Joseph Chamberlain: Man, politician and icon
Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) dominated late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, but never became Prime Minister. His fiefdom in the West Midlands originated from his activities as Mayor of Birmingham, but after entering Parliament he continued to shape the locality and established, via his sons, Austen and Neville, a political dynasty. In Birmingham he professionalised party organisation, created lasting public works and manipulated a mass electorate. Nationally, he promoted social legislation and British imperialism, wrecked two governments and created his own party, the Liberal Unionists. On the 100th anniversary of his death, this issue explores Chamberlain, his work and his reputation.
Malcolm Dick reflects on the contents of this issue
Joseph Chamberlain: A Biography
Pete Bounous and Sue Tungate
Key events. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Joseph Chamberlain: A Masterful Politician
Joseph Chamberlain is perhaps the most important political figure that Birmingham has ever produced. Mayor of Birmingham for the period when the city became the model for the modern conurbation, leader of the Radical Liberals until 1886 when he was blamed as ‘the man who killed [Irish] Home Rule’, Colonial Secretary at the height of the ‘scramble for Africa’ and pioneer of modern politics, his influence lived on after his death in 1914 as his son Austen rose to be leader of the Conservative Party and his other son, Neville, became Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister. And yet, despite his sustained status in his adopted city, Chamberlain is not highly regarded outside the West Midlands. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
‘No one has the right to be happy in this brutal world’: Joseph Chamberlain’s first forty years
Peter T. Marsh
Joseph Chamberlain was bred for business and was brilliant at it. Descended from generations of cordwainers or manufacturers of leather shoes, he was brought up, educated and apprenticed to follow in their footsteps. In view of the distinction he later acquired in public life and politics, it is tempting to look for influences in his early life that prepared him for that career and to suspect that at least subconsciously he was grooming himself for it. But that was not the objective. He received an education fitted to the rising industrial economy, and it fully excited his imagination. He might ultimately have made an even greater, more durable mark as one of the titans of modern industry – as a Carnegie, say, or a Siemens – than he did in British and imperial politics. But he was driven to choose otherwise as much by bereavement and remarriage as by his worried recognition of the socio-economic consequences of his industrial success. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Joe’s Three Wives
Peter T. Marsh
Joseph Chamberlain had the good fortune to find a wife well attuned to each stage of his evolving career. That delight, however, turned twice to devastation when he lost his first wife in childbirth and his second wife shortly after giving birth to a baby. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Birmingham’s Civic Gospel
TWriting to his brother in the summer of 1824, the essayist Thomas Carlyle described Birmingham as a ‘pitiful’ town: ‘a mean congerie of bricks … streets ill-built and ill-paved … torrents of thick smoke issuing from a thousand funnels’. By the 1860s, little had been done to alleviate the squalor in which Carlyle’s ‘sooty artisans’ and their families lived and worked. The system of civic administration was largely ineffective in coping with a population of some 340,000 crammed into a warren of workshops and dwellings covering some five square miles. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
‘Made in Birmingham’: Joseph Chamberlain’s Early Political Career
During the late autumn of 1854 a young man arrived in Birmingham on the train from London and took a cab to his ‘digs’ in Frederick Street on the edge of the Calthorpe Estate in Edgbaston and less than a mile away from the offices of Nettlefold and Chamberlain in Broad Street. There he would spend many long hours in the years that followed. The young man was eighteen-year-old Joseph Chamberlain and, as it proved, he and Birmingham were made for each other. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Places to Visit
Sites with a Chamberlain connection. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Highbury, the Home of Joseph Chamberlain
His hill-top mansion. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Exploring the Archives: The Chamberlain Family Papers
The Chamberlain family, and in particular Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), were instrumental in the development of the University of Birmingham from its foundation in 1900. The Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections holds personal and political papers of Joseph Chamberlain and also of his children and his third wife, all of which are a rich source of information for the study of their lives and careers. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
The Transformation of Birmingham
At the time Joseph Chamberlain first arrived in the West Midlands in 1854, the municipal administration in Birmingham was less than twenty years old. The Corporation could not be said to have over-achieved during that period. Hamstrung by arguments over the validity of its charter, and initially unable even to police itself, Birmingham had, as yet, no baths, no libraries, no public parks, nor even a municipal property in which to hold council meetings. And the two elements which kept the town alive – its gas and water – were in the hands of private companies. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Slum Clearance and the Building of Corporation Street
In 1875, Richard Cross, Home Secretary in Disraeli’s Conservative government, piloted the Artisans’ Dwellings Act through Parliament, which gave local authorities the power to purchase and rebuild slum areas. The intention was to improve homes for the poor, but in Birmingham, the result was the displacement of thousands of people and the creation of a commercial district centred on Corporation Street. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
From Paper to Pipes: Public Health, Clean Water and the Elan Valley Scheme, 1892-1905
By the middle of the nineteenth century some rather chilling statistics were becoming apparent. If you lived in the country – Rutland was the example given, but it could have been any such region – your life expectancy was 38 years. If you lived in a city – London or Birmingham or Manchester – it was 17 years. These, of course, were averages, but the conclusion was clear enough for those who could read them. Moving from a rural to an urban area, as many millions had done since the Industrial Revolution began, was tantamount to a sentence of death, for the migrants themselves and even more acutely for their children. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Visiting South Africa
Joseph Chamberlain’s visit to South Africa in December 1902 to February 1903 is remembered for the inability of the two protagonists, Chamberlain and his team on the one side and the spokesmen of the bitter-ender Republican burghers of the Anglo-Boer War on the other, to reach any form of understanding on the post-war dispensation. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Pre-membering Joe: Popularity, Politics or Pride?
In the days following the death of Joseph Chamberlain in July 1914, the streets of Birmingham were host to the most extraordinary scenes of public adoration, the likes of which have not been witnessed before or since. Indeed, a strong desire was expressed by many for a flamboyant Westminster funeral of the type usually reserved for royalty and heads of state. Yet, in accordance with his Unitarian family’s wishes, such ostentation was forgone in favour of a small private ceremony and a relatively understated grave at Birmingham’s unofficially Non-Conformist Key Hill Cemetery. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
‘The Beauty of Every Plant and Flower May be Seen’
The collecting of tropical orchids, regarded as ‘a rich man’s hobby’, reached its zenith in the years before the First World War. Joseph Chamberlain was one of the leading orchid collectors in the Midlands and was rarely seen in public without an orchid in his buttonhole. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Unconditional Loyalty? Birmingham’s Voters and the 1906 Election
The 1906 General Election saw the most crushing defeat for the Conservative and Unionist parties since 1832, yet Birmingham remained immune and its seven seats and those of the immediately surrounding area returned Unionist MPs. This article seeks to explain this exceptional performance, examining both the unique character of Birmingham, and the powerful influence of its favourite son, Joseph Chamberlain. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
Discordant Echoes: How Chamberlain’s Exceptionalism became Birmingham’s Peculiarity
Joseph Chamberlain’s work gave Birmingham an exceptional combination: the high profile and powerful role of the Council; and, joining the forces of its Liberals and Unionists, eliminating the Liberals and inhibiting Labour, changing the political values of the city and emphasising Imperialism and civic action for social improvement. With the demise of Neville Chamberlain, however, the consensus about exceptionalism ends. Some see Birmingham emerging from the Second World War as just another city. Roger Ward says of Neville that ‘with him to the grave in 1940 went ‘Birmingham exceptionalism’’. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
A Woman’s Perspective
Beatrice Potter (1858-1943), is best known as half of the social-reforming husband and wife partnership, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. As a young woman in the 1880s, she fell passionately in love with Joseph Chamberlain, before he married his third wife. Quotations from her diaries reveal her feelings towards and impressions of Chamberlain. Available to subscribers only, subscribe today.
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