Joseph Chamberlain’s Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

The Chamberlain Highbury Trust was set up in 2016 to restore the former home of the Chamberlain Family from 1880 to 1914, and make Highbury a place to explore issues of leadership, governance, and citizenship with the young people of Birmingham. The Chamberlain Highbury Trust have spent 5 years fundraising, researching the history and developing a business model to allow Highbury to take its place in sharing the story of late 19th and early 20th century politics and the interests and lifestyles of the people who lived and worked at Highbury.

Much of our work has focused on the fabric of the mansion and the gardens and grounds of Highbury and how these will be restored.

The main historical research done to date has centered around Joseph Chamberlain who commissioned Highbury in 1878.

  • We have looked at Joseph Chamberlain’s local impact on Birmingham, his industrial legacy, the education and municipal infrastructure led by him in his early career and as Mayor of Birmingham,
  • Joseph Chamberlain’s national impact and the political shifts and party divides that came because of his campaigns for social and tariff reform.
  • And most recently, Joseph Chamberlain’s international work as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1895 to 1903 and champion of British Imperialism.

The Chamberlain Highbury Trust are currently seeking investment in a 7-year plan that incorporates both the physical restoration of the mansion, listed Grade II* and the grounds, listed Grade II, and the development and implementation of a large Education, Leadership and Activities programme.

This short briefing paper outlines how we have approached the third theme of Chamberlain the internationalist.

How have we explored the International Themes?

The Board of CHT acknowledged its limited expertise in relation to the subject of Empire and its legacy but recognized both its importance as an area of research and the need to explore how it connected to the issues facing young people in Birmingham today and in the future. Addressing these interconnected issues was seen as essential if the Board is to make progress on its vision for Highbury as a place for engaging Birmingham’s young people and authentically tell the story of Chamberlain’s legacy.

CHT therefore established a working group made up of a diverse group of academics, activists, students, and interpretation and educational specialists to advise and identify potential pathways for research and approaches for sharing the decisions and the background to Joseph Chamberlain’s role as Colonial Secretary. These research pathways include examining the Chamberlain family’s archives, exploring Victorian ideas on Empire and the emergence of anti-colonial movements, researching methods used to control and occupy territories at that time, plus movements opposed to such control. Chamberlain’s vision for the University of Birmingham and the recruitment of students from across the Empire was also identified as an area of significance

CHT will use these research pathways to open the interpretation of Highbury as a heritage site and will take creative strides in producing interpretation that includes our local community and will involve young people in devising relevant material.

The Board of Trustees also recognised the connection between unpicking Chamberlain’s role in colonialism and the trusts’ response to the Black Lives Matters movement, in terms of Board representation, its policies and the development of its Youth Board.

The backdrop to this is the representation of the population of Birmingham. At the time of the 2011 Census, 60% of Birmingham’s under 18s were from a non-white British background and it is predicted that the results of the recent 2021 Census will show that Birmingham has become a ‘majority minority’ city.

What was Chamberlain’s Role as Colonial Secretary (1895-1903)?

The Secretary of State for the Colonies or Colonial Secretary was a British Cabinet Minister in charge of administering the United Kingdom’s vast colonies, except for India, which had its own Secretary of State. During Joseph Chamberlain’s tenure, Britain took control of a number of new territories, especially in Africa.  Chamberlain himself helped to shape the role through a strong belief in the need to expand the Empire in Africa, the Americas and Asia for the benefit of trade, the opening of new markets and therefore wealth, and job creation and retention in Britain.  This was his policy to counteract Britain’s relative decline in world trade. However, how far was Chamberlain’s policy purely driven by Britain’s interests and the interests of British colonial settlers and what attention, if any, was paid to the indigenous peoples?

What activities and interpretation will we present?

Even before major investment there are many things CHT can do to expand the Chamberlain narrative and open up opportunities to a more diverse audience, volunteers and staff.

  • Create a timeline that sets world occurrences alongside Chamberlain’s life events and political activity.
  • Share a map of the British Empire and the statistics of the number of people who were under British rule at this time.
  • Use the Mansion and Grounds’ Tours to explore and demonstrate the connections to Empire and Colonial Collections.
  • Actively recruit and support volunteers from under-represented groups including those with family background in the British Empire/ Commonwealth nations.
  • Share speeches and quotes from Chamberlain that reflect his patriarchal and possessive stance on Empire and compare these with more ambiguous Victorian attitudes to imperial expansion and to modern perspectives on national independence, colonialism, and diversity.
  •  Open meaningful channels for discussion via social media platforms that allow young people to gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of others around issues such as Empire, colonialism, and anticolonialism and their lasting impact.
  • Continue to collaborate with other organisations that represent young people in Birmingham to continue our duty to ensure everyone feels welcome and represented at Highbury.
  • Strengthen our relationship with University of Birmingham and especially international students to share the legacy of the University as ‘international from inception’ and what that means now and how that was perceived then.
  • Create theatre performances at Highbury using speeches made by Chamberlain in Parliament, both when he was asking questions on behalf of the people of Birmingham and being asked for answers by MPs and their constituents. Exploring the change in use of language and the consistent drive for expansion at whatever cost that Chamberlain stuck to throughout his life.
  •  Continue to share our project around ‘food miles’ and explore trade routes established in Chamberlain’s era that still exist and whether Victorian or contemporary farming and transportation methods are more ecological and humane
  • Most importantly actively recruit Youth Board members and Trustees from diverse backgrounds, including People of Colour, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and a mix of ages and experiences to best represent the community we serve.

Through these and other actions and activities we undertake we welcome feedback and support from  the community.