Centenary Citizen

Today, 2 July, marks the centenary of the death of the man most associated with Birmingham's rise to title of great city, Joseph Chamberlain.

My photo of Chamberlain's portrait in his Highbury Hall home, https://flic.kr/p/mn813t

Joseph Chamberlain, 1836 - 1914, was born in London but came to Birmingham through his relatives, the Nettlefolds, screw making factory which was later to become GKN.  Retiring at wealthily at the age of 38 he devoted himself to the civic life of Birmingham.  Three years after becoming a Councillor he was appointed Mayor which he retained for three years during which the scope of the council was transformed by his plans and energy.  Gas and water undertakings of the town were purchased and taken under control of the Corporation.  Chris Upton notes in his A History of Birmingham that while there had been pre-Chamberlain council reforms in social provision together with the work of the Commissioners it was Chamberlain who took the council's finances onto a new level able to undertake massive projects such as Elan Valley.  Upton notes simply Chamberlain was able to apply the economics of the market place to local government (2011, p.151). 

Local government’s roots lie in the need to manage and support the economies of the UK’s towns and cities. Joseph Chamberlain reimagined the role of local government in 19th century Birmingham by borrowing to buy-up the local water and gasworks and using the income to revamp his squalid city centre.http://www.newstatesman.com/staggers/2014/07/councils-arent-just-about-growth-we-must-remember-their-less-glamorous-services

Chamberlain was also closely associated with George Dixon and Jesse Collings in forming the Birmingham Education League which evolved into the National Edication League which called for the "establishment of a system which shall ensure the education of every child in the country". Board schools followed the work of this league.

He was elected as one of Birmingham's MPs in 1876 and was President of the Board of Trade 1880-5, Secretary of State for Colonies 1895-1903.  Chamberlain was struck down by a stroke in 1906 and took no further part in politics, passing away at his house, Highbury Hall, in 1914 and buried in Key Hill Cemetery.

Chamberlain's legacy and the affection to his name can be seen throughout the city in the name of a college bearing his name, Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, the title attributed to the clock tower at the University of Birmingham, affectionately known as Old Joe, and the fountain and square named after him, Chamberlain Memorial Fountain and Chamberlain Place, in the city centre.  There are also the physical legacies which do not share his name such as Corporation Street, created by the removal of slums from the city centre to create a street as broad as a Parisian boulevard, http://theironroom.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/joseph-chamberlain-and-the-birmingham-improvement-scheme/.

Old Joe, the University of Birmingham clock tower.

The University of Birmingham is, for me as a former student, one of Chamberlain's greatest legacies to the city.  Chamberlain sought to provide 'a great school of universal instruction', so that 'the most important work of original research should be continuously carried on under most favourable circumstances', http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/university/about/history/vision.aspx

Many aspects of Chamberlain’s vision continue to inspire and guide the University today, including our continuing responsibilities to our region, providing a skilled, professional workforce and groundbreaking research that benefits regional industries.http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/university/about/history/vision.aspx

His legacy through his impact on local politics still resounds today and Labour Leader Ed Milliband spoke yesterday ahead of the 2015 UK general election about returning powers back to local authorities by reversing a century of centralisation.  

He accepted recommendations from a review by Lord Andrew Adonis, which called for the creation of a “new generation of Joseph Chamberlains, strong far sighted city and civic leaders with bold, credible plans, for their localities”.
 At the heart of Labour’s plan lies a commitment to devolve more than £30 billion to combined authorities, existing local authorities and LEPs over the course of a parliament.

History West Midlands Magazine's current issue is focussed on Chamberlain and their abstract of the issue perhaps sums up a man regarded as the father of modern Birmingham, revered locally, but ignored nationally.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) dominated late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, but never became Prime Minister. His fiefdom in the West Midlands originated from his activities as Mayor of Birmingham, but after entering Parliament he continued to shape the locality and established, via his sons, Austen and Neville, a political dynasty. In Birmingham he professionalised party organisation, created lasting public works and manipulated a mass electorate. Nationally, he promoted social legislation and British imperialism, wrecked two governments and created his own party, the Liberal Unionists. On the 100th anniversary of his death, this issue explores Chamberlain, his work and his reputation.


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