Joseph Chamberlain, 1836-1914

In a picture postcard (Tuck & Sons Ltd, c. 1905) Radical Joseph was pictured wearing a coat of many colours. Each segment was labelled with different stages in his political career: socialist, extreme radical, Gladstonian, Liberal Unionist, Conservative and protectionist and food taxer. Inconsistent was one of the more favourable epithets used of Chamberlain. To the Liberals he was a traitor, to the Conservatives a dangerous radical, and to the people of Birmingham a hero, despite the fact that by birth he was a Londoner.

Joseph Chamberlain, the eldest son of a prosperous shoemaker, was born on 8 July 1836. As a Unitarian, Chamberlain was forbidden entry to a public school, so he was educated at University College School until he was sixteen. He joined the family business for two years and then moved to Birmingham. His uncle, J. S. Nettlefold, had decided to introduce steam-powered lathes to his screw-manufacturing business and approached his brother for financial help. The latter agreed on condition that his son should join the firm. Chamberlain’s energy and organisational abilities drove out Nettlefold’s competitors and in 1874 he was able to retire with a substantial fortune at age thirty-eight.

Chamberlain married Harriet Kenrick in July 1861 and they had a daughter, Beatrice, and a son, Austen. Harriet died suddenly in 1863 and Chamberlain went on to marry one of her cousins, Florence, in June 1868. The eldest of their four children and only son was the future Prime Minister, Neville. This marriage also ended suddenly, with Florence’s death in 1875 after she gave birth to another son, who did not survive. Chamberlain dealt with his grief by throwing himself into public work.

The second Reform Act of 1867 encouraged Chamberlain to become involved in educational provision to educate our new masters, and he contributed £1000 to the Birmingham Education League, founded in 1869. He was elected a town councillor in 1869 and a member of the Birmingham School Board. In 1873 he was elected mayor, a post to which he was re-elected in 1874 and 1875. Chamberlain focused on improving the physical condition of the town and its people. He organised the purchase of the two gas companies and the water works; he appointed a Medical Officer of Health, established a Drainage Board, extended the paving and lighting of streets, opened six public parks, saw the start of the public transport service and personally laid the foundation stone of the new Council House. His Improvement Scheme saw the demolition of ninety acres of slums in the town centre. The council bought the freehold of about half the land to build Corporation Street. His pioneering efforts brought him to national prominence and marked social reform as a Liberal platform.

At the general election of 1874 he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for Sheffield but was returned unopposed in 1876 as one of Birmingham’s MPs, representing the constituency for the rest of his life. In Parliament he was distrusted as a Dissenter and upstart; his genuinely radical speeches frightened the Conservatives. He was a constructive radical, caring more for practical success than party loyalty or ideological commitment. His industrial middle class constituents adored him; his efficient party organisation (the Caucus) resulted in huge Liberal votes in the Midlands. With the Caucus as his pattern, Chamberlain established the National Liberal Federation, launched by Gladstone on 31 May 1877. The Federation was intended to provide Liberals with a political apparatus for fighting elections, publishing posters and pamphlets, enlisting new members, collecting subscriptions and organising meeting and social events.

By 1880 the Liberal Party was increasingly divided over the question of social reform. Chamberlain and Sir Charles Dilke led the radical Liberals in Gladstone’s second ministry (1880-85) which was largely occupied by Irish affairs. In 1882 Chamberlain was appointed as President of the Board of Trade and was keen to see further reforms. However Gladstone found the whole issue boring and Hartington was positively hostile. In 1885 the radical wing embarked on the Unauthorised Programme, which demanded a graduated income tax, free education, improved housing for the poor, local government reform and three acres and a cow for agricultural labourers. In one of his speeches Chamberlain declared: “I am told if I pursue this course that I shall break up the party …. but I care little for the party …. except to promote the objects which I publicly avowed when I first entered Parliament.” Although Chamberlain’s programme was largely responsible for the Liberal victory of 1885, Gladstone made no concessions to him and ignored the case for social reform, thus setting the party on the road to deeper divisions.

While Chamberlain favoured Irish reform and supported Gladstone in opposing the use of force in quashing Irish agitation, he advocated imperial unity and opposed Gladstone when he committed the party to Irish Home Rule in 1885. In 1886 Chamberlain and the other so-called Liberal Unionists defeated Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill and the consequent split in the party proved permanent. The Conservatives, supported by the Liberal Unionists, dominated British politics for most of the next twenty years. Chamberlain used his control of the Liberal Unionists to pressure the Conservatives into adopting a more progressive social policy, but Conservative supremacy marked a new emphasis upon empire and foreign affairs and Chamberlain turned increasingly to these interests.

In 1895 he joined Salisbury’s Conservative Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Colonies. He soon became involved in South African affairs and was accused of complicity in the Jameson Raid of December 1895, possibly with foundation, although he claimed not to have known about Jameson’s planned invasion of the Transvaal. A select committee of the House of Commons (1897) looked at the evidence and revealed nothing to Chamberlain’s discredit – a tactful choice since Chamberlain presided over the committee. However, he was determined to form under British rule a southern African federation incorporating Cape Colony, Natal and the two Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The main result was the Boer War (1899-1902) which Chamberlain supported enthusiastically even though it soon became apparent that Britain was militarily vulnerable and diplomatically isolated in Europe. Consequently Chamberlain looked to the self-governing colonies for international support, announcing a preferential tariff scheme that he hoped would draw Britain and its dependencies together and raise revenue for social reform. When Balfour refused to commit himself to the idea, Chamberlain resigned his Cabinet post and from 1903 to 1906 conducted a campaign to think imperially.

Free trade had been the basis of Britain’s economic policy since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the Liberals continued to advocate cheap bread. The Conservatives split over tariff reform as irrevocably as the Liberals had over Home Rule; in the general election of 1906 the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were defeated, largely because of Chamberlain’s abandonment of free trade. Chamberlain was himself re-elected in Birmingham, however, by a huge majority. It was his last political victory; in July 1906 he suffered a paralytic stroke that left him a helpless invalid for the rest of his life. He died on 2 July 1914 in London.

Chamberlain’s political papers are in Birmingham University library. A six-volume history of his life by J. L. Garvin and J. Amery was published between 1932 and 1969. Other sources include M. Hurst, Joseph Chamberlain and Liberal Reunion (1967); P. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: entrepreneur in politics (1994), and Robert V. Kubicek, The Administration of Imperialism: Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office (1969).


Marjie Bloy is a history teacher. She graduated from London University in 1981 and was awarded a PhD by the University of Sheffield in 1986.