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Sir Robert Peel 2nd Baronet
Conservative 1841 to 1846, 1834 to 1835

Sir Robert Peel’s period in government – as prime minister and in other offices – was a milestone for social reform. Landmark legislation cut working hours for women and children, created cheap and regular rail services, and reorganised the policing of London, radically changing society.

Peel was the son of a wealthy Lancashire cotton mill owner who was also Member of Parliament for Tamworth. It was a new-money background, which some in his party would later use to provoke him. His father was extremely ambitious for him, preparing him for politics and buying him his Commons seat. It is claimed that he told his son “Bob, you dog, if you do not become Prime Minister someday I’ll disinherit you”.

He was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, where he excelled, gaining a double first in 1808. Just 1 year later, Peel was elected MP for Cashel, Tipperary, though he was to represent many constituencies during his career, including that of Oxford University.

Politics in his time was the perquisite of the aristocracy and though Peel's father was enormously wealthy, had been created a baronet, was a Member of Parliament, and had a fine mansion and estate at Drayton Bassett near to Tamworth, and though Peel himself had been educated at Harrow, where he was a friend of Lord Byron, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a double first, he never lost the accent of Bury, where he spent his early childhood, or overcame the 'disgrace' of the family fortune having been acquired so recently in 'trade'.

In 1822 he became Home Secretary, after voluntarily resigning his position in Ireland in 1817. During his time, he introduced a number of important reforms of British criminal law; his changes to the penal code resulted in around 100 fewer crimes being punished by death. He also reformed the gaol system with payment for jailers and education for the inmates.

He retained the post of Home Secretary under the Duke of Wellington in 1828. During this time he was persuaded of the case for Catholic emancipation after 20 years of opposition to it, and pushed the Catholic Emancipation Bill through Parliament, arguing that civil strife was a greater danger. His turnabout on the matter shocked his supporters.

As Home Secretary, he also created the Metropolitan Police in 1829, leading to the nicknames of ‘bobby’ and ‘peeler’ for London’s police officers.

On Lord Grey’s resignation in 1834, Peel refused King William IV’s invitation to form a government. However, he did accept a second request the following year. In the hope of winning a large majority, he lost no time in calling fresh elections but the majority he won in the election was small, and a number of defeats in Parliament led to his resignation in the April.

He became Prime Minister for the second time in June 1841. It was a time of economic strife, with many out of work and Britain’s international trade suffering. Peel, though never an ideological free trader, took steps to liberalise trade, which created the conditions for a strong recovery.

He also passed some groundbreaking legislation, such as the Mines Act of 1842 that banned the employment of women and children underground, and The Factory Act 1844 that limited working hours for children and women in factories. In 1845, he faced the defining challenge of his career. Failed harvests led much of the population to call for the repeal of the 30-year-old Corn Laws, which banned the import of cheap foreign grain - a crisis triggered by the Irish potato famine. Unable to send sufficient food to Ireland to stem the famine, he eventually decided the Corn Laws must be repealed out of humanity. Landowners saw the attempt as an attack on them, and fiercely protested in the House of Commons. Peel’s Conservative Party would not support him and the debate lasted for 5 months. Eventually, in June 1846, the Corn Laws were repealed. However, on the very same day, he was defeated on another bill, and resigned for the final time.

To American Presidents and politicians the risk of assassination or attempted assassination is appreciable, but Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been murdered and, however selfseeking or dishonest they may be, British politicians enjoy the undeserved happiness of knowing that they will almost certainly die from natural causes unless, as did Lord Londonderry in 1822, they cut their throats or, as did William Huskisson in 1830, they inadvertently step in the path of a moving railway engine.

Threats and unkind words are commonplace; Disraeli said that 'if Mr Gladstone fell into the Thames it would be a misfortune but if someone pulled him out it would be a calamity', but politicians quickly learn to disregard abuse.

It is ironic that Sir Robert Peel, who was one of the most sensitive, altruistic, able, and honest men to hold the office of Prime Minister, should die from physical injury. Courage he certainly had - he challenged Daniel O'Connell to a duel - but he was never a popular man. Moreover, Peel was by nature shy, reserved, and lacking in warmth. O'Connell said his smile was 'like the gleam of wintry sunshine on the brass handles of a coffin', Queen Victoria thought him a 'cold, unfriendly, disagreeable man', and the Duke of Wellington said he 'has no manners'. Nevertheless, like Othello, he 'had done the state some service and they know't', but it was not until after his tragic death in I850 that the floodgates of national gratitude and acclaim were opened.

On the night of the 28th June 1850 he made a magnificent, statesmanly, and generous speech in the House on the Don Pacifico incident. The debate continued until four o'clock the following morning and after a few hours' sleep at his London home in Whitehall Gardens Peel attended a meeting of the Commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the evening he went for his customary ride with his groom.

Though according to Palmerston 'he was a very bad and awkward rider', he had ridden all his life but, through his friend Becket Denison, he had recently acquired a new horse which had been hunted regularly and which his son-in-law, Lord Villiers, thought suitable for him. However, the horse had been sold by Sir Henry Peyton, a most accomplished horseman, because of its tendency to kick and buck and had been unsuccessfully offered for private purchase before being sent to Tattersalls. Paul Hunter recognised the horse and wished to warn Peel but lacked the courage to do so.

Peel called at Buckingham Palace to sign the visitors' book and then rode up Constitution Hill when, opposite the gate into Green Park, he met Lord Dover's daughter, Miss Ellis, who was also out riding with her groom. As Peel greeted her his horse turned and threw him face downwards over its head. Peel held on to the reins and the horse stumbled on top of him with its hoof on Peel's back.

Two men who were near at hand helped Peel into a sitting position and Dr Louis Foucart, a recently qualified Glasgow doctor, who had seen the fall, rushed to his aid, being joined almost immediately by Sir James Clark, the Queen's physician. Mrs Lucas, of Bryanston Square, came by in her carriage, which she immediately vacated so that Peel could be transported back to Whitehall Gardens. On arrival he was put on a couch in his dining room and though later moved on to a patent hydraulic bed he remained in this room, hung with some of his magnificent collection of paintings, until he died.

The baronetcy is still extant, but when the sixth baronet was killed on active service while serving in the Royal Navy in 1942 it passed to Earl Peel, grandson of Peel's younger son, Arthur, who was Speaker of the House of Commons. Beatrice Lillie, the brilliant comedy actress, was widow of the fifth baronet. Peel's eldest son Robert, the third baronet, dissipated most of the family fortunes and sold Peel's fine collection of paintings to the National Gallery for £75 000 in 1871. He ceased to live at Drayton which, apart from the clocktower, was demolished in the 1930s, and the park became a zoo.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:19:03 ZULU