ON Sunday June 7, crowds of anti-racism protestors hauled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol and threw it into the nearby harbour.

The iconoclastic act has reignited discussions around British colonialism, slavery and race relations. 

In recent days calls have been made for monuments to the famous and beloved Bury-born politician and Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, to meet with the same fate.  

These suggestions have aroused considerable ire and indignation from many Bury residents, as well as some support.

But who was Sir Robert Peel and why is his legacy controversial?

Early Life

Robert Peel — the second baronet — was born on February 5, 1788, at Chamber Hall in the township Elton not far from the centre of Bury.

He was the eldest son, and third of eleven children, born to the wealthy industrialist Sir Robert Peel, the first baronet. 

Bury Times: Sir Robert Peel by Henry William PickersgillSir Robert Peel by Henry William Pickersgill

Originally from Oswaldtwistle, his father had moved to the north of Bury in 1772 and, together with his partners Haworth and Yates, built some nine cotton and calico printing mills in the area.

Roughly 11 years after his birth the family moved from Bury to Tamworth, Staffordshire, where the first baronet had other industrial interests and would later become its MP (the family home is now the Drayton Manor theme park).

As a young man Sir Robert was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, gaining a double first in Classics and Mathematics in 1808.

It is thought that he may also have attended Bury Grammar School or Hipperholme Grammar School in Yorkshire, according to research by J.W. Houseman published in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal in 1951. 

Sir Robert’s father was keen for him to enter politics and even bought him his first Parliamentary seat for the Irish rotten borough of Cashel, Tipperary.

Such was his father’s ambition for the second baronet that he is claimed to have told him: “Bob, you dog, if you do not become Prime Minister someday I’ll disinherit you.”

Bury Times: Bury Market Place in 1870, much as Sir Robert Peel would have seen it. In front of the Parish Church is the statue of Sir RobertBury Market Place in 1870, much as Sir Robert Peel would have seen it. In front of the Parish Church is the statue of Sir Robert

Political career

Throughout out his political career, which spanned almost four decades, Sir Robert Peel represented many constituencies as MP, including Oxford University.

He was a founder of the modern Conservative Party which emerged from the Tories, and in his early career Sir Robert was also an ardent Unionist and anti-Catholic — earning him the nickname “Orange Peel”. 

However over time his politics drifted from traditional conservatism to support for liberal legislation, including Catholic emancipation.

After appointments as under-secretary for war and colonies in 1809, and chief secretary for Ireland in 1812, Sir Robert was made Home Secretary in 1822.

During this time he created perhaps his most famous legacy — the Metropolitan Police Force (although Bury would not get its own constabulary until 1840).

To this day its officers are colloquially known as ‘bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ after his name. 

He also introduced several of his most well known criminal law and prison reforms. 

These included making around 100 fewer crimes punishable by death, and instituting payment for prison jailers and education for inmates.

Bury Times: Peel Tower on Holcombe Hill. Photo: Med venlig hilsen / Mit freundlichen Grüßen......Chris Newman ..Managing Director....Peel Tower on Holcombe Hill. Photo: Med venlig hilsen / Mit freundlichen Grüßen......Chris Newman ..Managing Director....

Sir Robert served as Prime Minister twice between 1834 to 1835 and 1841 to 1846. 

During his second term as PM he passed several significant legislative acts. 

Among them were the Mines Act of 1842, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act of 1844, which limited working hours for children and women in factories.

In 1846 he also repealed the Corn Laws after much debate. 

The laws had been introduced to protect British agriculture from foreign imports. 

But Sir Robert sought to remove them to stem the devastating Irish Potato Famine, and rises in food prices and the cost of living, in the face of opposition from landowners and his own party. 

On the same day the Corn Laws were repealed, he was defeated on another bill, and resigned. 

He would never hold office again and died as a result of a horse riding accident in 1850.

Bury Times: Former Campbells arcade on Lord Street West, Blackburn with Robert Peel, the first baronet, blue plaque (left). And Sir Robert Peel, the second baronet (right)Former Campbells arcade on Lord Street West, Blackburn with Robert Peel, the first baronet, blue plaque (left). And Sir Robert Peel, the second baronet (right)

On Slavery

Sir Robert Peel the second baronet is often confused with his father — and with both sharing the same name it is not hard to see why.

However, this can be problematic when examining one of the most controversial aspects of the Peel legacy.

In 1794 the first baronet Peel gave a speech in Parliament warning that dangerous consequences would befall the colonies as a result of abolitionism, and inferred that Africans were contented slaves. 

Moreover, in 1806 the first baronet Peel raised a petition in opposition to the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill which he saw as a threat to the cotton industry and merchants’ trade interests.

According to the UK Parliament records, his own firm  signed the petition, together with other merchants and manufacturers, and it was presented to the House of Lords on May 13, 1806.  

What relation these episodes had to the beliefs and actions of his then 18-year-old son is contested.

However, supporters of the campaign to remove the Sir Robert Peel, the second baronet, statue in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, have argued, the Peels’ wealth and industrial empire was built on the labour of enslaved and oppressed peoples. 

Furthermore, this wealth also financed their political careers.

Bury Times: Market Place, Bury, with statue of Sir Robert Peel centre, in 1966Market Place, Bury, with statue of Sir Robert Peel centre, in 1966

Hero or Villain?

Beyond his legislative record Sir Robert Peel’s legacy has left numerous visible impressions on the historic environment.

A statue of Sir Robert Peel was built in Market Place, Bury, to commemorate his life; as was Peel Tower in Ramsbottom.

The Wetherspoon's pub in Bury town centre is also named The Robert Peel in his honour — one of over a dozen pubs, bars or hotels across the UK to bear the name.

Other memorials, in the form of monuments, parks, street names, public baths, and hospitals; can be found in Lancashire, Tamworth, London, Manchester, Birmingham, West Yorkshire, Cheshire, Scotland; and even as far away as Canada, New York, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Perhaps strangest of all, Sir Robert Peel’s portrait features on The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.

Meanwhile, monuments to his father also exist, such as a plaque on Lord Street West, Blackburn.

Bury Times: The Robert Peel pub in Market Place, BuryThe Robert Peel pub in Market Place, Bury

But what of the man. Two years after Sir Robert’s death the British journalist Walter Bagehot wrote of Peel: “Was there ever such a dull man?”

Historians and biographers have on the whole presented Peel in positive and even idealised terms. And some historical appraisals of Sir Robert Peel's life and legacy have been criticised for bordering on near political hagiography. 

Lancashire-born historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote: "Peel was in the first rank of 19th century statesmen." 

He has further been characterised as a “proud, shy person” by historian Norman Gash, author of Sir Robert Peel, who praised him for his intellect, assiduous nature and skills as an administrator and debater. 

However he notes Sir Robert was also “quick-tempered, courageous, stubborn, and often autocratic”.

Ultimately, Gash says, Sir Robert “By insisting on fundamental changes in the national interest, he did much to preserve the continuity of aristocratic parliamentary government in an age of rapid industrial change, social distress, and class conflict."

Bury Times: Old Peel Baths in Darwen, named after Sir Robert Peel, built in 1853 for £1,300Old Peel Baths in Darwen, named after Sir Robert Peel, built in 1853 for £1,300

Historian Richard Gaunt described Sir Robert Peel as "an extremely ambitious man both for himself and for his subsequent place in history", and pointed out that he was of an “imperialist mentality”.

While, Mike Rowe and Jeffrey Ian Ross have suggested that Sir Robert may have "unwittingly set the stage" for attempts to create modern day police forces that are inclusive and reflect racial and ethnic diversity.

Conversely, Sami Pinarbasi who started a petition to remove Sir Robert Peel's statue in Piccadilly Gardens, has argued that Sir Robert is "icon of hate and racism."

He wrote: “Peel Street and Sugar Lane may no longer exist but the racism and inequality that they created and represent does.

"As a society, we have a duty to question police brutality and a moral obligation to consider why there is a statue dedicated to Robert Peel in the centre of our city."