The death of Margaret Thatcher has resulted in heated debated about her 11 years in office. The divisive nature of her politics has split the nation ,but there can be no doubt that she was a transforming political figure. Her demise and the way in which the news has been regarded bought to my mind the death of another Tory Prime Minister 163 years ago.
In many ways there are many similarities between Robert Peel and Margaret Thatcher, gender aside. Both came from provincial towns, Grantham and Bury. Both were outsiders. Peel was a representative of the new industrial class- the family had made money in textiles. Thatcher was the daughter of a shop keeper. And bought success and eventual damage on their own party- the Conservative Party and both were driven from office by erstwhile allies. The issue that bought Peel down was him changing his mind on legislation that protected the price of bread, the Corn Laws. This policy was bought in after the Napoleonic Wars to protect the income of the landowners who were the backbone of the Tory Party. Peel repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 after pressure exerted by the highly successful pressure group the Anti Corn Law League. It split the Tory Party between those who supported protection and those in favour of Free Trade. The divide led to the Tories being out of power for 30 years. Repeal had a dramatic impact on food halving its price directly benefiting those on low incomes.
When Peel died in a riding accident in 1850 there was a universal sense of loss especially among the working class. This sense of grief was felt in Leek when a meeting was held in the Swan in September 1850 to consider what to do to honour Peel's memory who incidentally was a Staffordshire MP- he represented Tamworth.
Mr Doxey a working man spoke at the meeting said that as a consequence of Peel's Government “ We are in a state of peace, our trade was good, and we are blessed with an abundance with food and clothing within the reach of the working man. We have also our Mechanic Institute where knowledge was cheap and many excellent institutions, where the needy were carried for. He was an admirer of a great man , through whose influences the condition of the poor had so much benefited”
A show of hands at the meeting proposed that money raised in Leek should go to the building of almshouses for the poor. Another view outlined in a poster addressed to the Working Men of Leek favoured public baths in the town as had been erected to Peel's memory in Macclesfield.
I don't know what happened to the funds that were collected, but around the industrial north still exist memorials to the Tory Statesman. Peel Park's still exist in Bradford, Blackpool and Salford.