Who was Joseph Chamberlain?

Born in London in 1836, Joseph Chamberlain was a politician, Mayor of Birmingham and a leading reformer of the British educational system.

Joseph moved to Birmingham at the age of 16 to work at his uncle’s company, the business was soon producing two-thirds of all metal screws made in England.

By 1867, Joseph had become politically active and along with future Birmingham Mayor, Jesse Collings, founded the Birmingham Education League. At this time half of the children in the UK were not attending school and only a quarter attended inspected schools. The Birmingham Education League soon became the National Education League, holding its first Conference in Birmingham in 1869 and proposed a school system funded by government grants, managed by local authorities subject to government inspection. By 1870, the League had more than one hundred branches, mostly in cities and largely ran by men of trade unions. Chamberlain favoured free, secular, compulsory education, stating:

“It is as much the duty of the State to see that the children are educated as to see that they are fed.”

In 1869, he ran in the Birmingham City Council elections for St Paul’s ward. In an article for Fortnightly Review, he summed up his political aims as:

“Four F’s: Free Church, Free Schools, Free Land and Free Labour”.

In 1873, Chamberlain became the Mayor of Birmingham. He set up a new municipal gas company, spearheaded the slum clearance and created the Birmingham Corporation Water Department, all of which saved thousands of lives. When asked about the cost, Chamberlain said,

‘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’.

After becoming an MP, Chamberlain served as Secretary of State for the Colonies during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). During the war, he also helped to found the University of Birmingham, and became its first Chancellor. In 1906 he suffered a stroke, but remained an MP until his resignation in January 1914. On the 2nd July 1906, he died and was later buried in Hockley’s Key Hill Cemetery. His sons both followed in his political footsteps, with Neville Chamberlain serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937-1940.