Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Peel, Robert (1750-1830)

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PEEL, Sir ROBERT (1750–1830), first baronet, manufacturer and member of parliament, was born at Peelfold, Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, on 25 April 1750. His family, which has been obscurely traced to a Danish origin, had emigrated early in the seventeenth century from the district of Craven in Yorkshire to the neighbouring town of Blackburn in Lancashire. His father, Robert Peel, had founded the fortunes of the family in 1764, when, having mortgaged his family estates, he established at Blackburn, in conjunction with his brother-in-law, Mr. Haworth, and a neighbour named Yates, a calico-printing firm, which may be considered the parent of that industry in Lancashire. He has been described as ‘a tall, robust, handsome man, of excellent constitution, with a character for uprightness and persevering industry, and possessing a mechanical genius.’ He married, in 1744, Elizabeth Haworth, and by her had seven sons, the third of whom was Robert Peel, first baronet. The boy was educated at Blackburn, and subsequently in London, whence he returned to enter his father's business. At the age of twenty-three he became a partner in the firm of Haworth, Peel, & Yates, calico-printers.

In his business Peel was an originator and reformer. He imported deserted children from the London workhouses, educated them, and enabled them to earn their living. He appreciated and applied the discoveries of Arkwright and Hargreaves. It was probably because he feared that the jealousy of the handloom workers would be provoked by his new machinery that he removed a branch of his cotton business to Tamworth in Staffordshire, where he also bought a large estate and built Drayton Manor.

In 1780 he wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘The National Debt productive of National Prosperity,’ in which he argued that a domestic public debt owed by the community to itself cannot impair the aggregate wealth of the community. In 1790 he entered Parliament as member for Tamworth, and warmly supported Pitt. He at first hailed the French revolution as a ‘temperate reformation,’ but when it grew more violent in character resisted it as far as with him lay. To the voluntary contribution of 1797 his firm gave 10,000l., and in 1798 he armed and commanded six companies of Bury royal volunteers. On 14 Feb. 1799 he spoke strongly for the union with Ireland, and his speech was printed in Dublin. In 1800 he was made a baronet, and assumed as his motto ‘Industria.’ On 7 May 1802 he defended Pitt, who when in office had constantly sought his opinion on financial and commercial matters. ‘No minister,’ he said, ‘ever understood so well the commercial interests of the country. He knew that the true sources of its greatness lay in its productive industry.’

In the same year he carried the act which was the forerunner of all factory legislation: ‘An Act for the Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices and others, employed in Cotton and other Mills, and Cotton and other Factories.’ He himself was the employer at this period of some fifteen thousand persons. In 1819 he opposed the resumption of cash payments, a measure carried in that year by his son.

Peel died at Drayton Manor on 3 May 1830, and was buried in the church of Drayton-Bassett, Staffordshire. There is a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. In person he was ‘tall, manly, and well proportioned.’ ‘His eye’ (it was said) ‘when he speaks lights up his countenance with peculiar animation.’ He possessed the vigour and the virtues of the national character, and may be claimed as a pioneer of the commercial greatness of England.

On 8 July 1783, at the age of thirty-three, he married Ellen Yates, the daughter of one of his partners. He married, secondly, in October 1805, Susanna, daughter of Francis Clerke; she died without issue on 10 Sept. 1824. By his first wife Peel had eleven children. The eldest son Robert, the statesman [q. v.], and the fifth son, Jonathan [q. v.], are separately noticed. It is said that on hearing of the birth of his eldest son he fell on his knees, and, returning thanks to God, vowed that he would give his child to his country.

The second son, William Yates Peel (1789–1858), born at Chamber Hall, Bury, Lancashire, on 3 Aug. 1789, was educated at Harrow and St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. 1812 and M.A. 1815. Entering Lincoln's Inn, he was called to the bar in June 1816; he sat in parliament for Bossiney, Cornwall, 1817–18, Tamworth (as colleague of his brother Sir Robert) 1818–30, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, 1830–1, Cambridge University 1831–5, Tamworth 1835–7, and again 1847–52. In 1826 he was appointed a commissioner of the board of control in Lord Liverpool's administration; he was under-secretary for the home department under his brother, Sir Robert, in 1828, in the Duke of Wellington's administration; a lord of the treasury in 1830 in the same government, and again in 1834–5 in his brother's ministry; in the same year he was sworn of the privy council. He died on 1 June 1858, having married, on 17 June 1819, Jane Elizabeth (d. 1847), daughter of Stephen, second earl Mountcashell, and left issue four sons and nine daughters (Foster, Lancashire Pedigrees; Haydn, Book of Dignities; Gent. Mag. 1858, ii. 191).

[A Memoir of the Family of Peel from the year 1600, by Jane Haworth, 1836; a Memoir on the Genealogy of the Peels, by Jonathan Peel; a Memoir of Sir Robert Peel, by Rev. Richard Davies, vicar of St. Nicholas, Leicester, 1803; Gent. Mag. 1830 i. 556–7.]

G. V. P.