Read CHAPTER II of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on

Enter Mr. Chamberlain.

The present position of Birmingham and its improved appearance in these later years are largely attributed to the work and influence of Mr. Chamberlain. To him, certainly, the credit is largely due. At the same time it is only fair to say that he was not the first man who had discovered that Birmingham, some thirty years ago, was, compared with what it should be, in many respects lagging behind. Other persons had been impressed with the idea that the town, in a municipal, sanitary, and social sense, was not advancing at a pace commensurate with its commercial and material progress.

To go just a little farther back for a moment, it must be recorded that Birmingham, in a political sense, made a great step forward when it elected Mr. Bright as one of its members of Parliament in the year 1857. This served to focus the eyes of the country on the midland capital, and from this date the town became a new centre of political activity. The great meetings addressed by Mr. Bright were not regarded as mere provincial gatherings, but they attracted the attention of the whole nation. The proceedings were no longer chronicled merely by the local press, but the London daily newspapers sent representatives to furnish special reports of our new member’s speeches. Indeed, the interest and excitement at these political gatherings was often feverish in its intensity, and for many years Mr. Bright’s visits to Birmingham were red-letter days in the history of the town.

Mr. Bright, however, not being a resident in Birmingham, took no part in its local and municipal affairs, and the man was wanting who would come forward and energetically take town matters in hand. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain was the man, and the time was ripe for him. He was known to be smart, able, and energetic, and also to be imbued with decidedly progressive ideas. Further, he was justly credited with having a lofty conception of the real importance and dignity of municipal life and the value of municipal institutions.

In the year 1869 Mr. Chamberlain was elected a member of the Birmingham Town Council, and he began to make things spin and hum at a pace which literally soon reached a pretty high rate. His example, and possibly his persuasion, induced several of his friends and associates to become candidates for Town Council membership, and in a very short time he had a strong and influential following, made up of men of energy, substance, and good social position, who soon began to overpower and make things more lively perhaps than pleasant for the anti-progressives in the Corporation. In Israelitish story we are told that a new king arose who knew not Joseph, but in Birmingham a new municipal kingdom arose that knew Joseph and trusted him.

The changes that soon began to take place were enough to take away the breath of some of the nice, complacent, arm-chair, “Woodman” members of the Town Council. If the preceding rulers of the Corporation had been a trifle too parsimonious in the matter of expenditure, Mr. Chamberlain and his party soon began to make amends for any trifling mistakes or past errors in the way of economy. In a very few years the town had a debt, I don’t say of which it might be proud, but of which it very soon felt the weight.

When Mr. Chamberlain entered the Town Council the municipal debt stood at some L588,000. When he left it, after about ten years’ service, the debt had mounted up to the neat and imposing sum of L6,212,000. Of course, there were very valuable assets to place against this heavy indebtedness, assets which are likely to improve considerably in value as time goes on that is, if the city continues to progress and prosper. Still, a good many people were not a little alarmed at the big figures that grew on the debtor side of the Corporation accounts, but more persons applauded the spirit, courage, and enterprise of those who had taken the reins of the town into their hands.

When Mr. Chamberlain and his friends had fairly got hold of the Town Council ropes, they set to work in strong earnest. Sanitary improvements were promoted. The principal streets and their lighting and paving were improved, and the general appearance of the town quickly presented a change for the better. Trees were planted in some of the chief thoroughfares. They did not it is true show much disposition to grow and thrive, but they were planted and replanted, though we may still have to lament that our Birmingham boulevards will not compare favourably with those in some other cities. Mr. Chamberlain, however, was not the man to be content with such trifling reforms as these. He had large and spacious ideas in his mind, and he quickly brought them out to air and grow.

In the year 1873 Mr. Chamberlain was elected Mayor, and in the following year he brought forward his schemes for the purchase by the municipality of the gas and water supplies. His proposals encountered very formidable opposition, principally from those interested in the gas and water companies, whose undertakings he proposed compulsorily to purchase. Some of the shareholders in these prosperous companies were fierce in their denunciations of his schemes. They regarded Mr. Chamberlain’s proposals as nothing short of confiscation. For years they had supplied the town with gas and water. They had found the necessary money in the “sure and certain hope” of having a good and secure investment for their capital, and lo! when they had fairly established their undertakings, it was proposed to blow out their profitable light and dash the refreshingly remunerative water from their lips. It was hard I don’t mean the water, but the situation! Of course the shareholders were to receive a fair price for their properties, the gas companies practically L1,900.000, the waterworks company L1,350,000. But still they were not happy. They resisted the proposed purchases.

Mr. Chamberlain, however, was not the man to be daunted by the opposition of the gas and water company proprietors. He had made up his mind that it would be for the good of the town for these undertakings to be in the hands of the municipality, and in spite of the Town Council “old gang” and outraged gas and water shareholders, who felt they were being fraudulently despoiled of certain prospective advantages, he carried his point.

There are still those among us who, for various reasons, murmur at these extensive purchases. They maintain, for one thing, that the possession of the gas influenced the Corporation to turn a discouraging eye upon the electric light. Certainly Birmingham has been rather lax in taking up electric illumination, and possibly more enterprise would have been evinced in this direction if the Corporation had not become dealers in gas and water on their own terms, viz., no competition allowed. Some self-constituted prophets shook their heads and said that before the gas debt was paid off gas would literally have “gone out” as a general illuminant. Before the eighty-five years allowed for the redemption of the capital invested in the gas have elapsed a good many things may certainly happen. So far, however, gas is not extinguished, but is in increased demand, and even water is believed to have a future.

With regard to the water purchase, however, a good deal of opposition was offered on special grounds. Having purchased the waterworks undertaking the Corporation were, of course, desirous to make it pay. To buy the thing was a blunder in the eyes of some, to let it be a source of loss would have been a crime. Consequently, it became necessary to force the water supply business, and the municipal authorities went about it in a way that pressed hardly sometimes and provoked not a little hostility and resentment.

“Waterologists” and analysts are somewhat divided in opinion as to what is pure water, or at least good wholesome water. Some authorities take one standard, some another. The Corporation, with an eye to business, selected a very high standard, for this brought grist to the mill, or, I should say, trade to the tap. It meant the closing of a large number of wells yielding water which, under a less rigorous standard than that adopted, would have been considered wholesome. But in this matter again, Mr. Chamberlain and the “new gang” paid no heed to the growls of the disaffected, and pumps were disestablished in all directions, chiefly, it was maintained, to swell the returns of the water department. “O ye wells, bless ye the Lord” but few were suffered to remain.

Mr. Chamberlain, however, was not long content with having municipalized the gas and water. In accordance with the strong impetus of his nature he sighed for more worlds to conquer. Consequently he was soon ready with a gigantic Improvement Scheme, to be carried out under the adoption of the somewhat misused and delusive Artisans’ Dwellings Act. His proposal was to make a grand street and a more direct way to Aston, and in doing so to demolish some dirty back thoroughfares and a large number of foul and filthy unsanitary dwellings.

The scheme was a big one. It affected many interests, and before it was carried out it caused a fierce amount of strife, ill-feeling, and hostility. The discontent and disaffection which Mr. Chamberlain’s previous schemes aroused were but as morning breezes compared with the storm and tempest his new proposals raised. His daring and dash almost dazed his fellow townsfolk, for, like Napoleon, he rushed on from one exploit to another with a rapidity that astounded his friends and confused and overwhelmed his foes.