The son of a wealthy cotton manufacturer, Robert Peel was born on the 5th February 1788 in Lancashire. Following his childhood at Harrow and Oxford University, 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.
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 high mindedness”.
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.
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 woodsman who is believed to have suffered from “paranoid delusions”. It has often been suggested that McNaughton had in fact mistaken Drummond for Peel and that the prime minister was the intended target. However, there is no conclusive evidence for the theory. Today, the assassin’s name lives on in the so-called McNaughton [M’Naghten] Rules – the legal test for criminal insanity.
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.