this country with a belief that the legislature was animated with a sincere desire to frame its legislation upon the principles of equity and justice' (Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 590). When he perceived that 'it was impossible to reconcile the repeal of the Corn Laws by me with the keeping together of the Conservative party', he had 'no hesitation in sacrificing the subordinate object' (Peel to Aberdeen, 19 Aug 1847, Memoirs, 2.322). Here, he was not to be disappointed, and he rose in the affections of the people in proportion as he lost the favour of his party. While members of one sectional interest, tory landowners, draped their prints of Peel with crêpe or turned them to the wall, and those of another, at the heart of the Anglican university establishment, unforgivingly made sure that Peel's portrait never hung in his college dining hall, the nation's felicitous passage through the year of revolutions, 1848, showed that thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions were indeed being lost, as Peel had hoped they would be, amid the enjoyment of prosperity. Two years later, when Peel died, 400,000 working men contributed 1d. each to a memorial fund, used to buy books for working men's clubs and libraries.

Peel's Speeches were published in four volumes in 1853, an imperfect edition but one which has never been replaced. Peel's Memoirs, covering the three episodes he was most sensitive about—Catholic emancipation, the acceptance of the king's commission to form a ministry in 1834–5, and the disintegration of the Conservative Party during the corn law crisis in 1845–6—were published by Philip Stanhope (Lord Mahon) and Edward Cardwell in 1856–7. But plans for an ‘official’ biography hung fire. Peel's intimate, J. W. Croker, was the obvious choice. But he died in 1857 with nothing accomplished, and the commission passed first to Goldwin Smith and then to Edward Cardwell, both of whom gave up. In 1871 seventy-seven paintings from Peel's collection were sold to the National Gallery for £75,000, and Peel's reputation as a connoisseur was established. In 1891–9 C. S. Parker published three volumes of extracts from Peel's papers, which allowed Peel and his correspondents to speak for themselves, but offered little interpretation or evaluation. In the meantime various lives appeared—at least a dozen in the half century between 1850 and 1900. These were all based upon the readily available sources, and none was more authoritative than the article in the Dictionary of National Biography. No more could, perhaps, have been said, until Peel's papers were deposited in the British Museum in 1922. Even then many years passed before the first full-length case for the consistency of Peel's actions, the purity of his motives, and the scale of his achievement was at last made in Norman Gash's two-volume biography (1961, 1972), a portrait so favourable that it has already led to less flattering revisions—by Boyd Hilton and V. A. C. Gatrell especially.


  • Speeches of the late Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, delivered in the House of Commons, 4 vols. (1853) [incl. index]
  • Memoirs by the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, ed. Lord Mahon [P. Stanhope] and E. Cardwell, 2 vols. (1856–7)
  • C. S. Parker, ed., Sir Robert Peel: from his private papers, 3 vols. (1891–9)
  • Life and letters of Sir James Graham, ed. C. S. Parker, 2 vols. (1907)
  • The private letters of Sir Robert Peel, ed. G. Peel (1920)
  • Correspondence and diaries of J. W. Croker, ed. L. J. Jennings, 3 vols. (1884)
  • The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, ed. L. Strachey and R. Fulford, 8 vols. (1938)
  • A. R. Wellesley, second duke of Wellington, Despatches, correspondence, and memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, duke of Wellington, K.G.: in continuation of the former series, 8 vols. (1867–80)
  • The letters of Queen Victoria, ed. A. C. Benson, Lord Esher [R. B. Brett], and G. E. Buckle, 9 vols. (1907–32)
  • T. Martin, The life of … the prince consort, 5 vols. (1875–80), vols. 1–2
  • B. Disraeli, ‘Character of Sir Robert Peel’, Lord George Bentinck: a political biography, 2nd edn (1852), 302–20
  • W. Bagehot, ‘The character of Sir Robert Peel’, Biographical studies, ed. R. H. Hutton, 2nd edn (1889), 1–39
  • F. P. G. Guizot, Memoirs of Sir Robert Peel (1857) [trans. from the Fr.]
  • G. J. Shaw-Lefevre, Peel and O'Connell: a review of the Irish policy of parliament from the Act of Union to the death of Sir Robert Peel (1887)
  • S. Buxton, Finance and politics: an historical study, 1783–1885, 2 vols. (1888)
  • G. S. R. K. Clark, Peel and the conservative party, 1832–1841 (1929)
  • W. P. Morrell, British colonial policy in the age of Peel and Russell (1930)
  • J. B. Conacher, The Peelites and the party system, 1846–1852 (1972)
  • T. L. Crosby, Sir Robert Peel's administration, 1841–1846 (1976)
  • R. Stewart, The foundation of the conservative party, 1830–1867 (1978)
  • D. Read, Peel and the Victorians (1987)
  • D. E. D. Beales, ‘Peel, Russell and reform’, HJ, 17 (1974), 873–82
  • D. R. Fisher, ‘Peel and the conservative party: the sugar crisis of 1844 reconsidered’, HJ, 18 (1975), 279–302
  • B. Hilton, ‘Peel: a re-appraisal’, HJ, 22 (1979), 585–614
  • I. D. C. Newbould, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the conservative party, 1832–1841: a study in failure?’, EngHR, 98 (1983), 529–57
  • F. Herrmann, ‘Peel and Solly: two nineteenth-century art collectors and their sources of supply’, Journal of the History of Collections, 3 (1991), 89–96
  • V. A. C. Gatrell, ‘Mercy and Mr. Peel’, The hanging tree: execution and the English people, 1770–1868 (1994), chap. 21


  • BL, official and private corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 40181–40615, 62939
  • CKS, corresp. and papers
  • Duke U., Perkins L., letters
  • FM Cam., corresp. mainly with artists
  • NL Scot., corresp.
  • Staffs. RO, deeds, legal papers, and corresp. relating to Tamworth
  • Surrey HC, account, cheque, commonplace book, and notebooks
  • U. Mich., Clements L., letters
  • Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, letters to Henry Drummond
  • Beds. & Luton ARS, corresp. with second earl of Grey
  • BL, corresp. with fourth earl of Aberdeen, Add. MSS 43061–43065
  • BL, corresp. with third Earl Bathurst, loan 57
  • BL, corresp. with Sir James Graham, Dep. 9374
  • BL, Gladstone papers
  • BL, corresp. with John Charles Herries, Add. MS 57402
  • BL, Huskisson papers
  • BL, corresp. with Prince Lieven, Add. MSS 47291–47296
  • BL, letters to earls of Liverpool, Add. MS 38195
  • BL, letters to earls of Liverpool, loan 72
  • BL, letters to Sidney Smirke on buildings at Drayton, Add. MS 59847
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Wellesley, Add. MSS 37298–37313, passim
  • BL OIOC, letters to Lord Tweeddale, MS Eur. F 96
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Benjamin Disraeli
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Thomas Phillipps
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Samuel Wilberforce
  • Borth. Inst., letters to first Viscount Halifax
  • CBS, letters to first Baron Cottesloe
  • CKS, corresp. with first and second Marquesses Camden
  • CKS, letters to Sir Edward Knatchbull and Wyndham Knatchbull
  • CKS, letters to Lord Mahon
  • CKS, letters to Lord Whitworth
  • Cornwall RO, letters to third earl of St Germans
  • CUL, letters to A. W. Kinglake
  • Derbys. RO, corresp. with Sir R. J. Wilmot-Horton
  • Duke U., Perkins L., letters to Sir John Newport
  • Durham RO, letters to Lord Londonderry
  • Exeter Cathedral, letters to Henry Phillpotts
  • Glamorgan RO, Cardiff, corresp. mainly with Lord Lyndhurst
  • Harrowby Manuscript Trust, Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, corresp. with first and second earls of Harrowby, Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart, and William Collins
  • Hunt. L., letters to Grenville family
  • ICL, letters to William Buckland
  • ICL, letters to first Baron Playfair
  • Keele University Library, corresp. with second earl of Clare
  • LPL, corresp. with Christopher Wordsworth
  • Lpool RO, letters to Lord Stanley
  • Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letter to J. F. Foster, stipendiary magistrate, Manchester
  • McGill University, Montreal, McLennan Library, corresp. with first Viscount Hardinge
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Sir George Clerk
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Thomas, Lord Cochrane
  • NA Scot., corresp. with first marquess of Dalhousie
  • NA Scot., letters to G. W. Hope
  • NA Scot., letters to Sir Charles Augustus Murray
  • NA Scot., letters to R. A. Nisbet-Hamilton
  • NA Scot., letters among the Winton House papers
  • NL Ire., Richmond papers
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Thomas Cochrane
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Edward Ellice
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott
  • Norfolk RO, letters to Sir Henry Bulwer
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Maurice FitzGerald
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with earl of Haddington
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with duke of Hamilton
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir John Sinclair and Sir George Sinclair
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to John Swinton
  • PRONI, corresp. with first marquess of Anglesey
  • PRONI, letters to J. L. Foster
  • PRONI, corresp. with John Foster
  • PRONI, corresp. with Sir G. F. Hill and G. R. Dawson
  • RA, letters to Sir Thomas Lawrence
  • Royal Arch., corresp. with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and G. Anson
  • Sheff. Arch., letters to first Baron Wharncliffe; letters to second Baron Wharncliffe
  • St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone
  • St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, corresp. with fifth duke of Newcastle
  • Staffs. RO, letters to William Dyott and Richard Dyott
  • Surrey HC, Goulburn papers
  • TNA: PRO, Cardwell papers
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with earl of Ellenborough, PRO 30/12
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sir George Murray, WO 80
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord John Russell, PRO 30/22
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton
  • U. Nott. L., corresp. with dukes of Newcastle
  • U. Southampton L., letters to duke of Wellington
  • UCL, corresp. with Sir Edwin Chadwick
  • UCL, letters to Josiah Parkes on drainage matters
  • W. Sussex RO, letters to fourth duke of Richmond and fifth duke of Richmond
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. with first Earl Canning
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. with fifth duke of Richmond
  • Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with Sidney Herbert
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to William Buckland


  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1825, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • P. C. Wonder, group portrait, oils, 1826, NPG
  • W. Heath, coloured etching, pubd 1830, BM, NPG
  • F. Chantrey, two drawings, 1833, NPG
  • F. Chantrey, marble bust, 1835, Royal Collection
  • A. R. Freebairn, line engraving, pubd 1837 (after J. de Veaux), NPG
  • J. Ottley, copper medal, 1837, Scot. NPG
  • D. Wilkie, group portrait, oils, 1837 (The queen's first council), Royal Collection
  • J. Linnell, mezzotint, pubd 1838, BM, NPG
  • J. Linnell, oils, 1838, NPG
  • W. J. Ward, mezzotint, pubd 1842 (after J. Wood), BM, NPG
  • W. Tell, caricature, wood-engraving, 1844, NG Ire.
  • J. Wedderburn, group portrait, pencil and watercolour drawing, 1844, NPG
  • F. X. Winterhalter, double portrait, oils, 1844 (with the duke of Wellington), Royal Collection
  • A. Crowquill, lithograph, pubd 1850, NPG
  • J. Steell, plaster bust, 1850 (after F. Chantrey), Scot. NPG
  • E. H. Baily, bronze statue, 1851, Bury, Lancashire
  • M. Noble, marble bust, 1851, NPG
  • J. Gibson, statue, 1852, Westminster Abbey
  • M. Noble, marble statue, 1852–4, St George's Hall, Liverpool
  • G. Baxter, print, 1853 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG
  • M. Noble, bronze statue, 1876–7, Parliament Square, London
  • J. Doyle, lithograph, NG Ire.
  • J. Doyle, political sketches, BM
  • H. B. [J. Doyle], cartoons, repro. in J. Doyle, Political sketches (1829)
  • G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG
  • J. Partridge, group portrait (The fine arts commissioners, 1846), NPG
  • H. W. Pickersgill, oils, NPG; version, Gov. Art Coll.
  • W. Tell, caricature, wood-engraving, NG Ire.
  • F. X. Winterhalter, group portrait, oils (Queen Victoria receiving Louis Philippe at Windsor Castle, 1844), Musée de Versailles
  • caricature, repro. in Punch

Wealth at Death

income of £40,000 p.a., which represents estate of over £1,000,000: Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 163–4

English Historical Review
Historical Journal