Chamberlain: Father of Modern Birmingham: York Membery Recalls One of the Great Statesmen of Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, Whose Career Ended with a Devastating Stroke a Hundred Years Ago This Month

By Membery, York | History Today, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Chamberlain: Father of Modern Birmingham: York Membery Recalls One of the Great Statesmen of Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, Whose Career Ended with a Devastating Stroke a Hundred Years Ago This Month


Membery, York, History Today


IT MIGHT NOT BE THE HAPPIEST of anniversaries--but a hundred years ago, on July 13th, 1906, Joseph Chamberlain was struck down by a stroke that left him paralysed down one side of his body. And so, at one swipe, ended the career of one of the leading political figures of the age who was still at the height of his powers. The centenary is being marked in his adopted city of Birmingham (he was born in London) by a special opening of Highbury, the mansion in Kingsheath where he lived from 1880 until his death in 1914. The magnificent twelve-bedroom house, with its vaulted hall, was designed for Chamberlain in the Venetian Gothic style by the architect John Henry Chamberlain (no relation), while its extensive grounds were specially landscaped.

Money was no object to Chamberlain, who by then had sold his stake in the Birmingham screw manufacturing business of Nettleford and Chamberlain (founded by his uncle and father), a move that allowed him to throw all his energies into politics. Some eighteen gardeners tended the estate while an army of servants ran the house which played host to many a lavish weekend party lasting from Friday evening until Monday morning.

The centenary is also a chance to look back at this most contradictory of figures. For Chamberlain was a modernizer but at the same time his position on some issues--notably, Irish Home Rule--now appears reactionary. A figure who who could have become leader of either the Liberals or the Conservatives (and Unionists), not to mention prime minister, but whose career ultimately ended in disappointment if not failure.

If ever a politician's life can be divided into distinct phases, it is Chamberlain's--first as municipal reformer, then as radical Liberal, and finally as imperialist. Above all though, his life was characterized by the taking up of great political causes.

After helping to make Nettleford and Chamberlain a commercial success, he first made his name in municipal politics. Instrumental in setting up the Birmingham Education League (which evolved into the National Education League) in 1867 calling for the provision of free education, he soon came to the fore among Birmingham Liberals, and was elected to its council two years later.

After winning election as mayor, his 'gas and water socialism'--the acquisition of land for slum clearance and the forcible purchase of local gas and water companies--turned Birmingham 'from slum into model municipality'. Death rates were slashed. Public and private money was spent on libraries, swimming pools and schools.

These achievements brought the charismatic 'city boss'--who was a fine orator and cut a distinctive figure in his black velvet coat and monocle--national prominence. In 1876 he became a Liberal MP for Birmingham and quickly established himself as a leading radical in the party, desperate to advance the cause of reform.

With characteristic energy, Chamberlain set out to do to the Liberal Party nationally what he'd done to Birmingham--modernize it. He helped set up the National Liberal Federation which he hoped would turn the party into an unbeatable election-winning machine. And it duly played a key role in the 1880 Liberal victory.

After taking office as prime minister, Gladstone appointed Chamberlain President of the Board of Trade where he pushed through a law enabling municipal bodies to establish electricity supplies and a Seaman's Wages Bill guaranteeing fairer pay. And he went on to write the preface for the celebrated Radical Programme, which called for land reform, more direct taxation, free education and universal male suffrage.

However, following Gladstone's conversion to Irish Home Rule--which Chamberlain opposed, fearing that Ireland's separation from the United Kingdom would lead to the eventual break up of the empire--he and the Grand Old Man were on a collision course. …

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