PEEL, Robert II (1788-1850), of Drayton Hall, Staffs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

15 Apr. 1809 - 1812
1812 - June 1817
10 June 1817 - Feb. 1829
2 Mar. 1829 - 1830
1830 - 2 July 1850

Family and Education

b. 5 Feb. 1788, 1st s. of (Sir) Robert Peel I*, 1st Bt., by 1st w. and bro. of William Yates Peel*. educ. by James Hargreaves, curate of Bury, until 1798; by Francis Blick, vicar of Tamworth 1798-1800; Harrow 1800-4; Christ Church, Oxf. 1805; L. Inn 1809. m. 8 June 1820, Julia, da. of Gen. Sir John Floyd, 1st Bt., of Mansfield Street, Mdx., 5s. 2da. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 3 May 1830.

Offices Held

Under-sec. of state for War and Colonies June 1810-Aug. 1812; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Aug. 1812-Aug. 1818; PC [GB] 13 Aug. 1812, [I] 5 Sept. 1812; commr. treasury [I] 1814-17; sec. of state for Home affairs Jan. 1822-Apr. 1827, Jan. 1828-Nov. 1830; first ld. of Treasury and chancellor of Exchequer 10 Dec. 1834-18 Apr. 1835; first ld. of Treasury 3 Sept. 1841-6 July 1846.

Capt. Manchester regt. militia 1808; lt. Staffs. yeoman cav. 1820; rector, Glasgow Univ. 1837-8.

Biography

Peel in later life recalled his father’s jocular admonition, ‘Bob, you dog, if you are not prime minister some day, I’ll disinherit you’.1 As a schoolboy he was shown the House of Commons by Pitt, whom his father held up to him as a model statesman, and before going up to Oxford in 1805 he listened to debates, being greatly impressed by Fox’s speech on the Catholic question, 13 May. A brilliant scholar, he obtained a double first in classics and mathematics, his examiners thanking him for the pleasure he had given them at his viva, which, owing to his reputation, was thronged. There was no question of his going into the family business and he was next to have read law, but his father bought him into the House of Commons for Cashel on the Pennefather interest, which was awarded to government, on a vacancy caused by the resignation of Quintin Dick*.2

Peel made his maiden speech on 23 Jan. 1810, when he seconded the address. His father, thanking Spencer Perceval for giving him this opportunity, wrote, ‘He possesses capacity, industry, and virtuous habits and under the guidance of a judicious and well informed friend he may become an useful member of society’. Peel’s speech, endorsing ministers’ conduct of the war against Buonaparte, was described to his father as the best maiden speech since Pitt’s. William Lamb, more critically, reported, ‘Mr Peele [sic] seconded it fluently and in a good manner, but with poor argument’; while Thomas Creevey believed Peel made ‘a capital figure for a first speech. I think it was a prepared speech, but it was a most produceable Pittish performance, both in matter and manner.’ Perceval informed the King that Peel performed ‘very ably’, vindicating his ‘very great character for talent’. On 30 Mar. Peel spoke for government, as he had invariably voted, in defence of the Scheldt expedition. He was not incapable of independent gestures, as when on 31 Jan. he voted against the government nominee for the finance committee, to which Perceval had just named him, when hounded out of ‘concealment’ by the tellers; and on the question of Burdett’s sentence to the Tower, 5 Apr., he told Canning, who ‘hoped to seduce’ him, that he ‘would not have voted with govt., if I had not’. Nevertheless he voted against the release of Gale Jones on 16 Apr. and was a forthright critic of the Middlesex and London petitions on Burdett’s behalf in the debates of 8 and 9 May.3 Moreover, he voted against sinecure and parliamentary reform, 17, 21 May 1810.

In June 1810 Peel took office as under-secretary to Lord Liverpool, secretary for War and Colonies, specializing in the latter. On 18 Mar. 1811 he made a businesslike defence of the subsidy to Portuguese troops in the Peninsular war which floored his opponent Fremantle, who (so Robert Ward reported)

was answered and pulled to pieces in one of the most beautiful as well as argumentative speeches ever delivered in the House, by young Peel, who gave another proof that there was ability on our side of the House. He was applauded almost as much by opposition as by us at the end of his speech, and by Whitbread not least. As to argument, he put the whole matter at rest.

In short, he was considered by many to be the most promising young politician brought forward by Perceval—and was even rumoured to be marrying Perceval’s daughter.4

Peel, who had deprecated the ‘extended pretensions’ of the Irish Catholics in debate on 3 Feb. 1812 and voted against Canning’s successful relief motion on 22 June, adhered to his chief Lord Liverpool when the latter became premier. By him he was chosen to replace William Wellesley Pole in August 1812 as chief secretary to the 4th Duke of Richmond, lord lieutenant of Ireland, who did not want ‘a Catholic or a timid man’. The viceroy was assured by Lord Bathurst, who gave him notice of it on 29 July, that Peel was ‘a very laborious and clever young man ... a man of strict honour, and proper feelings’ and one who would not serve under a pro-Catholic lord lieutenant; while Liverpool wrote that Peel had ‘a particularly good temper, and great frankness and openness of manners, which I know are particularly desirable on your side of the water’. The duke, though unconsulted, duly approved and thought it not beyond Peel’s capacity to act as Irish chancellor of the exchequer, as well as chief secretary, as Wellesley Pole had done; but Peel had no wish to do so and was content to see his friend William Fitzgerald* in that role. Lord Lovaine, a friend of the latter who would have liked to see Fitzgerald as chief secretary, commented on Peel, ‘I do not remember his having spoken for a very long time, but he has been with Lord Liverpool, and all his secretaries get on ... Il a les manières tant soit peu roturiers [sic]’.5

Peel’s first duty in Ireland was the management of the general election of 1812, which was, as Lord Lowther put it, ‘unlucky’, as he was ‘quite unacquainted with the people’; but the viceroy and prime minister gave him moral support and he was ‘very cautious in all proceedings’ and satisfied with the results. His own election was a problem. He might have retained Cashel but, since Curwen’s Act, the purchase of seats by official men was frowned upon. Nor did he wish to pester government for a seat. His father had declined to purchase an interest at Weymouth the year before, but now negotiated his return for Chippenham on the Maitland interest with the help of Charles Long*. The patron proceeded to fall out with Peel senior over the purchase of his property in Chippenham for £22,000, which he claimed was the precondition of Peel’s return, and over the method of payment of the £4,000 he expected if the Parliament lasted six years. Peel had ‘a very unpleasant interview’ with Maitland in December 1812.6

Peel found much to irk him as chief secretary: particularly attending Parliament before Christmas to no apparent effect and the uphill struggle to get Irish friends of government, even office holders, to do so despite their endless clamour for patronage; and the scant time, packed into the end of the session, allowed him for introducing legislation of purely Irish interest, to which not only the House at large, but also his ministerial colleagues were so indifferent. He was at odds with the parasitism and corruption that prejudiced Castle rule in Ireland and with the inefficiency of the civil service, the judiciary and the subsidized newspaper press which bedevilled it; he was appalled by the savagery that punctuated Irish life. The only alternative to a coercive system of government seemed to him to be a comprehensive system of education, but as the prevalence of sectarianism obviated the acceptance of any rational scheme (23 Mar. 1813), the best he could hope for was the mitigation of ‘garrison’ rule (25 May) and of administrative corruption (11 June 1813).

While he conceded a small additional grant to Maynooth College, Peel had no confidence that anything could be achieved by the concession of relief to the Irish Catholics and in his first major speech as chief secretary, 1 Mar. 1813, answered his predecessor Wellesley Pole’s arguments in favour of it point by point. Again on 13 May he intervened against the Catholic relief bill, which, without adequate securities for the Protestant minority, he regarded as obnoxious and premature. ‘Orange Peel’, as O’Connell dubbed him, intervened ‘with considerable warmth’ in the debate on the alleged abuses of the Orange societies, 29 June 1813, but not so much to defend their character as that of the viceroy which had been impugned.

Peel’s relations with the Duke of Richmond and with Lord Whitworth, who succeeded as lord lieutenant in the autumn of 1813, were cordial: over the latter, on the strength of a mere year’s experience, he gained ungrudged ascendancy. He found it might be necessary for him to vacate his seat on the change of viceroys and toyed with the idea of coming in for Carlow borough instead of Chippenham, but the matter dropped when he was not challenged. Another problem arose at the same time when William Fitzgerald, unable to avoid Fosterian pretensions as Irish chancellor of the exchequer, proffered his resignation. Peel again refused to consider annexing that office to his other parliamentary business, while Lord Liverpool, though insisting on Fitzgerald’s exit in so far as he challenged the unity of the Irish government, prevailed on him to stay ad interim until the British and Irish Treasuries were consolidated. The friendship of the two men remained unimpaired.7

Peel’s parliamentary contributions after 1812 were largely confined to Irish business. Samuel Egerton Brydges* recalled him as speaking seldom, and by preference only if formally prepared, ‘with many protests of candour and humble consideration, in a sort of beseeching tone’.8 On 20 May 1814, however, he departed from his brief and called for no further delay in legislating for the protection of the corn trade: he had been one of the select committee on it. On 3 June he caused the Catholic board, on whose activities he had kept a close watch, to be dissolved by proclamation, a step he justified in the House on 8 June. On 23 June he introduced a bill for the better execution of the laws in Ireland, intended to combat conspiracies and sectarian vendettas by appointing superintending magistrates and additional constables (popularly known as ‘Peelers’). He followed it up on 8 July by reviving part of the Irish Insurrection Act of 1807 (repealed in 1810) for two years, under the title of the Irish preservation of the peace bill. Without it, he claimed, in many parts of Ireland ‘the inhabitants were obliged to sit up whole nights to guard themselves from assassination’. He was so far satisfied with the effects of the bill that on introducing an amendment to it, 18 Nov. 1814, he remarked that ‘there was not an enemy to the peace of Ireland, who did not cordially disapprove of it’. He also noted with satisfaction that the Orange lodges had dropped their offensive oath and, while admitting that they spawned abuses, resisted further inquiry into their activities, 29 Nov. 1814, 4 July 1815. The revival of Catholic agitation through the Catholic Association met with his disapproval and on 30 May 1815 he was critical of their hero Daniel O’Connell in the debate on Catholic relief. After a brief visit to Paris in the wake of Waterloo, he returned to the Continent a few months later to fight a duel with O’Connell, which was frustrated; but his friends were dismayed to discover from his subsequent pursuit of O’Connell’s second that his temper had been seriously ruffled on the occasion.9

In February 1816 he was back in his place to defend the Irish part of the army estimates, pointing out that the need for a garrison of 25,000 soldiers proved that there was no ‘magic’ solution to Ireland’s problems, though he envisaged replacing them with ‘an army of police’. Lord Grenville commented, ‘Peel’s speech is a plain and distinct avowal that Ireland is and must be purely under a military government’ and concluded that the separation of the two countries was the only alternative.10 Peel had no such conclusion in mind: his Irish sympathies were broadening. He espoused Irish interests in debates on the corn trade, the property tax (which he in general supported to the end), linen duties, agricultural distress and distillation.

In the debate on Sir John Newport’s motion on the state of Ireland, 26 Apr. 1816, against which he carried an amendment conceding more specific inquiries into Irish unrest, he admitted that the evidence of Irish history was gloomy, but that he did not despair of the prospect of enlightenment, if the mass of the population could find it in their interest to co-operate with a government which they comprehended. He attested to the qualities that attached him to the Irish. He was still, however, adamant against Catholic relief. On 9 May 1817 he was the protestant champion in the debate on Catholic relief and his speech, which, as John William Ward* put it, said ‘all that could be said on that side, and said it as well as possible’, was supposed to have ensured the defeat of Grattan’s motion. Without securities, Peel argued, the concession of emancipation, in itself unlikely to pacify the Irish, was fraught with danger to the constitution and would, he hinted, interfere with the providential status of Britain. An opposition spokesman, Mackintosh reported:

Peel made a speech of little merit in point of substance, but so clearly and elegantly expressed and so well delivered as to be applauded to excess. He is a proof of the great value of the mechanical parts of speaking, when combined with industry and caution. He now fills the too important place of spokesman to the intolerant faction.

Peel was outwardly uncompromising, too, about the maintenance of a large military establishment in Ireland, 13 May 1817, but he had agreed with the cabinet to reduce it in defiance of his Irish subordinates and had on 11 Mar. moved an amendment to the Irish peace preservation bill, to introduce ‘something like an effective police’ to replace the military (a process that was finally achieved in 1822). When on 21 May 1817 he renewed the Irish Insurrection Act for a year, he assured the House that it was now rarely applied and it met with little opposition. He had never found his Irish contingent so docile.11 At the end of the session he assisted the passage of the Irish grand jury presentments bill, intended to improve local government in Ireland, which he had encouraged Francis Horner, Edward Synge Cooper and William Fitzgerald successively to carry: in the ensuing session he supported some amendments to it that were found necessary.

Since his anti-Catholic speech in May 1817, Peel’s future had become something to conjure with. He had, thought Lady Granville, ‘put himself into Mr Perceval’s shoes, and I think they will be good wear. He is, I believe, clever, and I know he is prudent ... He has a sort of plodding, successful look.’ On 28 May he was invited to take the chair at the meeting of the Pitt Club, which had by now become so ‘Protestant’ that Canning could not even attend it; and when the Speaker resigned that day, vacating his seat for Oxford University, he soon found himself preferred to Canning, the acknowledged aspirant, and also to Nicholas Vansittart, another contender, as the Christ Church nominee in the by-election. His election was carried by acclaim. The opposition press chose to regard it as a ‘No Popery’ plot machinated by Lord Eldon, but Peel’s friends urged him to regard it as a triumph of character. He himself was so exhilarated by his elevation from being a close borough Member as to contemplate giving up office; but his Oxford adjutant Dr Charles Lloyd prevailed on him to accept what was a unique honour for a young minister as a gift for adherence to Pitt’s principles, unlikely to be revoked as long as Peel maintained them.12

Peel had not intended to remain chief secretary on Whitworth’s retirement and had misgivings about the choice of Lord Talbot, with his Irish connexions, to succeed as viceroy. On 30 June 1817, however, an address of 59 Irish Members urging him to stay showed him how much his services were appreciated and he agreed to remain for the time being, to Liverpool’s relief. His administrative ability had been severely tested by the famine threat in Ireland that year, when he was not able to be on the spot, but he was given credit for the relief measures that followed his stringent inquiries on the subject, which obliged his Irish subordinates to supply him with the information on which to act. The typhus epidemic that followed the famine further exercised him. He was also preoccupied with securing retrenchments on the overmanned Irish establishment and in implementing reforms in Irish judicial fees recommended by the commissioners, which he announced in the House on 2 Mar. 1818.13 Applauded as he now was by such Irish patriots in opposition as Sir John Newport, he encountered no embarrassments in the session of 1818 on Irish business, except for the move to repeal the Irish window tax, which he resisted. As if to make up for this, Peel, ever a dutiful son, sallied forth in debate to defend his father’s bill to regulate child labour in the cotton factories, which he did admirably, 19, 23 Feb., 6, 17, 27 Apr. 1818. He also represented the interests of Oxford University in the debates on the copyright bill during the same session.

After managing the Irish elections of 1818, which returned 71 government supporters, Peel left Ireland for ever, the most successful chief secretary since the Union, on the day he had fixed for his resignation, 3 Aug. 1818. He now wished to be ‘free as air’ and laughed at those who supposed he looked to promotion and still more at those, like Lord Yarmouth, who were reported to be backing him for the premier’s office. He was flattered, but not moved, by such enthusiastic Irish friends as James Daly*, who promised him the nucleus of a party to battle for power. Cabinet office in the near future was prognosticated for him and the most likely office tipped was the Exchequer, in succession to Vansittart, whose incompetence Peel was prepared to talk about. At least one sour observer would have vetoed the admission to the cabinet of an upstart.14 Others believed that he was in a huff because Frederick John Robinson*, of whose flourishing career he was said to be jealous, had been preferred to him as president of the Board of Trade; and that he had proceeded from Ireland to his Scottish highland vacation ‘to get out of the way of government ... as if he was sulky and was afraid it would not be known’. In any case, he was ‘one of the Dii Majores of our political Olympus’ and, if not likely to rebel or ‘exert himself to create a party’, could not be ignored with impunity.15

Peel’s first act in the new Parliament was to propose his friend Charles Manners Sutton as Speaker, 14 Jan. 1819. On 9 Feb. he lectured the House on their indifference to the Irish grand jury bill. He remained on the finance committee and after offering to serve on the committee on the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, he was appointed chairman, but insisted on unfettered freedom of judgment. His first significant move, however, was to speak in support of the Windsor establishment, 22 Feb. 1819, in reply to Tierney, from the third bench behind the Treasury, and again three days later, in reply to Denman. This, while it added fuel to the speculations of those who regarded Peel as the darling of the court and of the Duke of York in particular, was of material assistance to government. He apparently went away on the division of 2 Mar. on criminal law reform, feeling unable to oppose it. He was himself preoccupied with learning the art of ‘subtle reasoning’ in debate and possibly his complex speech on the government side in the debate on the conduct of Wyndham Quin*, 29 Mar., was an inaugural illustration of it. On 30 Apr. he defended the communal fines for illicit distillation in Ireland as, though imperfect, the best check available to date and preferable to ‘perpetual vacillation’ on the issue. He did not express his continued opposition to Catholic relief on Grattan’s motion a few days later, because he and Plunkett, each determined to let the other speak first, were thereby reduced to silence.16

Peel presented his chairman’s report advocating the resumption of cash payments by the Bank on 24 May 1819. This speech set the tone for an era that relished plain facts and it greatly enhanced his stature. He recanted his views of 1811 on the subject, which had been ill-informed, and admitted his disagreement with his father on it; but he avoided politics and although it was reported that no minister cheered the unpalatable truths he had to present, he went on to secure a quiet passage for the two epoch-making bills based on the report.17 It was again without holding a government brief that on 23 June 1819 he indulged in a skirmish with Brougham, for whose exclusion from the Bank committee he had voted in February, over the charity foundations bill, alleging that Brougham had far exceeded his terms of reference as chairman of the committee of inquiry into education. Though Brougham responded savagely, Peel retorted and the combatants reached deadlock.

Peel was one of the non-official friends of government invited to Castlereagh’s dinner of 22 Nov. 1819 to discuss repressive legislation following the tumult at Manchester. Illness kept him away from the debates on it until 2 Dec. when he justified the conduct of the local magistrates and defended the seditious meetings prevention bill, denying imputations of inhumanity. On 9 Dec., resisting the proposed inquiry into the plight of the industrial areas, he maintained that their condition was beyond parliamentary control. Privately, he admitted that there was evidence of a growing public opinion, particularly in those districts, which was at odds with the unreformed Parliament. Such perspicacity was ominous in a man described that year by James Abercromby* as ‘made to be the darling of the Tories and of the Court’ and who, with his ‘very considerable talents for business’, must be ‘a leading man in our country’. He was now expected to succeed Lord Sidmouth as Home secretary, but had to wait until 1822 to do so. Wellesley Pole insisted, in 1820, that Peel’s leaving his Irish office when he did had lost him a reservoir of adherents and proved that ‘it was a foolish thing to think of influence without office, let the ability be ever so great’.18 Even as prime minister, Peel remained open to conviction. He died 2 July 1850.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Recollections ... of Samuel Rogers (1856), 250, cited by N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, 39, on which this article is based.
  • 2. Gash, 47-48; Add. 40605, f. 5; Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 619, 627.
  • 3. Perceval (Holland) mss F54; Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 202; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, 122, 126; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4074, 4156; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 7 Apr. 1810.
  • 4. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 406-7, 408; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 13 Nov. 1810.
  • 5. HMC Bathurst, 180; NLI, Richmond mss 72/1590, 74/1914; Add. 38249, f. 20; NLI mss 7817, pp. 295-7.
  • 6. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 23 Oct. 1812; Add. 40221, f. 232; 40222, ff. 20, 64; 40280, ff. 35-37, 44, 45, 50, 85; 40605, f. 9.
  • 7. Add. 38254, f. 258; 40181, f. 45; 40230, f. 21; 40231, f. 144; 40285, ff. 34, 89, 111, 112, 116.
  • 8. Autobiog. i. 200.
  • 9. Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 76-79; Parker, Peel, i. 191-201.