PEEL, Robert I (1750-1830), of Drayton Manor, Staffs.

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



1790 - 1820

Family and Education

b. 25 Apr. 1750, 3rd s. of Robert Peel, calico printer, of Peele Fold and Blackburn, Lancs. by Elizabeth, da. of Edmund Haworth of Walmesley Fold, Lower Darwen, Lancs. educ. Blackburn g.s. m. (1) 8 July 1783, Ellen (d. 28 Dec. 1803), da. of William Yates, calico printer, of Spring Side, nr. Bury, Lancs., 6s. 5da.; (2) 17 Oct. 1805, Susanna, da. of Francis Clerke of North Weston, Lancs., s.p. cr. Bt. 29 Nov. 1800.

Offices Held

Lt.-col. Bury loyal vols. 1798.

High steward, Tamworth 1811-d.


Peel’s father, a Lancastrian yeoman turned calico printer first at Bury, then at Burton-on-Trent, died in 1795 worth some £140,000, having designed improvements in Arkwright’s cotton spinning machines and, in 1792, taken out a coat of arms with the motto ‘Industria’. By then Peel had over 20 years’ practical experience in the same industry, in successful partnership with Haworth and Yates at Bury. In 1780 he published a pamphlet entitled The national debt productive of national prosperity, According to his brother Joseph, he had ‘more brains’ than the rest of the family. In 1785 he was examined at the bar of the House as a spokesman for the English cotton manufacturers on the proposed commercial treaty with Ireland. In 1790 he purchased the Tamworth property of the 1st Marquess of Bath and by 1796 made good his title to most of Drayton manor. Having established cotton mills in the district, he took up residence there by 1799. The Tamworth property enabled him to become co-patron of the borough, which he represented unopposed from 1790 until 1818, when he carried himself and his second son William with difficulty, and where he made way for the latter in 1820. He was the first ‘cotton king’ to sit in Parliament. Ambitious for his family, which could not be traced before 1731 with certainty, he founded a dynasty in public life, four of his sons entering Parliament and the eldest becoming one of England’s foremost statesmen. As early as 1803, he was being eulogized as a model of a self-made man, self-educated, well-informed, empirical, and philanthropic; as well as being an industrial magnate, with 15,000 employees, who paid over £40,000 p.a. in duties on his calico prints. Until about 1804 he was also principal of the Manchester New Bank (Peel, Greaves & Co.).1

Peel believed that ‘it was the duty of the commercial world to support every administration, till they had actually rendered themselves unworthy of public confidence’.2 He found little difficulty in supporting Pitt’s, owing to his growing admiration for him. In his maiden speech, 21 Dec. 1790, on the malt tax, he pointed out that the wealth of a country depended on the industry, not the size or scope, of its population. He was listed as an opponent of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791. He was teller for the majority which thwarted Jonathan Hornblower’s fire-engine monopoly, 4 Apr. 1792. He was a founder member of the Manchester association for preserving constitutional order (11 Dec. 1792) and denied in the House six days later an allegation that a speech of his against ‘incendiaries’ had provoked riots. All he had been accurately reported as saying was ‘God save the King’. He thought there was little disaffection and that his employees had no time for Tom Paine: ‘some ... had better incomes from their industry than many of the new-created kings of France’. The French revolutionary crisis had ended the party division between Pittites and Foxites: ‘they have all coalesced, and call themselves Kingites’. Opposing the abolition of the slave trade, 7 Feb. 1794, he claimed that slaves were as yet ‘incapable of a rational liberty’ and asked ‘Should he put a sword into a madman’s hand?’. On 9 May 1798 he was a teller for the land tax redemption bill, which he claimed had met with unmerited hostility: he accused Buxton on 18 May of splitting the landed and moneyed interests in amending it. He supported the Lancaster sessions bill, approved by the rate-payers, 16 May, but the same day in defence of the convoy duty defied the instructions of his fellow merchants to oppose the duty on goods exported to America and the West Indies, which he regarded as an emergency measure: he could see no reason for lack of confidence in ministers. The year before his firm had subscribed £10,000 to the loyalty loan and that year he raised the Bury volunteers, six companies recruited largely from his own employees.

On 14 Feb. 1799 Peel delivered a set speech (afterwards published in Dublin) in favour of the Anglo-Irish union: against the Irish objections to it, which he attempted to answer, he set the advantage to Ireland of the commercial terms. Likening the countries to two houses in business, he maintained that England had made Ireland an offer she could not refuse. On 19 Mar. 1799 he supported the London merchants’ petition for a hearing against the abolition of the slave trade. Speaking on the poor settlement bill, 17 Mar. 1800, he admitted that the unemployed in manufacturing districts threw a burden on the landed interest which should be faced by the industrialists. (As vice-president of the society for benefiting the poor he donated £1,000 himself in 1802.)3 On 1 May 1800 (styled by the reporter ‘Mr Peel of Manchester’) he supported Pitt’s proposal to allow the export of wool to Ireland, denying that it would damage the English textile manufacturers: he admitted next day that Irish cotton manufacturers had the advantage of their English counterparts by the Union, but thought it his duty to support the measure. He induced Pitt to alter a feature of the income tax assessment, enabling returns to be made by businessmen where most of their trade was carried on, rather than where the principal partner of a firm resided, 26 May. He recommended Foden’s invention of gypsum as a substitute for wheat flour in starches, 13 June. Shortly before Pitt resigned office, he was made a baronet.

On 27 Feb. 1801 George Rose reported:

Sir Robert Peel told me he had been urged by many independent men to state in the House of Commons the necessity of Mr Pitt remaining in a responsible situation, and not abandoning the country; referred plainly to the total want of confidence in Mr Addington, and stated that to be general in and out of Parliament.

On 30 Apr. 1801 he supported legislation against bank-note forgery and next day opposed the Coventry poor relief bill (he was said to be a prospective candidate for Coventry at the next election).4 He justified the continued stoppage of cash payments by the Bank, 9 Apr. 1802, but objected, now that peace had arrived, to the convoy duty, which he nevertheless thought should be extended to Ireland, 14, 27 Apr. He was preoccupied that session with a pioneer bill to improve the health and morals of apprentices in the cotton trade. When he sought leave for it on 6 Apr. on humanitarian grounds, derogatory remarks about the employment of child labour by industrialists were made and Wilberforce desired that it might be a general measure, instead of being confined to the cotton trade. Evading an attempt to limit the number of apprentices employed by a businessman (14 Apr.) and another to extend it to all children employed, not merely apprentices (4 May), Peel urged that the bill had met with public approval; but he had to swallow several amendments (18 May, 2 June) before the bill passed. He was himself the employer of many apprentices farmed out by London parishes, whose welfare, he admitted, had in the past been neglected in his own factories.

Peel was recruited by Canning as a steward (’himself a host’) at Pitt’s birthday dinner in May 1802, to represent the manufacturing interest. Better still, he stood up in the House, 7 May, and assured it that ‘no minister ever understood so well the commercial interests of the country’ as Pitt, ‘the benefactor of his country; he has neglected no one’s interest but his own’. In November 1802 Pitt’s more enthusiastic friends hoped Peel would sign a circular imploring him to return to power,5 but he was out of town. On 7 Apr. 1803 he defended the West Indian interest over the Grenada loan bill. Subsequently Canning sounded him as to the extent he was prepared to go in his dissatisfaction with the Addington ministry, with a view to restoring Pitt. On 3 May Canning informed Pitt that Peel would support a general motion critical of ministerial foreign policy since the peace treaty, but not a particular inquiry ‘upon a dispute recently concluded’. On 6 May he spoke and voted against the adjournment— it was reported that he had never voted in a minority before and he had broken a leave of absence to do so. On 16 May at a Canningite dinner he undertook to move a vote of no confidence in the ministry. Canning reported:

So gay and gallant was old fat Peel towards the end of the evening, that he asked all the company to dinner for Friday [20 May]. Many a qualm I dare say he has had since— and many a wish that he had not pledged himself so deeply— but he must not be let off. His name is a tower of strength ... I made Patten ready— in case fatty Peel should fail us.

At Peel’s dinner it was settled that Patten would move the censure and Peel would second it. On 25 May in the House Peel said that as a commercial man he could not but prefer peace to war, but the present resumption of it was not Addington’s fault and he believed the people of France, in bondage to Buonaparte, wished Britain well in the conflict. On 30 May Canning reported apropos of Patten’s impending censure motion: ‘Peele [sic], great fat Peele, quakes and evidently wishes not to second,— though still promising to speak and vote’.6 On 3 June he said in the debate

he had originally given ministers his support; but he confessed he was dissatisfied with many parts of their conduct since the treaty of peace. He expressed his unlimited confidence in the talents of the right honourable gentleman [Pitt]; and noticed the great inferiority in the present state of our equipment, when compared with that which ministers had found on their coming into power.

He went on to vote for Pitt’s question and not for the censure motion and, though listed ‘Pitt’ in March 1804, he did not vote with the combined opposition to Addington until 23 and 25 Apr.

Peel supported Pitt’s second ministry, but not uncritically. When the Irish chancellor of the exchequer called for the exemption from tax increases of the Irish linen trade, he said the cotton trade might ask for the same relief, 5 June 1804. According to Pitt, he supported his additional force bill that month. He voted in the opposition majority in censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, and was proposed by Whitbread for his abortive select committee to investigate the charges, 25 Apr. On 10 May he opposed the corn bill, which by adding to consumer costs made it more difficult for manufacturers, in the face of a rising wages bill, to meet foreign competition. He supported the Lancaster justices bill as being indispensable for Manchester. In July 1805 he was still listed Pittite and, a month before Pitt’s death, he applied to him to make his brother-in-law Cockburn professor of modern history at Cambridge.7 He was subsequently a steward (1808) and vice-president (1815) of the Pitt Club.

Peel opposed the Grenville ministry’s repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. He opposed the slave importation bill, 1 May, because it tended to banish British manufactures from the colonies at a time when the continental market was closed. He was duly listed as ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade, but after appearing in the minority against ministers on the Hampshire petition, 13 Feb. 1807, was absent ill in March and April. He broke his leave, 23 Apr., to oppose Sheridan’s journeymen calico printers bill: ‘he was himself a friend to the journeymen calico printers’, but he could not concede their right to lay down the law to their masters. He blamed the Grenville ministry and not the orders in council for the commercial distress indicated in the London merchants’ petition against the orders, 10 Mar. 1808: he had declined attending their meeting from disapprobation. Of the Manchester petition for peace, 12 Apr. 1808, he complained that most of the signatories were long dead. Having headed a cotton masters’ delegation to the chancellor of the Exchequer, he opposed Rose’s proposal for a minimum wage for cotton weavers, 19 May, claiming that the masters were suffering ‘still more than the men’ by their exclusion from foreign markets and that it would be ‘false compassion’ to fix wages, as the masters would dismiss their workmen and throw them on the parish. He objected to the exemption of Ireland from the corn distillery prohibition bill, because the north of England relied on Irish oats. Repeating this view on 22 Feb. 1810, he added that it was wise to encourage the West India sugar planters, and Irish exemption was a violation of the Act of Union. Apart from one vote with opposition, against Perceval’s resolution on the Duke of York’s misconduct, 17 Mar. 1809, Peel did not otherwise oppose the Portland ministry or Perceval’s. He recommended his son Robert to the latter to second the address in 1810 and had the satisfaction of seeing him make a successful debut and soon obtain office. He voted with ministers that day, 23 Jan., and on the Scheldt question, 23 Feb. and 5 Mar. 1810. The Whigs listed him ‘against the Opposition’ and so he voted on 30 Mar., whereupon Canning reported to his wife: ‘Peele, [sic] whom I told you I hoped to seduce, was one— who told me that he would have gone with me— and would not have voted with government if I had not’. He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810: he had no hesitation in buying his sons seats in Parliament, provided the terms were not exorbitant and seats were offered to him.8

Peel, sent for by his son Robert to muster for ministers in mid January, gave evidence to the committee on commercial credit, 6 Mar. 1811, and on 7 and 11 Mar. justified it in the House. He made it clear that he was not a bullionist. In the textile trade the reduction of prices led to unemployment for many and the lowering of the wages of the rest of the operatives. Because of the distress of the trade, he opposed the cotton wool duty bill, 22 May, and two days later ministers gave it up. He supported a petition for relief from the distressed manufacturers of Manchester and Bolton, blaming the enemy and not ministers for their plight, 30 May. He advocated a select committee to investigate their problems, fearing that they might carry their skills to other countries, and was named to the committee, 5 June. He could not swallow Wilbraham Bootle’s parish apprentices bill, 7 June, and, not surprisingly, resisted a bid the same day to limit the number of apprentices employed by one master.13 He voted against Bankes’s bids to reform sinecures, 7 and 24 Feb. 1812, and paired with ministers on the orders in council, 3 Mar. On 21 May, despite reports that he would act to the contrary, he was in the ministerial minority against a remodelling of the government. He took his leave of the House on 8 June.9

Peel was listed a Treasury supporter after the election of 1812. He paired against Catholic relief, 2 Mar., 24 May 1813, and remained hostile all his life. He supported the local tokens bill as a harmless means of supplying the deficiency of specie, 12 Feb. 1813. He assured the House that industry was ‘animating’ after some years of depression, 26 Mar., and hoped ministers would not damage the ‘very promising’ prospects for commerce by adding to the tax burden. He opposed the tax on American cotton, 31 Mar., ridiculing Indian cotton as an alternative source of supply and looking forward rather to the cessation of hostilities with the USA; he deplored the advantage taken of cotton scarcity by profiteering entrepreneurs, particularly John Gladstone* of Liverpool, 10 May, and, though a select committeeman on India 1808-12, thought the House devoted too much time to East India Company interests, 25 May. On 1 June he recalled that he had represented the northern manufacturers in a fruitless negotiation with ministers to give them some access to East India Company trade in 1793, and he now asked if the people of Britain alone were to be excluded from the benefits of a trade ‘to the existence of which they so very largely contributed’. In October 1814 a peerage for him was rumoured.10

Peel opposed the alteration in the Corn Laws, 27 Feb. 1815, as it undermined ‘the wise system pursued for years’ and promoted the myth of a separation of interests between the landed and the moneyed classes. He supported a bounty on the import of corn when prices were high, 1 Mar., and voted against the bill then and on 10 Mar. On 6 Mar. he presented and defended the Manchester petition against it, denying that he was no longer a Lancastrian. On 6 June 1815 he obtained leave to extend his Cotton Apprentices Act of 1802, so as to prohibit the employment of children under ten years of age and to limit child labour to ten effective hours a day. Meanwhile he supported ministers on the army estimates, 6 and 8 Mar. 1816, but opposed the renewal of the property tax by speech (12 Mar.) and vote (18 Mar.). On 3 Apr. he obtained a committee to investigate child labour in factories, denying the imputation that he was promoting it ‘when he was about to quit the concern’. He voted with ministers on the civil list, 24 May, and on the public revenue bill, 14 June. In 1817 he supported them on the Admiralty secretary’s salary, 17 Feb., but was otherwise inactive and took sick leave on 13 June. On 10 Feb. 1818 he presented a Manchester cotton spinners’ petition which suggested limiting child labour to nine effective hours a day and on 19 Feb. obtained leave to act upon it. On 23 Feb., assisted by his son Robert, he explained that the principle was the same as in his bill of 1815, but no child under nine years of age was to be employed, and 11 hours a day (including educational and meal breaks) was to be the limit. On 10 Apr. he was able to present a petition from Stockport commending the bill. Even so he met with some hostility, notably from Lancashire Members, on 27 Apr., when he obtained the bill’s committal by 91 votes to 26. Mackintosh reported ‘Ogre P[eel] however, made the best speech for his trade I have yet heard him make on any occasion’. He was again assisted by his son Robert.11 (After being delayed in the Lords, the bill received the royal assent on 2 July 1819.) On 15 Apr. 1818 he was in the government minority in favour of the ducal marriage grant.

At the election of 1818 Peel was opposed at Tamworth when he tried to bring in his son William with himself and his victory was marred by disorder and animosity; he felt obliged to deny the slur on his reputation made by his opponents. He was blamed for the failure of a Tamworth bank in 1816; in fact he had earlier had the reputation of having saved businesses from ruin, by capital loans. He played a limited part in the ensuing Parliament. On 28 Apr. 1819 he took three weeks’ sick leave. He voted against Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May. He had just prevailed on a meeting in the City to oppose the hasty resumption of cash payments. On 24 May he presented their petition to the House, recalling that he had attended the City meeting of 1797 approving the stoppage. He made light of his son Robert’s contrary view on this occasion, leaving the House in no doubt that Robert was the pride of his life, likely to fulfil his private hopes that he would follow in Pitt’s footsteps as a statesman (‘Bob, you dog, if you are not prime minister some day, I’ll disinherit you’ was what he really said.) It was his nunc dimittis, apart from a minor amendment to the Cotton Factories Act which he introduced on 7 Dec. 1819. His retirement in 1820 also served the practical aim of averting further contest at Tamworth. He died a multimillionaire, 3 May 1830: ‘his moral virtues and political principles were alike unsullied’.12

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Sources cited by N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, ch. 1 on which this paragraph is based; Public Characters (1803-4), 1; L. H. Grindon, Manchester Banks and Bankers, 64-5.
  • 2. Debrett (ser. 3), xviii. 248.
  • 3. The Times, 17 Apr. 1802.
  • 4. Rose Diaries, i. 320; The Times, 26 May 1802.
  • 5. PRO 30/29/8/2, f. 226; The Times, 21 May 1802; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 109; Rose Diaries, i. 458.
  • 6. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 4/97; Lansdowne mss, Petty to Lansdowne, 7 May; Creevey mss, Creevey to Currie, 7 May; The Times, 7 May; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20, 21, 30 May 1803.
  • 7. Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2888; PRO 30/70, Peel to Pitt, 23 Dec. 1805.
  • 8. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 7 Apr. 1810; Add. 40217, f. 395; 40223, f. 142.
  • 9. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 341; Romilly, Mems. ii. 399; HMC Fortescue, x. 261.
  • 10. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 15 Oct. 1814.
  • 11. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 356.
  • 12. Public Characters (1803-4), 42; Morning Chron. 19 May 1819; Recollections ... of Samuel Rogers ed. A.D. (1856), 250, cited by Gash, p. 39; Gent. Mag. (1830), i. 557.