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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Victorian Britain: Part Two

Robert Peel

Why in a short course devote a whole session to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel? If his name is remembered today by the General Public it is for the introduction of a professional Police Force in 1829. Still known as Peelers or Bobbies after him.

Important though this was, not least in enabling Governments to deploy a civilian Force in the event of social and industrial unrest rather than falling back on the military to restore order, it is not what historians remember most about this extraordinary man.

Although sitting as a Tory MP, and subsequently as a Tory PM, he changed the face of British politics forever. Consigned to the history books was the old 18th century division between Tory and Whig and in their place, first of all, arose The Conservative Party to replace the old Tory Party in 1834 (although today the two terms are used interchangeably); and when a group of Peelites, led by then Conservative MP William Gladstone, joined with the old Whig Party to form the new Liberal Party in 1859 the transformation of British politics was complete.

Peel who served twice as PM - in 1834-5, and in 1841-46 - was a Northerner from Lancashire whose family had made their money in the cotton mills around Bury. A very different Tory leader to those who had preceded him. One aspect of his involvement with 'the dark satanic hills' of the North was a commitment to radical social reform. Of his many reforms the greatest was The Repeal of The Corn Laws, which arguably was the one action which staved off revolution in mid 19th century Britain; thus when revolution did break out widely across Europe in the Revolutionary Year of 1848, Britain was spared.

However, it would be misleading to present a wholly rosy picture of the 1840s. It was after all the decade of The Irish Potato Famine, of the political movement of Chartism, and of a rapid expansion in population for which the country's existing food supply was to prove less than adequate.

But Peel still stands out as one of Britain's most successful and radical PMs, and his Premiership was later to lead to the remarkable political contest between Disraeli and Gladstone.

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