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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Robert Peel

(1788–1850, 2nd bt 1830)
Prime minister 1834–5 and 1841–6. Born the son of a Lancashire cotton manufacturer and Tory politician, Peel was himself a Tory MP from the time when he came of age, in 1809. For six years from 1812 he was chief secretary for Ireland, where the strong line which he took to suppress Catholic agitation earned him the inevitable nickname of Orange Peel (see *Orange). Members of the *police force which he set up in Ireland were called 'peelers' from his surname, just as their London equivalents were later known as 'bobbies' from his first name.

His establishment of the metropolitan police in 1829 was part of a major series of reforms in the criminal justice system which he carried out as home secretary (1822–7 in Liverpool's administration, 1828–30 in Wellington's). His other great achievement of that decade was pushing through parliament the *Emancipation Act, also passed in 1829. Peel's years in Ireland had made him an opponent of Catholic emancipation, but the deteriorating political situation there altered his views – a statesmanlike flexibility which lost him many supporters on this issue, as later also on the Corn Laws.

The passing of the *Reform Act in 1832 left the Tories weak and in disarray. Peel emerged as the new leader, and it was under him that the Tory party transformed itself into the modern *Conservative party; his manifesto to the electors of his Tamworth constituency in Staffordshire, before the election of 1834, has often been seen as the classic statement of reforming Conservative principles. He won that election but only held office for a few months before being defeated by a coalition of Whigs, radicals and Irish nationalists.

When he returned as prime minister, after the general election of 1841, the problems he faced were associated still with those three groups: the Whigs were agitating for free trade and the repeal of the *Corn Laws, to which Conservative landowners were strongly opposed; the demands of the *Chartists were receiving passionate and often violent support in depressed industrial areas; and *O'Connell was holding massive rallies in Ireland against British rule.

In Ireland Peel took a strong line with civil disturbances but again balanced this with measures to promote Catholic opportunities and education. On free trade he was already making concessions, against the interests of his party, before the *Great Famine persuaded him to go further and to repeal the *Corn Laws in their entirety in 1846. This action improved conditions in Britain and thereby reduced Chartist agitation, but it split the Conservative party. The act was passed by a minority of Conservatives with support from Whigs and radicals, after which Peel's government fell.

The Conservatives who had supported him, known from then on as the 'Peelites', remained a separate faction, led after his death by Lord *Aberdeen; many of them eventually joined the *Liberal party. Peel died of injuries sustained when he was thrown from his horse on Constitution Hill, the road running along the edge of Buckingham Palace. In the last three decades of his life he formed a fine collection of paintings, mainly Dutch and Flemish of the 17C, more than 70 of which are now in the *National Gallery.

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