Joseph Chamberlain: Worker, Reformer, Legend

Vivek Rajkhowa writes about the man who transformed Birmingham.

Joseph Chamberlain, one of Birmingham’s finest politicians, has a very colourful legacy. Be it as a radical social reformer who pushed for free education and for the development of Birmingham into the Second City, or as an imperialist devoted to the British Empire, he has always inspired debate and arguments. But how did he rise to the exalted heights that we now know him for?

Chamberlain was born in July, 1836 in London, to a reasonably well to-do shoe manufacturer who was based there, and was raised in an atmosphere of political liberalism and nonconformist religion. At the age of sixteen, Chamberlain decided to enter the family business. Two years later, he moved to Birmingham to join his cousin’s screw-making business, and it was there that his entrepreneurial skills first came to the fore.

His relentless energy and brilliant organisational skills ensured that the business’s competition were driven out of the city and by 1874, Chamberlain who was only thirty-eight was able to retire with a large fortune. Chamberlain’s hard work and self-made fortune would imbue in him, a contempt for some of the aristocracy who dominated politics at the time, and in keeping with Birmingham’s rather radical tradition, he would view himself as far more capable than them. Something that inspired his first foray into politics.

Chamberlain’s desire to bring proper and radical change, saw him form the Birmingham Education League with Jesse Collings in 1867. The League was aimed at improving the educational prospects of children from all walks of life within the city, their view was that the number of children attending any sort of school (which stood at half at the time) was unacceptable and this needed to change.

Their mission soon expanded beyond Birmingham, and saw the League morph into the National Education League, which held its first conference in Birmingham in 1869. The League’s aim was to establish a school system funded by government grants, managed by local authorities that would be subject to government inspection. The policy was so popular, and Chamberlain so charismatic that by 1870, the League had more than one hundred branches mostly in cities that were largely run by men from trade unions.

Chamberlain would state that “It is as much the duty of the state to see that the children are educated as to see that they are fed.” Given the current education system that exists, it is perhaps not too much of a leap to say Chamberlain was largely successful in achieving his aims.

Shortly after the National Education League, Chamberlain became the Mayor of Birmingham, and from 1873 until his election as a Liberal MP in 1876, the radical ideas and unstoppable energy he had had as a young businessman were brought to bear on the politics of Birmingham.

As mayor, Chamberlain promoted a great many civic improvements and promised that the city would be: “Parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas and watered improved.” To do this, he forcibly purchased the Birmingham Gas Light and Coke Company and the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Light Company, on behalf of the city, thus ending the competition between the two companies and improving their efficiency such that in the first year of operations, the new gas scheme made a profit of £34,000.

Chamberlain also focused on improving the city’s water supply. In 1876, he forcibly purchased Birmingham’s waterworks for £1.3 million, and created the Birmingham Corporation Water Department. The company used the rivers Bourne and Blythe, Plant’s Brook and Perry Stream as sources, with six wells being dug at Aston, Short Heath, King’s Vale, Perry Barr, Selly Oak and Longbridge. These wells provided 20 million imperial gallons of water per day, which combined with the fourteen reservoirs that Chamberlain had pushed for, ensured that there was a total capacity of 628.5 million gallons of water available.

In July, 1875, Chamberlain tabled an improvement plan involving slum clearances in Birmingham’s city centre. He had been consulted by Home Secretary, Richard Assheton Cross during the preparation of the Artisan’s and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875, and had decided to implement some of the suggestions within the act. Having bought fifty acres of property to build a new road (today’s Corporation Street) through Birmingham’s crowded slums. Ignoring the protests of local landlords, Chamberlain gained the endorsement of the Local Government Board and raised funds for his plan, contributing £10,000 himself. Slum dwellers were rehoused in the suburbs, with the land leased as a business proposition on a 75-year lease as a compromise between Chamberlain’s desire to improve the area and the need to settle the slum dwellers somewhere. After this move, the death rate in the newly named Corporation Street declined from 53 per 1000 between 1873 and 1875 to 21 per 1000 between 1879 and 1881.

Chamberlain used public and private money to construct libraries, municipal swimming pools and to enlarge the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery alongside opening a number of new parks. Chamberlain also oversaw the construction of the Council House, and the building of the Victoria Law Courts.

Chamberlain’s efforts and successes as Mayor of Birmingham significantly raised his public profile, making him a well-known national as well as local figure, his improvements to the city earned him the unswerving loyalty of the so-called Birmingham Caucus for the rest of his career.

In 1876, Chamberlain decided to leave Birmingham for London, serving as an MP for the city he had once governed. He was viewed as a dissenter and an upstart, and his radical speeches terrified the Conservatives. However, his constituents in Birmingham adored him and ensured that the Liberals always received a large amount of votes in the Midlands. Chamberlain became known as the wire puller and became Prime Minister William Gladstone’s lieutenant in the House of Commons, a role he played so well he was rewarded with the post of President of the Board of Trade.

Though he was now part of the establishment, Chamberlain did not forget his radical roots, and regularly went out on the stump calling for a graduated income tax, free education, improved housing for the poor, reform of local government and “three acres and a cow” for agricultural labourers. Such demands had him painted as a radical and added to the fear amongst some circles about the sort of man he was.

But, as those who feared him were soon to find out, Chamberlain could be more adaptable than even the ficklest of politicians. As demands for land reform and Home Rule grew in Ireland during the 1880s, Chamberlain initially stood with Gladstone in opposing the use of repressive force to quash Irish agitation, but, his instincts were shifting toward an Imperialist perspective and as such he found that he could no longer support Home Rule for Ireland. So, strong were his objections that when the issue came to a vote in 1886, Chamberlain joined with other dissident Liberals (soon to be known as Liberal Unionists) and voted against the government, eventually defeating it.

This action hastened Chamberlain’s split with the Liberal Party, of which he had felt a kinship to almost his entire life. Chamberlain used his control of the Liberal Unionists to enter an agreement with the Conservatives, and forced them to adopt a more progressive social policy that laid the groundwork for the welfare state that would emerge in the coming decades.

As the Conservatives came to dominate politics during the 1890s and the early 1900s, Chamberlain slowly began to abandon his radical rhetoric of earlier years and embrace imperialist rhetoric which appeared to be more popular with the public. He was rewarded for this by being made Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1895, by the Marquess of Salisbury who was Prime Minister at the time.

As Secretary for the Colonies, Chamberlain became heavily involved in South African affairs, including fervent support for British interests during the Boer War of 1899-1902. He also looked to strengthen ties between Britain and her colonies, which led to his desire for a new tariff scheme that would draw Britain and the colonies together in some form of common market (sound familiar?). Protected by strong tariffs without and united by preferential tariffs from within, Chamberlain hoped that the union would add to Britain’s international security and protect manufacturers threatened by new competition from the US and Germany, alongside raising revenue for social projects at home.

Chamberlain’s policy went against the agreed upon economic practices of the time and as such, when Arthur Balfour, the then Conservative leader refused to commit, Chamberlain resigned his post in cabinet and conducted a private campaign, that caused such a fuss it succeeded in dividing the Conservative party. Whilst the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists suffered a stunning defeat in 1906 because of Chamberlain’s actions, the man was re-elected in Birmingham, showing how strong his hold there was. However, he could not capitalise on that, for shortly after being elected, Chamberlain suffered a paralytic stroke that left him an invalid for the rest of his life.

Before his stroke, Joseph Chamberlain had one last hand to play in Birmingham; the founding of the University of Birmingham, which came in 1900. Not only did Chamberlain lead the campaign to raise funds for the University’s development, he also set the tone for the environment in which students would learn. And in a surprising turn for a man who was quite the imperialist, Chamberlain insisted that the university would recruit students from all classes and genders, and from across the globe. Education would not be limited by skin colour, class or gender, in Chamberlain’s university, something he took some serious criticism for from local entrepreneurs and newspapers.

Away from the political arena, Chamberlain was a devoted family man who was married three times. From his first marriage, he had two children, Beatrice and future politician Austen. From a second marriage, there were four children including future Prime Minister Neville. Though there were no children from his third marriage, this was the marriage where Chamberlain was fully able to settle into the role of husband and father, providing useful advice for his children as their lives progressed.

Joseph Chamberlain was a man of many talents and hats. A radical, an imperialist and an innovator. He is perhaps one of the finest politicians to have ever come out of Birmingham, his legacy is felt there to this day.