Robert Peel was born at Chamber Hall, Bury, Lancashire, and was the eldest son of Sir Robert Peel, 1st Baronet, an industrialist and parliamentarian, and Ellen Yates.
After graduating from Christ Church, Oxford, with a double first in Classics and Mathematics in 1808, Peel became a law student at Lincoln’s Inn the following the year. That same year, he entered politics by becoming the MP for the borough of Cashel, Tipperary, at the tender age of 21. Peel was sponsored for the role by his father and Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. Peel made his maiden speech in 1810 when he was chosen by Prime Minister Spencer Perceval to second the reply to the king’s speech.
In 1810, Peel was appointed an Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies under Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool. Thereafter, when Lord Liverpool formed a government in 1812, Peel was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland where he appointed special constables to deal with disturbances, laying the foundation for the Royal Irish Constabulary.
After resigning from his post in Ireland in 1819, Peel was appointed as chairman of the Bullion Committee, formed to stabilise British finances after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Peel proposed the reversion of British currency from paper back to the gold standard, a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. The Bill was passed through Parliament with ease, mainly because it favoured the landed gentry, and the reversion was complete by 1821.
in 1822, Peel was appointed as Home Secretary and he introduced a number of reforms in criminal law, including the reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death, and simplified the law by repealing a large number of criminal statutes. Peel also reformed the gaol system, introducing payment for gaolers and education for the inmates in the Gaols Act 1823. Peel resigned as Home Secretary in 1827 after Lord Liverpool was replaced by George Canning. Canning was in favour of Catholic emancipation, something to which was completely opposed.
Peel returned to the post of Home Secretary under the premiership of the Duke of Wellington and was generally considered as Wellington’s successor as leader of the Tories. In 1828, Peel was forced to reconsider his stance on Catholic emancipation in light of civil unrest and he drew up the Catholic Relief bill which was passed as the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. Peel could only get the bill passed with the help of the opposition, the Whigs, and it cost him the support of many Protestants who were firmly opposed to the Act.
In 1829, Peel instituted one of his most famous achievements with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force at Scotland Yard. Peel recruited 1,000 constables, nicknamed bobbies, and they proved so effective at cutting crime rates, new forces were soon established in other cities throughout the United Kingdom.
The Tories lost their majority to the Whigs in 1830 who set out introducing a number of reforms in response to growing civil unrest. After four years, the Tories were re-established and Peel was appointed prime minister for the first time. The Tories were still a minority government though and a general election was eventually called at the beginning of 1835, however Peel only gained an extra 100 seats. Peel was forced to issue the Tamworth Manifesto, assuring the Tories would endorse modest reforms, but it wasn’t enough. Blocked by the Whigs from passing bills, Peel’s government was forced to resign and Lord Melbourne became prime minister.
By this time, Queen Victoria had succeeded to the throne and had formed a very close relationship with Melbourne. When Melbourne resigned after a government bill passed by a very narrow margin of only five votes, the Queen was advised to approach Peel to form a government, however Peel realised the Tories would still be in the minority and he wanted a gesture of support from the Queen. Peel asked Victoria to dismiss some of her Whig ladies-in-waiting and to replace them with Tory equivalents but the incensed Queen’s refused his request. Realising he was getting nowhere, Peel refused to form a government and Melbourne resumed as prime minister.
Following a vote of no confidence, Melbourne’s government fell on 30 August 1841 and Peel began his second term as prime minister in the midst of an economic recession. Peel reinstated income tax to raise revenue and the move was so successful, it allowed for the removal and reduction of over 1,200 tariffs on imports. Peel also made his first attempt to repeal the Corn Laws, restrictions on imported food and grain, but the proposal was soundly defeated.
After the elections of July 1841, Peel finally had a majority government and he stuck to his promise of introducing mild reforms by establishing the Factory Act 1844 which restricted the number of hours children and women could work in a factory, as well as setting rudimentary safety standards for machinery. In 1843, Peel was devastated by the death of Edward Drummond, his secretary, who was struck down by Daniel M’Naghten, a criminally insane Scottish wood turner who was intent on assassinating Peel. The death of Drummond prompted the introduction of the criminal defence of insanity.
In 1846, Peel was determined to repeal the Corn Laws in the wake of the Great Famine that had killed thousands of people in Ireland. The potato crop in Ireland had been destroyed by blight and since it was the main source of food for the impoverished, thousands of people starved to death. The Corn Laws placed high tariffs on imported grain in favour of domestic producers, however supplies were often so short it led to an increase in food prices and stifled other trades due to a lack of income. Knowing his actions would end his career, Peel managed to get his repeal bill passed through Parliament with the help of the Duke of Wellington. However, later that evening, Peel’s Irish Coercion Bill, aimed at calming the chaos in Ireland, was defeated and Peel was forced to resign.
Peel retained a number of supporters who became known as Peelites and he continued to be influential on important issues, including the furtherance of British free trade. Peel was thrown from his horse while riding on Constitution Hill in London on 29 June 1850, and he died three days later, on 2 July, due to a clavicular fracture.
Peel was survived by his wife, Julia, who he married on 8 June 1820, and their seven children.