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, joining his uncle’s company as an apprentice. Becoming a partner shortly after, the business was soon producing two-thirds of all metal screws made in England.

By 1867, already widowed with two children – Austen and Beatrice – Joseph had become politically active, and that year, along with future Birmingham Mayor Jesse Collings, founded the Birmingham Education League. The League noted that half of the children of school age throughout Britain were not attending schools, while half of those who were attended uninspected schools. Chamberlain favoured free, secular, compulsory education, stating that “it is as much the duty of the State to see that the children are educated as to see that they are fed.” 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 local rates and government grants, managed by local authorities subject to government inspection. By 1870, the League had more than one hundred branches, mostly in cities and peopled largely by men of trades unions and working men’s organisations.

In 1869, now married again, he ran in the Birmingham City Council elections for St Paul’s ward. While a councillor, he campaigned against the government’s proposed ‘Elementary Education Bill’, which provided government funding for religious schools. Chamberlain, in an article for Fortnightly Review, summed up his political aims with the “Four F’s”: Free Church, Free Schools, Free Land and Free Labour.
In 1873, Chamberlain became the Mayor of Birmingham, and set about transforming the city. 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 of that year, he died and was buried in Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley. His two sons, Austen and Neville, both followed in his footsteps and entered politics, with Neville going on to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937-1940.