Sir Robert Peel’s smile rehabilitated

It’s not unusual for quotations in politics to assume a life of their own. The late Simon Hoggart amusingly recorded how one particular phrase attributed to him about Lord Mandelson, of which he had no memory, appeared first in one book of quotations, ‘then in another, then another and another since … all of them simply copied from the rest’.

Sir Robert Peel
© National Trust for Scotland: Haddo House

One striking example of this sort of misquotation from the 1832-68 period concerns Sir Robert Peel, Conservative prime minister from 1834-35 and 1841-46. Peel has long been described as having a smile, as the fifth edition of Oxford Essential Quotations relates, ‘like the silver plate on a coffin’. This phrase has been adapted in various ways. In one version, Peel’s smile has even been compared to ‘the gleam of wintry sunshine on the brass handles of a coffin’.

The problem with this quotation is that it was never said about Sir Robert Peel, but was, in fact, directed at his contemporary Lord Stanley, who would later, as Lord Derby, serve three times as Conservative prime minister (1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8). The Oxford Essential Quotations correctly states that the phrase was adapted by the Irish leader, Daniel O’Connell, from a remark made by the Irish jurist John Philpot Curran (1750-1817). O’Connell spoke these words during a Commons debate on 26 February 1835 mocking the so-called ‘Derby Dilly’, an effort by Lord Stanley and other dissident Whig MPs such as Sir James Graham to form a centre party to stand between Peel’s Conservative ministry and Lord Melbourne’s Whig-Liberal opposition. As chief secretary of Ireland, Stanley had often antagonised O’Connell, who scorned the new faction’s attempt to establish itself as a credible political force by imagining how ‘delightful it would be to see it walking in St. James’s-street tomorrow – to see the noble Lord strutting proudly, with his sequents behind him, and with a smile passing over his countenance – something like, as Curran said, “a silver plate on a coffin”’.

The 14th Earl of Derby (formerly Lord Stanley)

Clearly, O’Connell was referring to Stanley and not Peel. Nor was Curran’s original remark made about Peel, it being recorded in 1855 that the old judge had directed it at a grave and solemn friend of his named Hoare whose rare attempts to smile were, he said, ‘like tin clasps on an oaken coffin’. The quotation, however, lived long in the parliamentary lexicon, the last reference to it being made in December 1969, when Roy Jenkins observed that Edward Heath’s reaction to news of an improvement in Britain’s trading position reminded him of O’Connell’s now famous jibe.

Although the 1835 debate on the Derby Dilly has been revisited by at least one historian in recent times the nature of Peel’s countenance has yet to be reconsidered. Now, perhaps, it is time to restore the reputation of Sir Robert’s smile once and for all.

Further reading:

S. Radcliffe (ed.), Oxford Essential Quotations (5th edn., 2017).

Hansard, 25 Feb. 1835, vol. 26, c. 397; 17 Dec. 1969, vol. 793, c. 1476.

W. H. Curran, The Life of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran. Late Master of the Rolls in Ireland (1855), 528.

The Peel Web: http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/politics/dilly.htm

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