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

Exit Mr. Chamberlain.

In 1876 Mr. Chamberlain was elected a member of Parliament for Birmingham, and his municipal career shortly came to an end. It may be remembered that he made an unsuccessful attempt to represent Sheffield some little time before he aspired to become a candidate for Birmingham. He made a very plucky fight in the cutler constituency, and the Sheffield blades were hardly so sharp as they might have been in rejecting such an able and rising politician. Probably, if they could have peered a little into the future, Mr. Chamberlain’s first seat in Parliament would not have been as a representative of Birmingham.

Mr. Chamberlain, however, was elected as one of the members of his adopted town in the year mentioned, and, as I have said, he retired more or less from municipal life. It may further be said that he relinquished his local position at the right moment. He was lucky as to the time in which he took up public life in Birmingham, and he was equally fortunate in regard to the period at which he quitted it. He had set afloat great local schemes, he had laboured assiduously for the good of the town, he had attained the acme of his local popularity, he was admired even by his opponents, and an imposing memorial was erected in his honour. After this, anything that might have happened would have been in the nature of an anti-climax so far as his local career was concerned.

When at some future day Mr. Chamberlain’s life comes to be fully written, it will probably be noted as something remarkable that he should have done so much, and achieved such a position, while yet only a young man. For be it remembered, that after he had been for three successive years Mayor of Birmingham, had carried out the large and important schemes associated with his name, and had become one of the representatives of the town in Parliament, he was only forty years of age. It will also be noted that very soon after making his appearance in the House of Commons he quickly got his foot on the ladder and rapidly mounted the rungs that lead to pre-eminence, and in a very few years attained the position of Cabinet Minister.

What more he might have done for Birmingham it is impossible to conjecture had he remained longer our local leader. But he was called up higher. Perhaps this was lucky for him. The great enterprises, or at least some of them, were only fairly started when he relinquished his grasp of them, and it remained to be seen whether they were to prove all they had been painted. If they succeeded, nothing could deprive him of the honour and glory of having inaugurated them. If they failed, it was in his power to say that had he remained to carry them out the results would have been altogether different.

The working-out of some of his larger schemes and undertakings created, as I have already intimated, considerable soreness and friction in various quarters. They brought hardship on many persons and produced, at any rate for a time, considerable ill-feeling and discontent. The piper had to be paid for the great enterprises he had set afloat. With regard to the gas and water purchases, the former has returned a profit to the tune of L35,000 to L40,000 a year, and is now (in 1899) realising about L50,000 per annum. The profits of the water scheme are still more or less prospective, whilst the gains to be realised by his great Improvement Scheme are in the dim and distant future.

Any adverse criticisms on these undertakings do not now directly affect their author. He has taken up national in place of local work, and he has left others in Birmingham to carry out more or less ably what he so successfully began. Some of us are occasionally inclined to think that his brilliant example and career have inflamed some of our remaining public men with a desire to do heroics, and to follow his lofty lead in the way of promoting large schemes.

For instance, the city is now committed to a huge expenditure for the purpose of bringing a supply of water from Mid-Wales. There was considerable opposition to this very costly project, but it was at last carried, though only the future can decide whether it will prove to be an altogether wise and prudent, not to say profitable, undertaking. Experts and some far-seeing men are confident as to its future benefits. We are to have a good supply of excellent water, and we are to save a great many thousands a year in soap. Further, we shall be independent of merely local supplies, which, we are told, will be quite inadequate for our needs in future days. I am not in a position to controvert what has been said in favour of the project, nor have I reason to doubt that the scheme especially under certain conditions will be of great benefit and value to the community in the coming by and by.

At the same time it may, perhaps, be doubted whether the undertaking, like the Improvement Scheme, was fully comprehended in all its bearings when it was decided to apply for an Act of Parliament to carry out the Welsh water project. But its promoters having made up their minds upon the question bustled, I won’t say rushed, the proposal along, and before many of the inhabitants were fairly awakened to what was being done, the initial part of the business was accomplished.

When, however, the matter was brought out more into the open in the Parliamentary Committee Rooms many of our townsmen opened their eyes and their mouths and pressed for a little time for the further consideration of this gigantic scheme. But the opposition was not strong enough to procure any delay; the advocates of the proposal had our most influential public men on their side, so the bill passed through Parliament.

Occasionally now mutterings of doubt and dissatisfaction are heard, and there are still those who prophesy evil in the future in consequence of the enormous outlay to which the city is committed. If, however, Birmingham grows and prospers all will be well. If otherwise and the last census did seem to indicate that our progress, as measured by increasing population, was inclined to steady down Birmingham will have a huge debt in the future which even a large supply of good wholesome water will not altogether liquidate.

Returning, however, to make a few further observations respecting Mr. Chamberlain, it may be said now that the voices of those who had any grudge against him for the daring innovations he made, and the bold undertakings he promoted, have become nearly mute. There are, however, some who speak disparagingly of him, partly, perhaps, because they are envious of him, and cannot complacently realise his rapid rise to the position of eminence he has attained.

Some of his former Radical friends and associates especially denounce in no measured terms his unpardonable heresy in departing from what they consider was his old political path. Vituperation is almost too mild a term to describe their expressed disgust when they see one who was, they believed, a man of the people consorting with royal dukes, belted earls, and even with the Sovereign herself. This is too much for some of the old full-blooded Radicals who are still found in our midst.

Very possibly some of these would do the same if they had the chance, for your thorough-going Radical is often a curious creature. I remember once being at a London theatre with a friend of mine who was a desperate and despotic democrat, and who has been a leading light for years among our advanced Radicals. Now it so happened that on the evening of our visit the Prince of Wales was at the theatre we attended, and I was greatly amused to notice how interested my democratic friend was in watching the royal box. When the performance was nearing the end he amused me still more by suggesting that we should hurry out and watch the Prince drive off. “I do so like to see that sort of thing,” he added.

Mr. Chamberlain, however, is not the man to care what his foes or his old political friends think or say about him. Water on a duck’s back is, I fancy, an oppressive agony compared with the right honourable gentleman’s feelings when he hears or reads the condemnatory and abusive remarks of some of his former allies. If at any time he does perchance feel at all stung by any of the adverse criticisms he hears or reads, he takes care not to show that he is hurt.

Sparks will fly upwards, and Mr. Chamberlain has had his troubles, but he does not wear his heart on his sleeve, or carry his woes into the market place. I remember many years ago, under the stress of severe domestic affliction, he retired into private life for a considerable period, and it was said that during his self-imposed obscurity he sought occupation and solace in the study of Blue Books. Anyway, when he emerged into public life again he appeared as the author of a magazine article of an advanced political character, which seemed to shew that he had spent his solitude in studying and trying to solve some of the large political problems of the day.

In contemplating Mr. Chamberlain’s remarkable career and his high rise in the political world, I am tempted to wonder whether he would have built his large mansion near Birmingham if he could have foreseen the immediate future. When he made up his mind to erect his house at a great cost he perhaps scarcely dreamed he would so soon become a Cabinet Minister. Possibly he looked forward to being little more than a local member of Parliament for he is not, I fancy, a dreamer of dreams and felt he should like to pitch his tent near to his constituency.

Anyway he built his house at Moor Green, which he called “Highbury” after the name of the district in London where he was born. The house is well situated, though in some respects hardly built upon a site worthy of such a costly residence. It stands on a piece of rising ground, and commands a good prospect. In the front of it are the Lickey and Clent Hills some eight or ten miles away, but in the mid-distance is a manufacturing suburb with several tall chimneys which are obtrusively conspicuous, and which behave as factory chimneys generally do, scarcely improving the prospect or the atmosphere. These disadvantages were, I believe, pointed out to him before a brick was laid, but he had made up his mind, and when it is made up I fancy it is made up very much.

The day may come when he may be able to spend but little of his time at his Highbury home, but he has children who will keep the house inhabited and well aired if he himself does not. His eldest son, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, M.P. for one of the Worcestershire divisions, is in training to walk in his father’s footsteps, and to see eye to eye or I might say eye-glass to eye-glass with him in matters political. What the future of this eldest son may be it is not for me to forecast. He has made an exceptionally good start, but he will have his work cut out to follow successfully in the tread of such an able and distinguished father.

When people see Mr. Chamberlain pere in such prosperity, flourishing like a green bay tree, with a country house that has cost a fortune, a town house to maintain, and plenty of money to do a fair amount of globe-trotting, they wonder and ask how did he get such a lot of money? Well, I cannot say, because I do not know, and if I did know I should not tell. Doubtless he had something considerable from his father, who must have been well off, but as there were some seven children to share what was left by the late Mr. Chamberlain it may be assumed it was not simply what he inherited that made him rich.

Doubtless his wealth was chiefly acquired by his shrewdness, business capacity, and enterprise when he was a member of the firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain, and probably when he retired from that prosperous business it was with a sum of money which would, perhaps, make some of us blink with envious surprise if we knew the figure.

It is no secret that when he was engaged in business Mr. Chamberlain adopted a policy which created much comment at one time, and was, indeed, rather severely criticised. It was understood that he had set his heart upon making the trade of his firm as much of a monopoly as possible, and to this end he made it known to his local competitors that they must sell their businesses to him or be prepared for certain consequences if they did not.

Such a course of action was regarded as somewhat tyrannical, especially by those directly concerned, and it made bad blood for a time between Mr. Chamberlain and some of those with whom he was associated in public work. After a while his trade opponents came to the idea that it would be better to surrender at discretion than to enter into conflict with a firm that was in such a strong position, and had such a big war chest at its disposal.

It is hardly necessary to go into the merits of this trade question, or, indeed, to say anything about it now, as it is all a matter of ancient history. Indeed, I only refer to the matter because it formed an incident in Mr. Chamberlain’s Birmingham career and left its mark upon the business that went up and the businesses that went down. Moreover, it is a little instructive and edifying, as showing how Mr. Chamberlain’s combative nature manifested itself in his everyday life. He recognised, as other men have done, that business is not a matter to be played with, and that trade is in fact a commercial conflict in which one must whip and the other be whipped, and as he felt himself in a strong position, was on the box and had the whip in his hand, he was resolved to drive and to choose the pace and the road.

Live and let live is, of course, a very good and proper maxim, but it finds no place in the copy-book of sharp, smart, successful men of business. It is their aim and purpose to get money without harm to others, if they can, if not, others must look out for themselves that is all. In one sense at all events Mr. Chamberlain’s tactics were justified. They were successful.