Robert Peel

Home Secretary 1822-27, 1828-30

February 5, 1788 - July 2, 1850

Robert Peel (1788-1850) Second Baronet from 1830. Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1812-18. Home Secretary, 1822-27, 1828-30. Prime Minister 1834-35, 1841-46. Son of a wealthy textile manufacturer who was a Tory MP for 30 years, Peel was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, then became Under Secretary for War and the Colonies under Liverpool in 1810. He was a liberal Tory but strongly opposed to Catholic Emancipation and he disliked and distrusted Canning. He became close to Liverpool at the War Office and was promoted to Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1812, which office he occupied successfully for six years. He was a good Commons speaker but devoted himself to Irish business until 1818, after which he chaired the Commons committee that recommended resumption of the gold standard in 1819. In January 1822 Liverpool offered him the Home Office, where he proved an able reformer both of the legal code and of its administration. (His establishment of the Metropolitan Police took place under Wellington.)

Peel had hoped to succeed Liverpool, refused to serve under Canning, was not invited by Goderich, and then resumed office as Home Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons under Wellington, where he undertook a spectacular reversal of policy by passing Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Peel was a poor leader of his Commons followers, both then and in his subsequent periods as Prime Minister, failing to maintain party unity and leading to the Wellington government’s eviction from office in November 1830. As effective leader of the Tory/Conservative Party after 1830, he moved the party leftwards by the Tamworth manifesto of 1834, then split his party for a second time (and caused major long-term damage to the British economy) by repealing the Corn Laws in 1846 and instituting a policy of unilateral free trade.

Peel was a pompous man, with great ability but little imagination, who did not tolerate well the failings of less able or of unconventional men. For example, in 1842 he terminated the funding of Babbage’s Difference Engine, remarking, ‘Surely if completed it would be worthless as far as science is concerned. … It will be in my opinion only a very costly toy.’1

In March 1821, when Peel was talked of for the Exchequer, Mrs Arbuthnot said he ‘had never shewn any financial talents and is decidedly a bad debater’. However, he made his reputation at the Home Office, so that by December 1826, before Liverpool’s resignation, she thought Peel ‘would make a very good prime minister and was a sort of man that it would be no disgrace for the Duke [of Wellington] to act with in that capacity’. In the event, Peel’s man-management skills were found wanting, so that by 1830 she thought:

his manners are quite odious. He asks immense parties of the House of Commons to dinner every night and treats them so de haut en bas and is so haughty and silent that they come away swearing they will never go to his house again, so that his abilities do him harm rather than otherwise.2

[1] Quoted in James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (London: Fourth Estate, 2012) p. 105.

[2] Bamford and Wellington, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-32, Vol. 2, pp. 69 and 345.

Information on how Peel stacks against other Prime Ministers can be found in his Contenders entry

© 2021 Martin Hutchinson