Sir Robert Peel – the first Conservative

On February 5th in 1788, Robert Peel, the son of a mill owner, was born. He went on to become one of the most significant figures of the first half of the 19th Century, and oversaw the transformation of his country. He was a natural free trader, and abolished or substantially reduced over 1,000 tariffs. Most famously he repealed the Corn Laws that had protected landowners by raising the price of imported crops. This was done in response to the Irish potato famine that started in 1845, but the landowning classes in Parliament never forgave Peel, and it brought down his government.

Some historians have seen this as a clash between the traditional landowning class that profited from agriculture, and a rising class of merchants and industrialists who wanted cheap bread for their workers. But Peel also passed legislation many industrialists opposed, bringing in laws such as the Mines Act of 1842, banning the employment of women and children underground and the Factory Act of 1844, which limited working hours for women and children in factories.

Peel's legacy includes the foundation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, with 1,000 constables employed to patrol the streets and curb crime. They did so successfully, and were copied in other cities, earning the popular nicknames of 'Peelers' and 'Bobbies,' both derived from his name.

He also set out the principles of the modern Conservative Party in his 1834 Tamworth Manifesto, now regarded as the party's first emergence.

In one of his last speeches he wrote an epitaph that was later inscribed on his monument in Bury:

"It may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abodes of those whose lot it is to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food – the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice."

The historian A.J.P. Taylor summed up his achievements: "Peel was in the first rank of 19th century statesmen. He carried Catholic Emancipation; he repealed the Corn Laws; he created the modern Conservative Party on the ruins of the old Toryism."