Joseph Chamberlain was the best-known, and most controversial, politician of his generation. A man destined to be prime minister, yet who never made it to No. 10. “He was a man who made the weather,” Winston Churchill said of him. It takes one to know one.

Raised at Clerkenwell in south London, Chamberlain came to Birmingham in 1854, at the age of 18, to manage his uncle’s screw factory. And just as that company was bound for a worldwide reputation as Guest, Kean & Nettlefold, so its former manager was due to stride the international stage.

Let us delve a little deeper. Joseph Chamberlain was an industrialist, before he was a politician, and a Unitarian, before he was an industrialist. That most worldly of the non-conformist sects was strong in Birmingham, almost amounting to a ruling elite.

Unitarianism saw little distinction between religion, politics and industry, and it could be espoused in the council chamber just as much as in the chapel. To some it was closer to socialism and atheism than it was to God.

Typically Unitarians inter-married, and Chamberlain was no exception. In 1860 he married Harriet Kenrick, daughter of Archibald Kenrick of Berrow Court, who had a substantial hollow-ware business in West Bromwich. (No need to ask what the wedding presents were, then.) The couple moved into a house in Harborne Road and Harriet bore him two children – Beatrice and Austen. But there were complications after the birth of Austen in 1863 and Harriet died of puerperal fever soon after. Chamberlain was a widower at the age of just 27.

Four years later he married another Kenrick, Florence of that ilk, a cousin of Harriet’s. She bore him Neville in 1869 and then a succession of daughters over the following years.

Some of the Chamberlain clan, back row, from left, Neville Chamberlain, Sir Austen Chamberlain, Joseph Chamberlain, front row, from left, Miss Beatrice Chamberlain, Mrs Joseph Chamberlain
Some of the Chamberlain clan, back row, from left, Neville Chamberlain, Sir Austen Chamberlain, Joseph Chamberlain, front row, from left, Miss Beatrice Chamberlain, Mrs Joseph Chamberlain

It was in these years that Chamberlain launched himself into local politics as a Liberal councillor. Safe in the possession of an income of some £100,000, Chamberlain retired from business to devote his considerable energies first to local and then to national politics.

In his third year as Mayor of Birmingham – in February 1875 – Chamberlain lost his second wife. Like Harriet, Florence died as a result of complications in childbirth. It would be 14 more years before he wedded again. The third marriage would be a much more exotic affair, no Black Country saucepans in sight.

But like many successful local politicians Chamberlain felt the irresistible pull of Westminster. In June 1876 he won a parliamentary by-election for the Liberals and became one of Birmingham’s MPs.

As a Liberal MP under a Conservative government Joe was quick to show his radical credentials. He campaigned, along with Gladstone, for government intervention in the Balkans. He established (in Birmingham) the National Liberal Federation to connect with the newly-enfranchised working-class voters. It was the first time a political party had been organised at a grassroots level and it campaigned in 60 constituencies in the 1880 general election, helping to win Gladstone a handsome majority.

Chamberlain was given a seat in the Cabinet as president of the Board of Trade, though this was probably as much because Gladstone was afraid of what he would do if left as a back-bencher. “He won’t be in public life for long,” commented Gladstone, “let’s use him as best we can”.

Most of his energy was spent outside the Cabinet. Joe’s socialist policies at home were even more eye-catching. His Radical Programme of 1885 (the first such manifesto in UK politics) was in stark contrast to the gradualist ideas of official Liberalism. It argued for a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, reform of the Lords, free elementary education, payment for MPs, triennial parliaments, and land reform to provide allotments for agricultural workers.

Joseph Chamberlain in a cartoon from 1898.
Joseph Chamberlain in a cartoon from 1898.
 

Chamberlain not only had plenty of ideas, he also knew how to spin them for maximum impact and popularity. He nicknamed the idea “three acres and a cow”.

In the election of November 1885 Gladstone lost seats and had no overall majority. The balance of power was therefore held by the 86 Irish Nationalists.

And here was the one issue upon which Chamberlain and Gladstone violently disagreed. Once it surfaced the Cabinet (perhaps not even the party) would be big enough for the both of them.

The Irish Home Rule Bill was Gladstone’s big idea. Chamberlain was not opposed to some form of devolution – he proposed national councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in his Radical Programme – but he rejected out-of-hand the idea of an Irish Parliament. It would lead, he argued, to the dissolution of the union and of the Empire. When the first Home Rule Bill was published in March 1886, Joe resigned from the Government. Now Gladstone had to deal with a party within a party, a group of MPs, led by Chamberlain, called Liberal Unionists.

From this point onwards the radical MP from Birmingham drifted towards the right. When Chamberlain returned to the Cabinet 10 years later in 1895 it was as Colonial Secretary in a Conservative and Unionist administration.

The years in between 1886 and 1895 might easily be seen as empty, but in a sense Chamberlain was already preparing for that future post. In 1887 the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, asked him to conduct a diplomatic mission to the US, to intervene in a dispute over fishing rights between US and Canada. While he was there he met Mary Endicott, daughter of the Secretary of the Army, William Crowninshild Endicott. Joe was a young 51, Mary a mature 23. Nevertheless Mary was only a few years younger than Chamberlain’s son, Neville. On their first meeting Chamberlain talked about Birmingham. It was not ideal courtship, but it worked. They married in November 1889.

Chamberlain’s choice to be Secretary of State for the Colonies reflected his view of the central importance of the British Empire. In another’s hands the post might have stayed behind a desk. Not here. On the positive side, the new Secretary of State commissioned research to combat malaria in Africa and to divert the West Indies from its over-reliance on sugar. But the policy which was to characterise his tenure was war with the Boers in South Africa.

Joseph Chamberlain in a cartoon published in the Westminster Gazette in 1895.
Joseph Chamberlain in a cartoon published in the Westminster Gazette in 1895.
 

In 1902 Chamberlain was now in mid-60s and a veteran of almost 40 years in politics.

But there was to be one last bee in his campaigning bonnet. He called it Tariff Reform.

Convinced that the age of free trade and laissez-faire economics was coming to an end, Chamberlain argued that the UK must defend its position by import controls, and use the Empire as a new trading zone with preferential import tariffs. It was an issue that inevitably split the Tory party. With Prime Minister Balfour sitting on the fence, Chamberlain resigned from the Cabinet for a second time.

The 1906 election demonstrated that a divided party fares badly. The Tories were decimated, yet in Birmingham Chamberlain and his fellow tariff reformers held their seats with increased majorities. Tariff reform, designed to protect British manufacturing from foreign competition, ensured his continued popularity in the industrial heartland.

Through all of this activity Chamberlain’s roots remained firmly in the Midlands, particularly at Highbury, the house he had built on the edge of Moseley. That house remains as an enduring legacy of the man who, for half a century, dominated the city he called home.

Key Moments

* 8 July, 1836: Joseph Chamberlain born.

* 1852: Leaves school – apprenticed to family firm.

* 1854: Moves to Birmingham to join Nettlefold’s screw-making business.

* 1861: Marries Harriet Kenrick

* 1862: Birth of daughter, Beatrice

* 1863: Birth of son, Austen, and death of Harriet Chamberlain.

* 1868: Marries Florence Kenrick.

* 1869: Elected councillor for St. Paul’s Ward, Birmingham.

* 1870: Birth of daughter, Ida.

* 1871: Birth of daughter, Hilda.

* 1873: Birth of daughter, Ethel.

Retires from business, becomes Mayor of Birmingham.

* 1875: Death of Florence Chamberlain.

* 1876: Retires as Mayor, elected MP for Birmingham.

* 1880: Appointed President of Board of Trade

* 1885: Resigns from Cabinet.

Launches “unauthorised programme” for General Election.

* 1886: Appointed President of Local Government Board.

Splits with Gladstone over Irish Home Rule and forms National Radical Union.

* 1887: Resolves fisheries dispute between USA and Canada.

* 1888: Marries Mary Endicott.

* 1892: Becomes leader of Liberal Unionist party in the Commons.

* 1895: Appointed Colonial Secretary.

* 1899: Outbreak of Second Boer War.

* 1900: Elected first Chancellor of Birmingham University.

* 1903: Resigns from Cabinet and launches Tariff Reform League.

* 1906: Incapacitated by severe stroke shortly after 70th birthday celebration.

* July 2, 1914: Chamberlain dies at his home in London.