Joseph ChamberlaIn’s time in Birmingham

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’s 11 wards, 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.

Chris Upton writes

Determined mayor dragged Birmingham kicking and screaming – into modernity

In July 1906, Birmingham threw the biggest birthday party in its history. The man who had reached his 70th year was the Right Honourable Joseph Chamberlain, and the love felt for Our Joe knew no bounds.

The people of Birmingham would therefore glorify their hero in unforgettable style. They would also, though they did not know it at the time, be sentencing him to death. Chamberlain suffered a debilitating stroke just a couple of days later, leaving him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

So what had Chamberlain done to attract 500,000 Brummies to his special day?

He was not even a local. “I was not born in Birmingham,” he would say. “I only wish I had been”. Yet Chamberlain’s affection for, and impact upon, his adopted home was immense. Rarely has a politician and his chosen town been so close. Beatrice Webb vividly describes that bond in 1884. She watched as Joseph Chamberlain addressed a Birmingham crowd: “As he rose slowly and stood silently before his people, his whole face and form seemed transformed. The crowd became wild with enthusiasm. At the first sound of his voice they became as one man. Into the tones of his voice he threw the warmth and feeling which were lacking in his words, and every thought, every feeling was reflected in the face of the crowd. It might have been a woman listening to the words of her lover.”

By the 1860s, when Chamberlain launched his political career, Birmingham had a population of 300,000. But its local government – only 30 years old – was still fast asleep.

Corporation affairs were in the hands of a group known as the Economists, whose chief concern was to save money, not to spend it. They met, not in some grand town hall, but in a pub in Paradise Street.

Joseph Chamberlain is standing in the car at Summerfield Park on his triumphal tour of Birmingham on his 70th birthday in July 1906.
Joseph Chamberlain is standing in the car at Summerfield Park on his triumphal tour of Birmingham on his 70th birthday in July 1906.

It would be one of Chamberlain’s final acts as mayor to lay the foundation-stone for a building appropriate to the civic ambitions his reign had fostered.

Under the Economists much of Birmingham’s political energy operated outside local government. The National Education League, for example, which Chamberlain founded alongside George Dixon, campaigned for free elementary education for all. Only in 1867 did he enter local politics; six years later he was mayor.

It was as mayor of Birmingham for an unprecedented three years from 1873-5 that Chamberlain transformed the town both economically and physically.

When Chamberlain declared that “the town shall not, with God’s help, know itself”, he was not wrong. It was to be the biggest short-term make-over in Birmingham’s history.

The name they gave it was “gas-and-water socialism”, the belief that local utilities should be in the hands of the people who lived there. At a meeting of the town council in January 1874 Chamberlain proposed that “the manufacture, sale and supply of gas in the borough should be under the control of the corporation”. If there were monopolies to be had, he went on, then they should, at least, be in the hands of representatives of the people. Only two councillors out of 57 voted against the proposal.

There was resistance from the existing gas companies, and from those who warned that council debt would go through the roof. This Chamberlain was perfectly happy to concede.

It would raise the borough debt from half a million pounds to more than five times that sum. Yet within 10 years the corporation gas had made profits of £250,000.

Joseph Chamberlain in a souvenir publication to celebrate his 70th birthday.
Joseph Chamberlain in a souvenir publication to celebrate his 70th birthday.

The profits were ploughed into other public works; they also gave Birmingham the reputation for astute financial management that allowed it to borrow even more. Joe Chamberlain’s experience in industry was the perfect apprenticeship to running the largest company in town; that is, the town itself.

In 1875 a town’s meeting unanimously approved similar measures to buy out the water companies. Chamberlain had decamped to Westminster by the time Elan Valley water poured into Birmingham’s reservoirs. But the vision, almost Roman in its ambition, was his.

History West Midlands have many more papers and videos on Joseph Chamberlain that can be viewed here