The life and legacy of Joseph Chamberlain

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The University is the result of one of Chamberlain’s most visionary and radical impulses: it is in the spirit of that dimension of his work that we scrutinise him along with the subjects of our enquiry in every discipline.”


The University’s first Chancellor Joseph Chamberlain is the subject of new interest as institutions look into their past to consider how it reflects their present values and ambitions. 

Chamberlain’s legacy is so broad and idiosyncratic that it likely to leave no-one in full agreement with him. He started out as a radical Liberal who offended Gladstone by his demands for social reform. He ended up splitting a Conservative government by promoting protective tariffs. His work in establishing the University also provoked hostility because of its challenge to elite interests.

Chamberlain is probably best known in our city as the Lord Mayor who implemented the ‘civic gospel’ which brought gas, water and street lighting into council hands at the cost of ratepayers. He led the expansion of free education for all children in Birmingham, as well as the municipalisation of the School of Art and the foundation of the free Art Gallery and Museum we still enjoy. Lastly he cleared the city centre’s slums to create the commercial centre we see today around Corporation Street.

Chamberlain did not do all this alone, nor was Birmingham the only city to do it. But the pace, scale and impact of his project earned Birmingham the epithet ‘the best-governed city in the world’, and established an expectation of civic intervention which, continued by his son Neville, led to the building of the largest housing stock of any council in Europe, the establishment of a municipal bank, and more recently a string of city redevelopments seeking to protect Birmingham against the changing tides of economic fortune.

Most criticism of Chamberlain concerns his record as Colonial Secretary at the turn of the twentieth century, when Britain conducted a brutal war (the Boer War or ‘Joe’s war’, as it came to be known) to retain control of South Africa against white Dutch farmers trying to form breakaway states. This campaign – involving ‘scorched earth’ obliteration of civilian populations and the use of concentration camps – symbolises in sharp relief Chamberlain’s attachment to British Imperial power. He had already left the Liberal Party over its policy of Irish Home Rule, and went on in 1903 to launch a campaign to protect jobs across the whole Empire from outside competition by imposing tariffs on imports.

This zeal for Empire, commonplace in Victorian Britain, has long since been abandoned, though there remains a vigorous historical debate about the nature and extent of the continuing damage done by colonialism. In fact, even the young Chamberlain could be a less extreme Imperialist than the Boer War and his own later propaganda show. He condemned Disraeli’s war against the Zulus in 1879, asking whether “it was a crime for a nation to wish to remain free and independent” and answering that “such a theory was repugnant to all the natural instincts of Englishmen.” In government himself, he resisted some of Cecil Rhodes’s expansionist ambitions in Africa.

Today we would similarly decry some of Chamberlain’s supporters’ use of political violence. Most notoriously, David Lloyd George was driven from the stage at a 1901 Town Hall meeting by a Chamberlainite mob 30,000 strong hurling bottles and bricks because the future prime minister spoke out against the Boer War. This was not the only such episode, though Chamberlain’s direct role in these events is obscure.

The foundation of the University of Birmingham was for Chamberlain the culmination of his work in the city, and represents his most enduring progressive achievement. At a time when only four other unitary universities existed in England (and their supporters did not all welcome a newcomer to the club), he led the campaign to raise the funds and build the organisation and environment of the first civic university, teaching a new curriculum, embedded in its community, and recruiting students of all classes, women and men. One of the more positive reflections of Chamberlain’s international outlook was his determination to serve students from around the globe. From the outset, University records show students of all races and worldwide national origins registering and lining up to shake Chamberlain’s hand at graduation ceremonies. Indeed, Chamberlain took harsh criticism from some local entrepreneurs and newspapers for his deliberate recruitment of foreign students.

The University does not make icons of its leaders: there is no statue of Chamberlain. Even the clock tower gained its nickname ‘Old Joe’ by popular affirmation rather than by official order. Chamberlain’s impact is critically assessed in modules in the School of History and Cultures, and in its research and publications. The School also examines wider issues of the impact of the British Empire in student-led initiatives such as the Confronting Colonialism: Discussing the Problematic Pasts of Our Institutions’ conference and the Decolonising the Curriculum panel.

The University is the result of one of Chamberlain’s most visionary and radical impulses: it is in the spirit of that dimension of his work that we scrutinise him along with the subjects of our enquiry in every discipline.