Joseph Chamberlain was born in London in 1836. At the age of 18 he moved to Birmingham and made his fortune as a partner in his uncle’s and father’s screw manufacturing business.
The Chamberlains were Unitarians and political radicals and so Joseph had been brought up with a strong belief in helping to improve the lot of the poorest members of society. He was particularly concerned with the school system and campaigned for the introduction of free, compulsory, secular education for all children.
1869 Chamberlain became a member of Birmingham Corporation and in 1873 he was elected Mayor. He set about transforming the town and ultimately it was hailed as ‘the best governed city in the World’. He set up new municipal water and gas companies which not only significantly improved the health of the population but also generated funds for new public services. Under his leadership the council undertook extensive slum clearance and constructed a brand new urban boulevard, Corporation Street. His administration also built many new schools as well as new public libraries, swimming baths and municipal parks.
Chamberlain later became one of the founders and the first Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, which gained its Royal Charter in 1900.
In 1876 Chamberlain was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for West Birmingham. However, his prominent career in national politics was controversial and ultimately unsuccessful – he never achieved his ambition to be prime minister and managed to split both of the main political parties. Nonetheless his influence on the country’s political landscape was such that Winston Churchill commented that it was Chamberlain who ‘made the weather’.
In 1906 Chamberlain suffered a stroke and withdrew from active political life. He died in his London home in 1914 and was buried in Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley. His sons were also notable leaders: Austen served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Neville who after successes as Minister of Health and Chancellor of the Exchequer, achieved the highest public leadership role in the country as Prime Minister from 1937-40.
In the film below, Dr Sally Hoban explores the impact Joseph Chamberlain made on the city of Birmingham.
“Joseph Chamberlain – Man, Politician and Icon” (credit History West Midlands)