Born in London in 1836, Joseph Chamberlain was a politician, Mayor of Birmingham and a leading reformer of the British educational system.
Joseph moved to Birmingham at the age of 16 to work at his uncle’s company, the business was soon producing two-thirds of all metal screws made in England. He soon became a partner and central to the company’s phenomenal achievements. Having established himself as a highly successful businessman, he married his first wife, Harriet Kenrick, in 1861. She tragically died in 1863, three days after the birth of Austen, leaving him devastated. It was not until 1868 that he married his second wife, Florence Kenrick, Harriet’s cousin and mother of Neville.
By 1867, Joseph had become politically active and along with future Birmingham Mayor, Jesse Collings, founded the Birmingham Education League. At this time half of the children in the UK were not attending school and only a quarter attended inspected schools. The Birmingham Education League soon became the National Education League, holding its first Conference in Birmingham in 1869 and proposed a school system funded by government grants, managed by local authorities subject to government inspection. By 1870, the League had more than one hundred branches, mostly in cities and largely ran by men of trade unions. Chamberlain favoured free, secular, compulsory education, stating:
“It is as much the duty of the State to see that the children are educated as to see that they are fed.”
In 1869, he ran in the Birmingham City Council elections for St Paul’s ward. In an article for Fortnightly Review, he summed up his political aims as:
“Four F’s: Free Church, Free Schools, Free Land and Free Labour”.
Chamberlain became deeply involved in the Civic Affairs of Birmingham where he was elected Mayor in 1873. He became a social pioneer with innovative schemes for education, housing and municipal ownership of Gas and Water which earned Birmingham the reputation for model Civic Government.
Throughout his career Chamberlain retained a strong political base in Birmingham which was known as his ‘Duchy’ which was centred on his home of Highbury.
As the Mayor of Birmingham, Chamberlain set up a new municipal gas company, spearheaded the slum clearance and created the Birmingham Corporation Water Department, all of which saved thousands of lives. He introduced the construction of libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. When asked about the cost, Chamberlain said,
‘We have not the slightest intention of making profit…We shall get our profit indirectly in the comfort of the town and in the health of the inhabitants’.
Subsequently, Chamberlain became a major figure in national politics. He played important and often controversial role in the major political issues of his day such as Irish Home Rule, The Anglo-Boer War (1849-1902) and international tariffs. After becoming an MP, Chamberlain served as Secretary of State for the Colonies
He also helped to found the University of Birmingham, and became its first Chancellor. In 1906 he suffered a stroke on the 2nd July 1914, he died and was later buried in Hockley’s Key Hill Cemetery. His sons both followed in his political footsteps, with Neville Chamberlain serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937-1940.