Chamberlain, Joseph

Joseph Chamberlain
Joseph Chamberlain

Joseph Chamberlain (July 8, 1836-July 2, 1914), a British industrialist, reformer, and statesman, was a key cabinet minister in Liberal and Conservative governments. In his early political career he was the chief founder of what is known as the ‘gas and water socialism’ movement in local government which improved the provision of utilities throughout Britain. Later, as a specialist in foreign affairs and head of the Colonial Office, he promoted the extension and consolidation of the British Empire and helped to lay the foundations for the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Joseph was born in London, son of Joseph and Caroline Harben Chamberlain, assertive and active Unitarians who came from families that had been radical protestant dissenters for generations. Family religious life was centred at Little Carter Lane Chapel, a congregation which migrated to Upper Street Islington in 1862. Joseph senior was a well-to-do boot and shoe manufacturer in the City of London. Young Joseph’s childhood friend, Frances Bailey (later Mrs. Russell Martineau), said of Joseph senior: ‘His religion to him was the life within the life. When anyone was first introduced he would sometimes say at once, “Yes sir, Joseph Chamberlain and a Unitarian.” If they swallowed that it was all right.’ He promised to settle £200 a year, a substantial income, upon any son who prepared for the Unitarian ministry. Joseph junior was not tempted by the offer.

Related to James Martineau and other leading radical dissenters, by the early 1850s Joseph junior had met many of the leading Unitarians of the day. Along with other Unitarians he taught slum children in Sunday school mission classes. ‘Chamberlain’s inward life until he was nearly forty was directed by his religious upbringing’, wrote Chamberlain’s first biographer, James Louis Garvin. ‘We may find here the germ of his assertive independence; of his anti-official or anti-orthodox initiative throughout his political career; or of his executive force as a leader of social reform.’ Garvin added that ‘The Liberal politics followed inevitably from the Unitarian creed’, which was fully reflected in most of Chamberlain’s reforming activity.

Joseph was educated, 1850-52, at University College School in London, an institution catering to the children of rich Unitarians. At sixteen his father took him out of school to enter the family business. Although he did not attend University, during his business years he found time through personal study to acquire a more than usually broad and useful education.

In 1854 Chamberlain was sent by his father to Birmingham to run a screw manufacturing company in partnership with the Unitarian Nettlefold family. Chamberlain blossomed in Birmingham. His financial and marketing innovations helped make the business sufficiently successful that in 1874 he was able to retire in order to devote himself to politics.

On arrival in Birmingham Chamberlain became active in the influential New Meeting congregation, which in 1862, with a new building, became the Church of the Messiah. He taught literature, history, French, and arithmetic to working youth in the church’s mission, helped direct the congregation’s financial affairs, and was for a period its treasurer. Here he became part of the close network of Unitarian families—the Nettlefolds, the Beales, the Rylands, the Martineaus, the Kenricks, and the Crosskeys—who wielded power and influence within the city. These families intermarried so that cousins became an extended clan which continues into present times. The clan has been described as ‘not so much a genealogical table, more a piece of knitting.’

Chamberlain married Harriet Kenrick in 1861. She died in 1863, shortly after giving birth to their second child, (Joseph) Austen. Desolated, he wrote soon afterward, “I declare it seems almost impossible to live.” In 1868 he married Harriet’s cousin Florence Kenrick. They had four children. His partner in politics, Florence was interested in ‘all undertakings for the advancement of women’. When she died in 1875, also in childbirth, Joseph lost his personal faith. The minister at the Church of the Messiah, Henry William Crosskey, wrote to him that he hoped he ‘may be able to trust the Unseen Goodness,’ but Chamberlain could not see it. He wrote a friend that life is ‘a hideous business and our conception of its end & meaning is thoroughly unsatisfying’ and that he refused to ‘try & buy comfort by forcing myself into insincere conviction’. He stopped attending Unitarian worship on a regular basis, a practice he never resumed. Words written to another friend after Florence’s death encapsulated the more limited faith of his later life, ‘Drive on—we shall come to the journey’s end in time & perhaps then we shall know where we have been going and whose business we have been doing all the time.’

Chamberlain nevertheless maintained his Unitarian affirmation. He kept an eye on what happened at the Birmingham church and remained one of its principal financial supports until his death. He was a chapel trustee, 1868-1913. Those appointed as minister had to be inspected by him. Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, minister at the Church of the Messiah beginning in 1894, recalled what might have been a Chamberlain theological statement: ‘Pausing before an orchid of great beauty he pointed out the astonishing arrangement Nature had made for the fertilisation of its flowers. “And the scientific people tell me that it has come about by chance—Rubbish!”‘

Chamberlain entered politics first in Birmingham where he joined the city council in 1869, was a member of the first school board in 1870, and was mayor, 1873-76. His civic administration bought water-works, gas-works, and sewage farms, revolutionising the provision of utility services delivered by the local government. At an 1875 conference with the leaders of other cities on the subject of sanitation, he was able to spread his reform ideas throughout the country.

As chairman of the National Education League Chamberlain advocated a national system of education, free of the influence of the Church of England or any other denomination. In an address at the centenary of the Church of the Messiah Sunday school in 1888, he reflected on the role of Unitarians in religion and education. ‘The Unitarian body has never been a proselytising or an aggressive sect, and I believe its mission is not meant so much to make converts to its own particular tenets, but rather to liberalise the creed and practice of other religious bodies . . . But that being the principle of our sect it is not likely that we shall in future devote ourselves to making Unitarians. We have not established these Sunday schools . . . in order to create church members.’

In 1876 Chamberlain was elected Member of Parliament for Birmingham. He immediately became a leading political figure and set about reorganising the Liberal party. In 1880 he entered William Gladstone’s Cabinet, the first Unitarian to do so, though as a Radical he felt little affinity with his more moderate colleagues. He was very much the Unitarian outsider, opposing many of the claims of the Church of England. His reforming zeal could not be stemmed. As President of the Board of Trade he introduced some notable legislation including the Electric Lighting Act, 1882; the Bankruptcy Act and the Patent Act, 1883; and the Merchant Shipping Bill, 1884.

Queen Victoria regularly objected to the public expression of Chamberlain’s strong views. He was considered to be the enfant terrible of British politics. While a strong patriot he flirted with republicanism and sharply criticised the House of Lords. Appealing to newly enfranchised working-class voters, he made a speech in early 1885 containing an unfortunately-chosen word, ‘ransom’, that frightened the propertied classes. ‘What ransom will property pay for the security which it enjoys?’ Chamberlain asked. ‘I think in future we shall hear a great deal more about the obligations of property, and we shall not hear quite so much about its rights.’

When Gladstone produced his Home Rule Bill in 1885 to create an Irish parliament, Chamberlain opposed it on the grounds that it diluted the powers of the national Parliament. Instead Chamberlain advocated a form of revised local government. He resigned from the Cabinet, and very much through his efforts, the Home Rule bill was defeated, the Liberal Party split, and in 1886 the Conservative Party returned to power. With this stand, taken on principle, he gave up any possibility that he would succeed Gladstone as Prime Minister.

During 1887-88 Chamberlain travelled to the United States and Canada to negotiate an agreement on fishing rights in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Although the Bayard-Chamberlain Treaty failed to be ratified by the American Senate, its provisions were upheld by an international tribunal. He helped steer the Canadians away from commercial union with the United States and congratulated them on their federalism, which he portrayed as a model for the entire British Empire. In addition to removing international strains, his tact and his vision of the greatness of Anglo-Saxon democracies prepared for later close relations between Britain, Canada, and the United States.

While in Washington Chamberlain fell in love with Mary Endicott, daughter of the American Secretary of the Army. He married her on a subsequent trip to America in late 1888. The Endicotts had religious connections at King’s Chapel Boston, though Mary was an Episcopalian. Chamberlain thus never married entirely outside the Unitarian connection, even if his last marriage, in Washington, took place in a fashionable Episcopal Church. The ceremony was attended by Grover Cleveland, President of the United States, and many of the Cabinet and Supreme Court. The President spoke at the reception.

Looking young for his years, sporting a monocle and a fresh orchid in his buttonhole, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century Chamberlain was one of the most recognizable figures in British public life. He was fierce and dominating in debate. In one of his 1903 speeches he told the world, ‘I never like being hit without striking back.’

As a Liberal Unionist, Chamberlain allied with the Conservatives, taking a significant a role in defeating the next Irish Home Rule Bill in 1893. (The Liberal Unionists were in 1912 merged with the Conservative Party.) He became secretary of state for the colonies in Robert Salisbury’s Conservative-led government in 1895. He was instrumental in securing passage of the Workman’s Compensation Act, 1897. Among the successes of his Colonial Office administration were the Commonwealth of Australia Bill, 1900; the international Brussels Convention, 1903, abolishing European sugar subsidies thus reviving the agricultural economy of the West Indies; and creation of schools of tropical medicine and medical research on malaria. During 1898-1901 he tried, but failed, to head off conflict with Germany by proposing a British-American-German alliance.

As head of the Colonial Office and the government’s most thoroughgoing imperialist, Chamberlain played a significant and controversial role in the Anglo-Boer War in Southern Africa, 1899-1902. Although he roundly denounced the 1895 Jameson Raid, an attempt by the British South Africa Company to capture the Transvaal, many in Britain and South Africa felt that he had secretly approved the attack. He tried to pressure President Kruger of the South African Republic to give citizenship rights to the English-speaking ‘Uitlanders’. When this negotiation failed the war began. ‘Never again,’ Chamberlain declared in 1900, ‘shall the Boers be able to erect in the heart of South Africa a citadel from whence mat proceed disaffection and race animosities; never again shall they be able to endanger the paramountcy of Great Britain; never again shall they be able to treat an Englishman as if he belonged to an inferior race’.

Once a proponent of free trade, Chamberlain later advocated a tariff system which would tie the British Isles and colonies together, a commercial union which through self-interest and co-operation would lead to ‘a great united, loyal, and federated Empire.’ In 1903 he declared that ‘I hope to lay firm and deep the foundations for that imperial union which fills my heart when I look forward to the future of the world.’

Because he could not get it to agree on tariff protection, Chamberlain resigned from the government in 1903. The next year he began a three-year national campaign for British imperial trade preference which divided the Conservative Party. Thus it can said that he created a split or division in both major British political parties that contributed to their loss of office. Reflecting his religious background, he rarely argued from the vantage point of expediency but from principle. A paralytic stroke in 1906 meant thereafter he played no direct part in national or local affairs.

Chamberlain’s influence remained strong in Birmingham during his lifetime and continued long beyond his death. Little of significance happened in the city without his agreement. A scholarly man, he regretted not having a university education. He insisted that Birmingham have its own University and personally canvassed for the initial funding. In 1900 Britain’s first campus civic university was created on land that he had secured as a donation. His plans to fund its completion were brought to an abrupt halt with his stroke. The university was in consequence not created in its original conception for sixty years. The massive tower at its centre, based on that at Sienna, Italy, is a memorial to Chamberlain.

Chamberlain refused to be buried in Westminster Abbey. His funeral took place at the Church of the Messiah, and was conducted by L. P. Jacks. The Bishop of Birmingham, preaching after Chamberlain’s death, praised him for being ‘faithful to his own denomination’, and ‘full of sympathy for all honest religious thought’. Although in later life Chamberlain rarely attended church, he continued to support his Birmingham church generously. According to an obituary in a Unitarian newspaper, Christian Life, he had ‘fidelity to the stern dictates of the Unitarian faith . . . He took his religion seriously—sternly if you like—as a real thing, the core of life, a disciplinary force, entitled to mould action in every department.’

Chamberlain and his two sons, Joseph Austen (1863-1937) and Arthur Neville (1856-1940), represent a political dynasty that has few equals over successive generations in the democratic Western World. Austen was Chancellor of Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, leader of the Conservative Party, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. Neville was also Chancellor and was Prime Minister. Joseph Chamberlain was a magisterial and dominating figure in his sons’ lives, and the Unitarian attitudes of the Chamberlain and Harben families greatly influenced their thinking and action.


The papers of Joseph, Austen and Neville Chamberlain are the centrepiece of the University of Birmingham Archives. The collection of 61,000 items covering the period 1875-1940 is available in print and digital format, edited by Peter Marsh, from Thomson Gale ( Items of Joseph Chamberlain’s correspondence are in numerous British archives. There are references to his political career in the papers, diaries, and the biographies of Gladstone and other major political figures of the nineteenth-century Britain. For background on his connection with the Church of the Messiah, the records of the congregation in 278 volumes are in Birmingham City Archives. Appreciative articles appeared in British Unitarian journals following his death in 1914.

The bibliography for Joseph Chamberlain is extensive, reflecting his significant role in British nineteenth century life. The Life of Joseph Chamberlain in three volumes by James Louis Garvin (1932) remains a significant and balanced account. Three further volumes were later added by Julian Amory beginning in 1951. Other biographies are Denis Judd, Radical Joe, A Life of Joseph Chamberlain (1977) and Peter T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics (1994). See also biographies of his sons. Eric Ives has written on his role in the creation of the University of Birmingham in The First Civic University (2000). For his role in the Anglo-Boer War see Denis Judd and Keith Surridge, The Boer War (2002). There are significant biographical entries on Chamberlain in the Dictionary of National Biography and the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted January 19, 2004