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Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel Born: 5 February 1788 in Bury, Lancashire

First entered Parliament: 15 April 1809

Age he became PM: 46 years, 308 days and 53 years, 206 days

Maiden speech: 23 January 1810 seconding the reply to the King’s Speech at the opening of Parliament

Total time as PM: Five years, 57 days

Died: 2 July 1850 at Whitehall Gardens, London

Facts and figures

Nickname: “Orange Peel”

Education: Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford

Family: Peel was the eldest son and the third of 11 children. He was married to Julia Floyd, and had five sons and two daughters

Interests: Country sports, collecting paintings, reading

Biography

Radical times

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, changing society in radical ways.

The other achievement for which he is known - repealing the Corn Laws in 1846 - split his party, but earned him lasting popular fame as a humanitarian gesture.

Robert 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 goad him.

Peel’s father was extremely ambitious for him, grooming 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 some day I’ll disinherit you’.

He was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, where he excelled, gaining a double first.

Peel got a double first at Oxford Just one year later, in 1809, Peel was elected MP for Cashel, Tipperary, though he was to represent many constituencies during his career, including that of Oxford University.

Considered an arch-unionist, and at that time opposed to Catholic emancipation, he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”.

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 Wellington in 1828.

Shocking turnaround

During this time Peel was persuaded of the case for Catholic emancipation after twenty 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 Peel also created the Metropolitan Police in 1829, leading to the nicknames of “Bobby” (which still endures) and “Peeler” for London’s police officers. On Earl 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. He lost no time in calling fresh elections, in the hope of winning a large majority.

But the majority Peel won in the election was small, and a number of defeats in Parliament led to his resignation in April.

Peel became PM 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.

Peel also passed some groundbreaking legislation.

For example, the Mines Act of 1842 forbade the employment of women and children underground and The Factory Act 1844 limited working hours for children and women in factories.

Failed harvests

In 1845, Peel 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

The Irish 'potato famine' took place while Peel was PM Laws that forbade the import of cheap foreign grain. The crisis was triggered by the Irish potato famine. Unable to send sufficient food to Ireland to stem the famine, Peel eventually decided the Corn Laws must be repealed out of humanity.

But land-owners 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 five months.

Eventually, in June 1846, the Corn Laws were repealed. However, on the very same day Peel was defeated on another bill, and resigned for the final time.

Quote unquote

“There seem to me to be very few facts, at least ascertainable facts, in politics.”

Did you know?

His maiden speech in the Commons was a sensation, and famously described by the Speaker of the House of Commons as “the best first speech since that of William Pitt”.

Wife

Lady Peel - Julia Floyd - this painting, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, was described as the 'highest achievement of modern art' when it was unveiled Julia Floyd was born in India - her family was an officer in the British army. A beautiful, yet temperamental woman, who became more nervous and emotional as she got older. Her life centred on her husband and seven children.

She was not interested in politics but was supportive of Peel, corresponding with him constantly when they were apart.

Lady Peel was distraught at her husband’s death and lived a quiet life until her own death in 1859.

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