Joseph Chamberlain and His Sons

The Chamberlain family home - Highbury Hall -
at Kings Heath, south Birmingham.

Joseph Chamberlain, the son of a shopkeeper, was born in London in 1836. After being educated at University College School he became a successful businessman in Birmingham. He had been sent to Birmingham to represent his father's investment in a business devoted to the manufacture of screws. This business later became the Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds group. Joseph threw himself enthusiatically into this business and went to the lengths of becoming fluent in French in order to win sales in France.
 
A member of the Liberal Party he became involved in local politics and in 1868 was elected as a town councillor. Chamberlain became Lord Mayor in 1873 and for the next three years introduced a series of social reforms. The council's acquisition of land and public utilities and the pioneering slum-clearance schemes, made Chamberlain a national political figure. Chamberlain led Birmingham's reformers in the argument that public services vital for good health ought to be owned by the local authority and controlled by the elected representatives of the people. Included in the reformers' actions was the imposition on landlords to close polluted wells and to connect their properties with the town water supply (which had recently been brought under the control of the council). The first medical officer was appointed in 1872, and reported to a Health Committee from 1875.
 
Chamberlain was extremely popular in Birmingham, and was elected unopposed in a parliamentary election held in 1876. Chamberlain soon made his mark in the House of Commons and after the 1880 General Election, William Gladstone appointed Chamberlain as President of the Board of Trade.
 
Perhaps Joseph's closest friend was a former Devonian by the name of Jesse Collings. Jesse also became Lord Mayor of Birmingham and later became an M.P., when he became famed for his move to provide each working man of the land with 3 acres and a cow.
 
In the 1885 General Election, Chamberlain was seen as the leader of the Radicals with his calls for land reform, housing reform and higher taxes on the rich. However, he was also a strong supporter of Imperialism, and resigned from Gladstone's cabinet over the issue of Irish Home Rule. This action helped to bring down the Liberal government. Chamberlain now became leader of the Liberal Unionists and in 1886 he formed an alliance with the Conservative Party. As a result, Marquess of Salisbury, gave him the post of Colonial Secretary in his government. Chamberlain was therefore primarily responsible for British policy during the Boer War.
 
In September 1903, Joseph Chamberlain resigned from office so that he would be free to advocate his scheme of tariff reform. Chamberlain wanted to transform the British Empire into a united trading block. According to Chamberlain, preferential treatment should be given to colonial imports and British companies producing goods for the home market should be given protection from cheap foreign goods. The issue split the Conservative Party and in the 1906 General Election the Liberal Party, who supported free trade, had a landslide victory.
 
Chamberlain was struck down by a stroke in 1906 and took no further part in politics. Joseph Chamberlain, whose sons Austin and (particularly) Neville Chamberlain also became leading figures in politics, died in 1914.
 
Austin Chamberlain, the eldest son of Joseph Chamberlain, and the brother of Neville Chamberlain, was born in 1863.
 
A member of the Liberal Party he was elected to the House of Commons in 1892. Along with Joseph Chamberlain he moved to the Conservative Party and served under Arthur Balfour as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1903-06).
 
He lost power when the Liberal Party won the 1906 General Election. During the First World War Chamberlain served under David Lloyd George as lord privy seal.
 
When Andrew Bonar Law retired in 1921 Chamberlain became leader of the Conservative Party. He resigned the post in 1921 and was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. Chamberlain served as foreign secretary under Baldwin between 1924 and 1929.
 
When Ramsay MacDonald formed his National Government in 1931 he appointed Chamberlain as First Lord of the Admiralty. However, Chamberlain decided not to stand in the 1931 General Election. Austin Chamberlain died in 1937.
 
Neville Chamberlain, the son of Joseph Chamberlain, and the brother of Austin Chamberlain, was born in 1869. After being educated at Rugby School he spent seven years managing his father's plantation in the Bahamas.
 
Chamberlain arrived back in England in 1897 where he went into the copper-brass business. He was active in local politics and in 1915 was elected Lord Mayor of Birmingham.
 
In the 1918 General Election Chamberlain was elected as the Conservative MP for Ladywood. He refused office under David Lloyd George but accepted the posts Postmaster-General (1923-24) and Minister of Health (1924-29) under Stanley Baldwin. He also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the National Government headed by Ramsay MacDonald (1931-37). He was an efficient administrator abolishing the Poor Law and reorganizing unemployment assistance.
 
In 1936 the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government.
 
Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
 
Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. A Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up and was eventually signed by 27 countries including the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy. However, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini openly ignored the agreement and sent a large amount of military aid, including troops, to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces.
 
When Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime minister he continued the policy of nonintervention. At the end of 1937 he took the controversial decision to send Sir Robert Hodgson to Burgos to be the British government's link with the Nationalist government.
 
On 13th March 1938 Leon Blum returned to office in France. When he began to argue for an end to the country's nonintervention policy, Chamberlain and the Foreign Office joined with the right-wing press in France and political figures such as Henri-Philippe Petain and Maurice Gamelin to bring him down. On 10th April 1938, Blum was replaced by Edouard Daladier, a politician who agreed not only with Chamberlain's Spanish strategy but his foreign policy that later became known as appeasement.
 
Chamberlain believed that Germany had been badly treated by the Allies after it was defeated in the First World War. He therefore thought that the German government had genuine grievances and that these needed to be addressed. He also thought that by agreeing to some of the demands being made by Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy, he could avoid a European war.
 
Anthony Eden, Chamberlain's foreign secretary, did not agree with the policy of appeasement and resigned in February, 1938. Eden was replaced by Lord Halifax who fully supported this policy.
 
In February, 1938, Adolf Hitler invited Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, to meet him at Berchtesgarden. Hitler demanded concessions for the Austrian Nazi Party. Schuschnigg refused and after resigning was replaced by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party. On 13th March, Seyss-Inquart invited the German Army to occupy Austria and proclaimed union with Germany.
 
The union of Germany and Austria (Anschluss) had been specifically forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Some members of the House of Commons, including Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, now called on Chamberlain to take action against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government.
 
Hugh Christie an MI6 agent working based in Berlin, met with Hermann Goering on 3rd February 1937. He immediately reported his conversation with Goering and included information that Germany intended to take control of Austria and Czechoslovakia. He also told Christie that Germany mainly wanted "a free hand in Eastern Europe."
 
In March 1938 Hugh Christie told the British government that Adolf Hitler would be ousted by the military if Britain joined forces with Czechoslovakia against Germany. Christie warned that the "crucial question is 'How soon will the next step against Czechoslovakia be tried?' ... The probability is that the delay will not exceed two or three months at most, unless France and England provide the deterrent, for which cooler heads in Germany are praying."
 
International tension increased when Adolf Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, the heads of the governments of Germany, Britain, France and Italy met in Munich in September, 1938.
 
On 29th September, 1938, Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population.
 
When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Neville Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.
 
The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Nazi Germany. However, some politicians, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe.
 
In March, 1939, the German Army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. In taking this action Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain now realized that Hitler could not be trusted and his appeasement policy now came to an end. After the invasion of Poland, Chamberlain was forced to declare war on Germany.
 
On the outbreak of the Second World War public opinion polls showed that Chamberlain's popularity was 55 per cent. By December, 1939, this had increased to 68 per cent.
 
However, members of the House of Commons saw him as an uninspiring war leader. In May 1940 members of the Labour Party and Liberal Party refused to serve in his proposed National Government. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill. He was appointed as Lord President of the Council in Churchill's government but ill health forced him to leave office in October 1940, and he died soon afterwards on 9th November, 1940.