Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 29, 1860 --- The Death of Peel

The former Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel is badly hurt when thrown from his horse on Constitution Hill. Ironically, Sir Robert had just retired his old bay mare for a supposedly more sure-footed mount thought more suitable for a fat, gouty, man of 62.

Having ridden out of the gates of Buckingham Palace, Peel stops to tip his hat to the daughter of a family friend when the horse reared. Thrown face downwards, Peel's more serious injuries occur when the animal rolls over him. Carried to his home in Whitehall Terrace, the injured man is laid upon a water mattress. Doctors diagnose only a broken collarbone, issuing an encouraging medical bulletin:
"There is great reason to hope that there is no internal injury. It is gratifying to be enabled to add that Sir Robert's head is uninjured."  Then soon grow more ominous as Sir Robert lingers in great pain and delirium. On 2 July, he died.

Only a post-mortem revealed a broken rib, which had apparently punctured a lung causing "death by pulmonary engorgement." Peel's doctors - including the Queen's own, Sir James Clark - came in for serious criticism. Responding in The Lancet, the doctors attributed the death to Peel's "excessive sensibility... his nervous system was so finely and delicately wrought as to render him singularly impatient and sensitive under suffering." Regardless, a modern historian describes the treatment as "lamentably incompetent."

The shock of his death burnished Peel's reputation. Isolated for his Tory apostasy over repeal of the Corn Laws, Peel is, nonetheless, widely mourned. The Queen thought "he could be less spared than any other human being" and felt that Prince Albert had taken the news dreadfully, "He feels that he has lost a second father." Wellington wept in the Lords. The diarist Greville offers a different (and typically mordant) view: "When we remember that Peel was an object of bitter hatred to one great party, that he was never liked by the other, and that he had no popular or ingratiating qualities, and very few intimate friends, it is surprising to see the warm and universal feeling which his death has elicited."

Sir Robert Peel painted by Pickersgill

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