Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) was a British statesman who twice served as prime minister, between 1834–35 and 1841–46. A central figure in the formation of the modern British Conservative Party, the Victorian politician is best remembered for repealing the Corn Laws – which had been introduced to protect British agriculture – in June 1846, and for establishing London’s first metropolitan police force
Peel is also known for his stance towards Catholic emancipation and for pushing the Catholic Emancipation Bill through parliament in 1828, and for his Tamworth Manifesto, which outlined new Conservative reform principles.
This week, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that UK prime minister Theresa May risks “splitting the Conservative party like Sir Robert Peel” if she fails to deliver a clean break from the European Union.
Here, we bring you five facts about Sir Robert Peel…
Robert Peel laid the foundations for the modern Conservative Party
The son of a wealthy cotton manufacturer, Robert Peel was born on 5 February 1788 in Lancashire. Following his education at Harrow and the University of Oxford, he entered parliament in 1809 as a member of the Tory party.
Peel held prominent positions within government from an early stage in his career, being appointed chief secretary for Ireland in 1812 – a role in which he was committed to the 1800 Act of Union, which had united Great Britain and Ireland under the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. He later became home secretary in 1822 and introduced far-reaching criminal law and prison reform.
Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto, issued in 1834 in response to the sweeping parliamentary reform that had passed under Lord Charles Grey’s Whig government in 1832, was a statement of the new Conservative reform principles. It is widely considered to have laid the foundations for the modern British Conservative party.
A request by Peel sparked Queen Victoria’s “Bedchamber crisis”
In 1839 Peel was offered the chance to form a government by the young Queen Victoria, succeeding Lord Melbourne. Melbourne had recently resigned following several parliamentary defeats and was well-known to be a favourite of the queen.
Before replacing Melbourne, Peel requested that Victoria dismiss some of her existing household. He hoped to remove some of the ladies-in-waiting who were loyal to the Melbourne and Whig party – a number of them were married or related to Whig ministers.
The young queen held friendships with many of the ladies that Peel wanted to remove and so refused his request, sparking the first constitutional crisis of her reign which became known as “The Bedchamber crisis”. Her refusal was widely condemned for not being politically partisan – some even suggested it was unconstitutional. Peel promptly resigned.
The crisis was resolved after Prince Albert intervened: he encouraged some of the ladies to voluntarily resign their positions, and the queen went on to have a good working relationship with Peel. After Peel’s death in 1850, Queen Victoria described him as her “worthy Peel, a man of unbounded loyalty, courage, patriotism and highmindedness”.
The crisis was recently dramatised in series one of ITV’s drama Victoria.
The Metropolitan police force is nicknamed after Robert Peel
By the beginning of the 19th century, there was increasing support for a professional, state-funded, full-time police force –during his role as home secretary, Sir Robert Peel was pivotal in establishing London’s first police force. The Metropolitan Police Act aimed to establish uniformity in how crime was dealt with across London and, in 1829, Peel set up the first disciplined police service for the Greater London area.
As a result of Peel’s work, the new policemen were nicknamed “Peelers”, and are still commonly referred to as “Bobbies” today.
Robert Peel is thought to have been the target of an assassination attempt
On the afternoon of 20 January 1843, Edward Drummond – a British civil servant and personal secretary to Robert Peel – was shot; he later died from his wounds. The assassin was Daniel McNaughton, a Glaswegian woodturner who is believed to have suffered from “paranoid delusions”.
Today, the assassin’s name lives on in the so-called McNaughton [M’Naghten] Rules – the legal test for criminal insanity.
Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 split the Conservative party
It was the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 which split Peel’s Conservative party and triggered Peel’s resignation and departure from his second term as prime minister.
The Corn Laws, which had been passed in 1815, restricted the amount of foreign grain that could be imported into England –an arrangement which was supported by landowners but strongly opposed by manufacturers and the urban working class. By the 1830s, anti-Corn Law feeling was rife and the Anti-Corn Law League was founded in Manchester in 1838. Following pressure from the league’s leader, Richard Cobden, and swayed by the horrific effects of the Irish Potato Famine (1845–52), Peel supported the repeal of the Corn Laws and achieved repeal with the support of the Whig opposition party in June 1846.
When he announced the repeal, Robert Peel reiterated the sentiments he had expressed when introducing the income tax back in 1842: to elevate the social conditions of the people, and to “frame its legislation upon the principle of equity and justice,” which would guarantee social harmony and political stability.
On the same day, Peel was defeated on another bill, and resigned. The repeal of the Corn Laws also caused a rift in the Conservative Party: “Peelites” splintered off from the main party, while the group who favoured anti-repeal protectionist interests combined with the Whigs to overthrow Peel’s government.
In 1850, four years after his departure from parliament, Peel was badly injured after falling from his horse and died on 2 July 1850 in London.
Elinor Evans is Deputy Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com