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Visiting the Chamberlain Memorial, Birmingham, England: commemorating a larger-than-life, reforming mayor

Updated on March 15, 2013
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
The Chamberlain Memorial, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham, England.
The Chamberlain Memorial, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham, England. | Source
Joseph Chamberlain at his desk in the Colonial Office
Joseph Chamberlain at his desk in the Colonial Office | Source
Emily Hobhouse
Emily Hobhouse | Source
Lizzie van Zyl
Lizzie van Zyl | Source

Remembering in Neo-Gothic a successful, local reformer who in some ways became a grimly ruthless figure

This fine structure in Birmingham, England, was built to commemorate Joseph Chamberlain (1838-1914).

Some history and features

The monument's architect was J. H. Chamberlain (1831-1883), who happened to share the same name as the subject whom his work commemorates (1). Executed in Neo-Gothic style, the structure stands 20 metres high. Architect Chamberlain was assisted by sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892). What struck me forcibly about the inscription on this monument was that Joseph Chamberlain was mayor of Birmingham for only three years, from 1873-1876; (he had been elected to Birmingham Council in 1869).

Interestingly, at the time of the monument's completion in 1880, Joseph Chamberlain was still alive — indeed, aged only 44 (he did not die until the age of 77).

The fact is that Joseph Chamberlain was a human comet, who seldom let modesty get in his way. His brilliant and even disturbing passage across municipal and political life was viewed by contemporaries with probably equal amounts of awe and revulsion.

Thus, as mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s, having prospered as a manufacturer, he greatly improved educational opportunities, sewerage facilities and public utilities. He is thus remembered locally as a fine and effective, reforming mayor. As a Nonconformist and Unitarian, he was also identified with efforts to loosen school links with the Established church. (He later also served as Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, for the establishment of which he had also worked.)

Following his period as Mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain served as a Parliamentarian, as President of the Board of Trade (1880-1885) and as Colonial Secretary (1895-1903). He proved to be an activist, even aggressive, figure. If the First World War was supposed to be about defending the rights of small nations, then such considerations did not apply a few years earlier when, with Joseph Chamberlain as Colonial Secretary, Great Britain pursued its ambitions in Southern Africa over the resistance of the Boer Republics.

During Joseph Chamberlain's tenure of the Colonial Secretaryship, British colonial policy in South Africa proved to have profound shortcomings. While Boer men fought in the Second Boer War, the British military authorities put into Concentration camps huge numbers of Boer women and children — in addition to scarcely countenancing the needs and aspirations of many black people.

When resistance of Boers continued, the response of the British military was selective and deliberate: to put the wives and children of resistants on half-rations. In all, in terrible conditions reported on by Emily Hobhouse and others, over 26,000 Boer women and children died in Concentration camps — a British invention (2).

Joseph Chamberlain claimed to have been opposed all along to the mistreatment of Boer women and children in Concentration camps; doubtless it became politically astute to say so.

As an archetypal Colonial Secretary, he thus also found it highly convenient to be a vocal Imperialist, while previously, in his earlier days in politics, he had professed to be a republican.

More broadly, Joseph Chamberlain was noted as a leader who led moves to end Great Britain's traditional policy of Splendid Isolation, and, at least partly in view of international opposition to British policy in South Africa, proposed alliances with other powers.

In a theme very familiar to students of Canadian history, Joseph Chamberlain was also known for his promotion of Tariffs and Imperial Preference.

Even today, pictures of his monocled facial features seem — albeit very subjectively — to express all that is worst about overbearing Imperial leaders. In any case, Joseph Chamberlain signified the leadership of a climate of rigorous, Imperialist opinion whereby journalists and preachers of the day in Great Britain who dared question British military and colonial policy in South Africa could be subjected to vehement criticism and even violence.

It is fair to say that, to the extent that they were known and understood, many Canadians unquestionably supported British Imperial policies in the opening years of the 20th century; it is equally fair to say that many Canadians did not.

It is interesting that one of Joseph Chamberlain's biographers Peter T. Marsh thinks that his period of municipal reform in Birmingham is the most positive part of his legacy (3). Maybe, in hindsight, the timing of the establishing of this somewhat immodest monument to a living, non-royal, 44-year old makes some sort of sense, after all? since the questionable aspects of the subject's later legacy could not have been known at the time.

A school in Alberta is named for Joseph Chamberlain.


(1) Works for which Architect Chamberlain was also responsible include: Highbury Hall — sometimes known simply as Highbury —, residence of Joseph Chamberlain and family in Moseley, Birmingham; the former, now demolished, Birmingham Central library; the Birmingham School of Art.

(2) When welfare advocate Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) reported in 1901 on the inhumane conditions of the Concentration camps, the British Government's initial response was to claim that their Boer women and child internees were resident voluntarily, in contentment and comfort. A later commission of enquiry headed by Millicent Fawcett exposed this lie, and confirmed Emily Hobhouse's earlier findings. Among the issues which came to light was the apparent setting aside of usual Hippocratic principles among some of the medical staff supposedly caring for sick internees. Prior to her death in a Concentration camp in Bloemfontein, one of the many undernourished and diseased children visited by Emily Hobhouse was Lizzie van Zyl; Lizzie and her mother were classified as 'undesirables' by medical staff, some of whom actively sympathized with the rigorous treatment of Boer women and children. Lizzie van Zyl's sad life and death have thus come to signify some of the profound shortcomings of British colonial policy in South Africa. When Emily Hobhouse arrived by ship in South Africa on a second, fact-finding trip, the response of the British authorities was to deny her the right to land; she was subsequently deported, without being given a reason.

(3) Peter T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics , Yale University Press, 1994.

Also worth seeing

Birmingham's Chamberlain Square has various structures of note, including the Council House, the Town Hall concert facility, the Museum and Art Gallery and various statues of prominent, local citizens. Bull Ring is focal point for the retail trade. The Chamberlain Memorial Tower of Birmingham University, Edgbaston, also honours Joseph Chamberlain. The National Exhibition Centre is a major visitor attraction for numerous, varied events.


How to get there : United Airlines flies from New York to Birmingham International Airport, where car rental is available, which also has fast rail links to Birmingham New Street station, within walking distance of the Chamberlain Memorial in Chamberlain Square. Travellers should be advised that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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