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Birmingham City Council

Joseph Chamberlain

 young Joseph Chamberlain
Joseph Chamberlain came from London at the age of 18 to work for his uncle John Nettlefold's screw company. He was so successful that he was able to retire in middle age and to enter first local and then national politics. Throughout his life he aimed to improve life for working people. In 1867 he entered what was then Birmingham Town Council. He first became Mayor of Birmingham in 1873 and during his three successive years of office initiated ambitious plans for public services and town improvement schemes which totally transformed the nature of Birmingham. By the 1890s Birmingham had become known as 'the best governed City in the World.'

In 1874 the council approved Chamberlain's scheme to purchase both the Birmingham Gas and Light Co. and the Staffordshire Gas Light Co. In the same year they began negotiations to acquire public control of the Birmingham Waterworks company and were successful in 1875. Chamberlain's third venture was his town improvement scheme. The 1875 Artisans Dwelling Act allowed corporations to purchase slum property for the purpose of clearance. Chamberlain saw in this not only an opportunity to clear away the slums in the overcrowded town centre, but a chance to carry out a radical new town improvement. The Birmingham Improvement scheme covered an area of 93 acres but was not entirely made up of slum property as it also included some fine Georgian buildings in New Street and the Old Square, which led to considerable extra expense as they could not be purchased under the terms of the Act.

Chamberlain's intention was to create a new "Parisian Boulevard" (Corporation Street) lined with blocks of modern dwellings. However, when it was built, the new street was composed of shops and office buildings. Work began in 1878 and Corporation Street was opened as far as Bull Street in 1881, but was not continued beyond Lancaster Circus until 1902.

Many slum properties were demolished. However, no provision was made in the Act or the Birmingham scheme for rehousing those made homeless. Not surprisingly this led to a certain amount of criticism. 'The Dart ' had this to say:

New Birmingham recipe for lowering the death rate of an insanitary area. Pull down nearly all the houses and make the inhabitants move somewhere else.
'Tis an excellent plan and I'll tell you for why.
Where's there no person living, no person can die.


Eventually after considerable local pressure the Corporation built 102 cottages on the farthest corner of the Improvement area in Lawrence and Ryder Streets during the 1890s.

 Joseph Chamberlain
Joseph Chamberlain entered Parliament in 1876 and by 1895 had become Secretary of State for the Colonies. During the last years of his life he lived at a splendid Gothic house, Highbury, situated between Moseley and King's Heath. It is now owned by the city.

Joseph Chamberlain married three times. His son by his second marriage was (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain, sometime Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and British Prime Minister at the outbreak of World War II. In 1906 Joseph Chamberlain suffered a stroke and did not fully recover, he died in 1914 just before the outbreak of the First World War.


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Joseph Chamberlain