During the Chamberlain period Highbury was the setting for much entertaining of family, friends and political associates. The house’s design lent itself to large events such as receptions known as ‘At Homes’ which might be attended by five hundred guests, and for small dinners for ten, or larger ones for up to thirty people. When Joseph Chamberlain built Highbury he was a widower and Beatrice, his eldest daughter, acted as his hostess. After his marriage to Mary Endicott in 1888 she took over the main responsibility for organising social events at Highbury, and increased the range of activities. Much took place at the weekend as Joseph and Mary were in London when Parliament was in session, returning to Highbury once a month and for a longer time at Easter and in the summer.
The dinner parties given at Highbury were ‘gentlemen’s dinners’ and ‘mixed diners’. At the gentlemen’s dinners Mary would act as the hostess but left the men to their discussions in the dining room or Chamberlain’s study. At the ‘mixed dinners’ the wives would accompany Mary to the drawing room when the dinner ended, leaving the men to their cigars and port. They later joined the ladies for coffee. An annual event was the dinner given on New Year’s Day for members of the extended Chamberlain family. Generally Mary Chamberlain preferred a larger number of guests as ‘it was more of an occasion’ and the ladies might be less shy.
Mary also met the ladies of their social circle when she received and paid afternoon calls. These would occur after a social event in order to thank the hostess or after a period of absence. If the lady was out a card could be left but if the lady was at home tea would be served. A lady paying calls could be accompanied by her daughter once that daughter had ‘come out’ and took a full part in the social season, normally at eighteen when her education was complete. ‘Coming out’ could be marked by a private dance, or, by being presented at Court for those in the highest political and social circles. Mary Chamberlain herself was presented in 1889 by the Duchess of Bedford and Mary subsequently presented Ida, Hilda and Ethel.
Dances were a particular part of the social scene, and Mary described to her mother how suitable Highbury was. ‘This is a charming house for a dance for the hall is just the place for it, and is so large a great many people can be disposed of…’ A dance might also be given as part of a house-party such as in October 1892. The guests, mainly friends of Beatrice and Austen, arrived on Friday and a dance was held for 200 people that evening. On Saturday the guests were taken round the grounds of Highbury and lunched with the William Kenricks at the Grove. In the evening a small dance was held for the house-party. On Sunday they toured Cannon Hill Park and in the afternoon were taken by Joseph Chamberlain on a tour of the Conservatory and the hothouses. House-parties for London friends were also organised in conjunction with the Triennial Music Festival. At other house-parties guests might play croquet or tennis or excursion might be made on bicycles exploring the Worcestershire countryside or there would be riding in the lanes around Highbury.
The largest indoor entertaining was an ‘At Home’. One given in November 1889 was attended by over five hundred guests, as Mary reported ‘all Birmingham flocked to Highbury. I heard of an unbroken stream of carriages from our door to the bottom of Cannon Hill Park.’
Annual garden parties for Joseph Chamberlain’s West Birmingham constituents and the West Birmingham Liberal Union in the grounds of Highbury were attended by several thousand people. The last party for constituents took place in June 1914, a month before Joseph Chamberlain died. Large numbers also had access to the grounds when the Moseley Flower show or the Moseley and King’s Heath Horse Show were held at Highbury.