Sue Young Histories

Joseph Chamberlain 1836 – 1914

December 03, 2009

Joseph Chamberlain 1836 – 1914Joseph Chamberlain 1836 – 1914 was an influential British businessman, politician, and statesman. Mayor of Birmingham 1873-76.

Joseph Chamberlain worked with homeopath, journalist and historian J Ellis Barker, and he was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Lady Jeune, an advocate of John Bright, and he had a brief romantic dalliance with Helen Beatrix Potter,

Joseph Chamberlain was the father of Arthur Neville Chamberlain, and he was a colleague of Benjamin Disraeli, George Dixon, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, William Ewert Gladstone, William Arbuthnot Lane 1st Baronet,Queen Victoria,

Joseph Chamberlain was the driving force behind the foundation of the University of Birmingham and was its first Chancellor.

The other founders of the University of Birmingham were homeopath James Gibbs Blake (President, Chairman of the Trustee and the Chairman of the Council of the Mason Science College in Birmingham, and a Co Founder and Vice President of the University of Birmingham), and Josiah Mason (a Trustee and member of the Management Committee, and major sponsor of the Birmingham Homeopathic Hospital and the Co-founder of the Mason Science College in Birmingham, which evolved into the University of Birmingham),

‘… J Ellis Barker devoted his literary career, from 1900, to warning England of the danger of a war with Germany and to urging military, naval and economic preparation, cooperating with Frederick Sleigh Roberts 1st Earl Roberts, Joseph Chamberlain and others; one of the founders of the New Health Society, acting as Honorary Secretary from its beginning…’ (In this respect J Ellis Barker resembles Walter Johannes Stein).

The New Health Society (the first organised body to deal with social medicine), was founded by William Arbuthnot Lane 1st Baronet in 1925 to publicise his views on healthy diet and life, exercise, fruit and vegetables and bran cereal that mirror those present today,

On 12.12.1870 (Eric W. Vincent, Percival Hinton, The University of Birmingham: its history and significance, (Cornish brothers ltd., 1947). Page 61), James Gibbs Blake, Josiah Mason and George James Johnson ( See also George James Johnson (?-?) was a lawyer, who founded the firm of Johnson & Co in 1876. He served as Mayor of Birminghm in 1893) executed the Foundation Deed of the University of Birmingham, James Gibbs Blake was President, Chairman of the Trustee and the Chairman of the Council (Joseph Whitaker, An Almanack…: by Joseph Whitaker, F.S.A., containing an account of the astronomical and other phenomena, (Whitaker’s Almanack, 1883). Page 217) of the Mason Science College in Birmingham, and a Co Founder and Vice President of the University of Birmingham, Josiah Mason was a Trustee and member of the Management Committee, and major sponsor (Anon, Transactions of the … session of the American Institute of Homœopathy, Volume 29, Issue 2, (American Institute of Homeopathy. Session, 1880). Page 119) of the Birmingham Homeopathic Hospital, and the Co-founder of the Mason Science College in Birmingham, which evolved into the University of Birmingham,

From ‘… In his early years Joseph Chamberlain was a radically minded Liberal Party member, a campaigner for educational reform, and President of the Board of Trade. He later became a Liberal Unionist in alliance with the Conservative Party and was appointed Colonial Secretary.

At the end of his career he led the tariff reform campaign. Despite never becoming Prime Minister, he is regarded as one of the most important British politicians of the late 19th century and early 20th century, as well as a colourful character and renowned orator.

He was the father of Austen Chamberlain and Prime Minister Arthur Neville Chamberlain.

… at the age of 16, Joseph was apprenticed to the Cordwainers’ Company and worked for the family business in the making of quality leather shoes. At 18 he was sent to Birmingham to join his uncle’s screwmaking business, Nettlefolds (later part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds), in which his father had invested.

In partnership with Joseph Nettlefold, Chamberlain was to help the screwmaking firm, soon known as Nettlefold and Chamberlain, to become a commercial success and by his retirement from the firm in 1874, the company was exporting its products to the United States, Europe, India, Japan, Canada and Australia.

At the firm’s height, Nettlefold and Chamberlain were producing approximately two-thirds of all metal screws made in England.

… In November 1873 Chamberlain stood as a Liberal candidate for the mayoralty of Birmingham, with the Conservatives denouncing his political Radicalism and disparaging him as a ‘monopoliser and a dictator.’ The Liberal Party swept the municipal elections having campaigned under the slogan ‘The People above the Priests’, a clear swipe at the High Toryism of Chamberlain’s opponents.

As Mayor, Chamberlain promoted many civic improvements, leaving the town (in words to Collings) ‘parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved’. Prior to his tenure in office, the city’s municipal administration was notably lax with regards to public works, and many urban dwellers lived in conditions of great poverty.

The city’s water supply was considered a danger to public health – approximately half of the city’s population was dependent on well water, much of which was polluted by sewage. Furthermore, piped water was only supplied three days per week, compelling the use of unhealthy well water and water carts for the rest of the week.

Two rival gas companies, the Birmingham Gas Company and the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Company were locked in constant competition, in which the city’s streets were continually dug up to allow for the laying of mains. Chamberlain established a municipal gas supply by forcibly purchasing the two companies on behalf of the borough for £1,953,050, even offering to purchase the companies himself if the ratepayers refused. The move was a success, and in its first year of operations, the municipal gas scheme made a profit of £34,000.

Deploring the rising death rate from contagious diseases in the poorest sections of the city, in January 1876, Chamberlain forcibly purchased Birmingham’s waterworks for a combined sum of £1,350,000, having declared to a House of Commons Committee that ‘We have not the slightest intention of making profit… We shall get our profit indirectly in the comfort of the town and in the health of the inhabitants’.

Despite this noticeable executive action, Chamberlain was mistrustful of central authority and burdensome bureaucracy, preferring to give local communities the responsibility to act on their own initiative.

With the city’s gas and water supply under municipal control, Chamberlain undertook other schemes with the intention of improving the quality of life in Birmingham.

In July 1875 Chamberlain tabled an improvement plan that involved a programme of slum clearance in Birmingham’s city centre. Chamberlain had been consulted by the Home Secretary, R.A. Cross during the preparation of the Artisan’s and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act 1875, a prominent feature of Benjamin Disraeli’s programme of social improvement.

Chamberlain proposed to build a new road (Corporation Street) through Birmingham’s overcrowded slums, and bought 50 acres (200,000 m²) of property for such a purpose. Overriding the protests of local landlords and the Commissioner of the Local Government Board’s inquiry into the scheme, Chamberlain appealed directly to the President of the Local Government Board, George Sclater Booth.

Having gained the support of central government and raised the funds for the programme, Chamberlain was able to implement the scheme, contributing £10,000 to the cost himself.

However, the Improvement Committee concluded that it would be too expensive to transfer slum dwellers to municipally built accommodation and so the land was let out as a business proposition on a 75 year lease. Those who had occupied the slums were eventually rehoused in the suburbs, not in the area of their previous residence, and the scheme as a whole lost local government £300,000.

The death rate in the newly christened Corporation Street dropped dramatically – from approximately 53 per 1,000 between 1873 and 1875 to 21 per 1,000 between 1879 and 1881.

Chamberlain’s tenure in office was also notable for his promotion of cultural improvement. Public and private money was used for the construction of libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. The Museum & Art Gallery was enlarged and a number of new parks were opened. Construction of the Council House was begun while the Victoria Law Courts were built in Corporation Street.


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