Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Peel, Robert (1822-1895)

PEEL, Sir ROBERT (1822–1895), third baronet, politician, eldest son of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) [q. v.], the statesman, was born in London on 4 May 1822, and went to Harrow School in February 1835. He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, on 26 May 1841, but did not take a degree. Entering the diplomatic service, he became an attaché to the British legation at Madrid on 18 June 1844. He was promoted to be secretary of legation in Switzerland on 2 May 1846, and was chargé d'affaires there in November 1846. On his father's death, on 2 July 1850, and his own succession to the baronetcy, he resigned his office at Berne. Entering the House of Commons as liberal-conservative member for his father's former constituency, Tamworth, on 19 July 1850, he had every opportunity open to him of taking a distinguished place in public life. He had a fine presence and gaiety of manner, and was popular in social life; while his oratorical gifts—a rich ringing voice, a perfect command of language, rare powers of irony, a capacity for producing unexpected rhetorical effects—ought to have rendered his success in parliament a certainty. But he used his abilities fitfully. The want of moral fibre in his volatile character, an absence of dignity, and an inability to accept a fixed political creed, prevented him from acquiring the confidence of his associates or of the public.

On 24 April 1854 he was shipwrecked off the coast of Genoa in the steamboat Ercolano, and only saved his life by swimming ashore on some portion of the wreck. From 29 March 1854 to 1859 he served as a captain in the Staffordshire yeomanry. In March 1855 Lord Palmerston, who had been foreign minister while Peel was in the diplomatic service, appointed him a junior lord of the admiralty. Henceforth he was regarded as a liberal, and his persistent advocacy of the liberation of Italy fully justified this view of his political opinions.

In July 1856 he acted as secretary to Lord Granville's special mission to Russia at the coronation of Alexander II. On 5 Jan. 1857, during a lecture delivered at the opening of the new library at Adderley Park, near Birmingham, he spoke discourteously of the Russian court and the court officials. The lecture was severely commented on by the Russian and French press, was the subject of a parliamentary debate, and caused great annoyance to the English court.

Nevertheless, on Palmerston's return to power, he, on 26 July 1861, made Peel chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland and a privy councillor. In this position his careless good humour pleased the Irish and the prime minister, and he almost thought he had solved the Irish question when he made excursions incognito through the country on a jaunting-car and interviewed the peasants. His speeches were very optimistic; but, before his connection with the castle ended, fenianism came to a head. Irish debates became more embittered, and his replies and speeches in parliament lacked discretion and were not calculated to promote peace. In February 1862 he received a challenge from the O'Donoghue, but the matter was brought before the commons on 25 Feb. and was adjusted. Although he took a warm interest in some Irish questions, especially higher education, which he had aided by a handsome contribution to the Queen's Colleges founded by his father, his career in Ireland was a failure. When the liberal government was reconstituted, after the death of Lord Palmerston, by Lord John Russell, to whom Peel's failings were peculiarly obnoxious, he was succeeded in the Irish secretaryship by Chichester Fortescue, and he did not again hold office. On 5 Jan. 1866 he was created G.C.B.

He continued to sit for Tamworth as a liberal, but was often a severe critic of Mr. Gladstone's policy. In 1871 he gave a remarkable proof of his eloquence by describing to the house the rout, which he had himself witnessed, of the French army of General Bourbaki, and its flight over the Swiss frontier in the depth of winter. In 1874 he for a second time christened himself a liberal-conservative; and when the eastern question, during Lord Beaconsfield's administration, came to the front, he wholly separated himself from the followers of Mr. Gladstone. He did not stand for Tamworth at the general election in 1880, but unsuccessfully contested Gravesend in the conservative interest; and his voice was often heard on conservative platforms, denouncing the action of the liberal administration in Egypt and Ireland. In the ‘Times’ of 8 May 1880 he published a letter, in which he recounted the offers from various governments of honours and offices which he had refused. On 21 March 1884 he was returned as a conservative member for Huntingdon. When that borough was disfranchised, he was, in November 1885, returned for Blackburn.

On the critical division on the second reading of the Home Rule Bill, on 7 June 1886, he abstained from voting. At the general election in the following July he contested the Inverness burghs, but was not successful. Subsequently, with characteristic impetuosity, he threw himself into the home rule agitation as a supporter of the Irish demands, and at a by-election in 1889 came forward as a candidate for Brighton in the home rule interest. He was hopelessly defeated, and his political career came to a disappointing close.

From about 1856 he was extensively engaged in racing under the name of Mr. F. Robinson; and later on had an establishment at Bonehill, near Tamworth, where he bred horses.

His father's fine collection of seventy-seven pictures and eighteen drawings, including the well-known ‘Chapeau de Poil,’ by Rubens, he sold to the National Gallery, in March 1871, for 75,000l. (Parliamentary Papers, 1872, No. 35). In later life his private circumstances were embarrassed, chiefly owing to his reckless extravagance, and he ceased to reside at Drayton Manor, Warwickshire. On 9 May 1895 he was found dead, from hæmorrhage on the brain, in his bedroom at 12 Stratton Street, London. He was buried at Drayton-Bassett parish church on 16 May.

By his wife, Lady Emily Hay, seventh daughter of George, eighth marquis of Tweeddale, whom he married on 13 Jan. 1856, he left Robert, born in 1867, who succeeded to the baronetcy, and three daughters.

[Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 14 March 1851, pp. 1375–84 et seq.; St. Stephen's Review, 9 May 1891, pp. 13–14, with portrait; Sporting Times, 1 May 1875, pp. 297, 300, with portrait; Illustr. London News, 29 March 1851, p. 254 (with portrait), 26 Jan. 1856, 18 May 1895 p. 606 (with portrait); Times, 10, 13 May 1895.]

G. C. B.