More about ... at


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter



Joseph Chamberlain

Austen Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich, 29 September 1938, declaring that he had secured 'Peace for our time' 





Joseph Chamberlain

Joseph Chamberlain was born in London in 1836. His father, who ran a wholesale boot and shoe business, had invested in John Nettlefold's screw-manufacturing company and in 1854 he sent the 18-year old Joseph to Birmingham to represent his interests in the firm of Chamberlain & Nettlefold. Charismatic, ambitious, domineering and hugely talented, he proved a highly successful businessman who knew how to make money quickly. But there was much more to him than that. A Unitarian, he believed passionately that prosperous people such as himself had a duty to do what they could to make life better for the less fortunate. He gave up time to teach working men at evening schools and became chairman of the radical National Educational League, which campaigned for state funding for education.

In 1869 he joined the town council as a radical Liberal member for the St Paul's ward and, rising meteorically to power, became mayor in 1873, a post he held for three years. The changes he wrought were dramatic. He obtained Acts of Parliament empowering the corporation to take over the private gas and water companies and proceeded to reinvest the profits they made in public works. Dramatic improvements were made in water supply and sewerage; within a few years the number of people in the town who had to draw water from contaminated wells was halved. The streets were at last well-lit. He passed a byelaw banning the construction of back-to-back houses.  Death rates began to fall. Corporation Street was built, Colmore Row was widened and a start made on the construction of the Council House.

Although Joseph Chamberlain relinquished the mayoral chain upon entering Parliament in 1876, the transformation he had wrought on the town council long survived him. From being backward and unambitious, once shown what could be done, it became bold and determined. This was the time when Birmingham became known as 'the best-governed city in the world' and when its enlightened municipal leadership radically improved the lot of the ordinary townsfolk through bold and imaginative schemes such as the construction of the Elan Valley reservoirs and the huge 73-mile aqueduct that still supplies the city with its water.

Though always highly influential, in the House of Commons Joseph Chamberlain proved something of a maverick. Elected as a Liberal MP, he fell out with Gladstone in 1886 over the issue of Irish home rule, which he opposed, not because he thought the Irish should not be allowed to run their own affairs (indeed, he thought they should be), but because he regarded home rule outside the UK as a political impossibility that the British public would not support. Chamberlain's solution was a federal one - a National Council to run Irish affairs, and Councils in the other nations, too, if they wanted them, but all within the UK and under a federal parliament in London. He believed that the public could be persuaded to support such a structure, and he was, of course, right in thinking that home rule would not command support at that time.

Chamberlain thus became a Unionist and  allied himself with the Conservatives. But in 1906 he split the Conservative Party  by leading a faction that supported the imposition of tariffs on imported goods. British industry was facing increasing competition from foreign countries who erected tariff walls against British goods. This was eroding export markets and even beginning to impinge on the home market. As Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain's answer was imperial preference - free trade within the British Empire, but tariffs against goods from outside the Empire. 

On 11th July 1906 he suffered a stroke, which severely incapacitated him. But such was the loyalty of his Brummie supporters that they nonetheless returned him unopposed as MP in 1910. Joseph Chamberlain died in 1914, still MP for the town he had come to love every bit as much as it loved him. He is buried, along with many other famous Brummies, in Key Hill Cemetery, which borders on the Jewellery Quarter and can be accessed from Icknield Street (from the Mint, continue past Warstone Lane Cemetery for a couple of hundred yards).

Married three times, his two sons, Austen and Neville, both held high political office. 

Austen Chamberlain

Austen Chamberlain was first elected to Parliament as a Liberal Unionist, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1903. In 1911 he was one of the leading candidates to succeed Arthur Balfour as Prime Minister, but eventually stood down in favour of a compromise candidate, Andrew Bonar Law. By 1919 he was again Chancellor of the Exchequer and when Bonar Law retired in 1921, Chamberlain succeeded him as leader of the Conservative MPs. He didn't hold the post for long; at that time the Conservatives were in coalition with the Liberals under Prime Minister Lloyd George, but the following year Conservative MPs rebelled against their leadership and Bonar Law returned as Prime Minister. 

Chamberlain returned to government in 1924 as Foreign Secretary, in which role he negotiated the Locarno Pact of 1925 with Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, for which he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The pact guaranteed the frontiers of western Europe and the demilitarisation of the Rhineland, and its popularity was reflected in the number of ballrooms and cinemas around the country that were given the name 'Locarno'.

From 1934 - 37, along with Churchill, Sir Austen, as he had become, campaigned for British rearmament to counter the rising threat from Nazi Germany. He died aged 73 in 1937, just a few weeks before his half-brother Neville became Prime Minister.

Neville Chamberlain

Born in 1869, Neville Chamberlain first entered politics as a Birmingham City Councillor in 1911 following a successful career in business, and immediately took the chair of the Town Planning Committee. Under his leadership Birmingham adopted one of the first town planning schemes in Britain. In 1915 he became Lord Mayor, establishing the highly popular and successful Birmingham Municipal Bank, which was unique in Britain and lasted until 1976. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. 

He did not enter Parliament until 1918, when he was 49. His record as an outstandingly able, energetic, efficient, reforming minister belies his popular image as a hopeless, craven appeaser.

In 1923 he became Minister of Health, in which capacity he introduced a Housing Act which led to a big increase in the number of affordable homes being built, and a Rent Restriction Act limiting landlords' freedom to evict and limiting rents to fair levels. In 1925 his Widows, Orphans and Old Age Pensions Act put Britain on the road to the welfare state, whilst his Local Government Act of 1929 finally abolished the workhouses and transferred responsibility for the infirmaries which had been operated by the Poor Law Guardians to local councils. 

His tenure at the Ministry of Health was interrupted during 1923 - 24 by a brief spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to which post he returned in 1931. During six years at the Treasury he succeeded in undoing much of the damage that had been inflicted upon the economy by Churchill's ill-considered adoption of the gold standard. Whilst adopting a sound fiscal stance, as opportunities presented themselves he reversed the harsh cuts of the previous government, reduced interest rates to one-third their previous level and presided over an economic recovery which compared favourably with those elsewhere in Europe. He cut income tax, whilst increasing the dole and public sector pay. His Import Duties Bill of 1932 introduced something his father and brother had long advocated, imposing tariffs of 10% on all imports except food and raw materials. 

Alarmed by the rising threat from Nazi Germany, despite the strains placed on the public finances, from 1935 onwards he found money for rearmament. This brought him criticism from all sides: Churchill complained that he wasn't doing enough, whilst Labour castigated him as a warmonger. Another of his policies which proved invaluable when war finally came was 'Rationalisation', under which the government bought up redundant factories that had closed during the depression, and modernised and re-equipped them. The result of this was that Britain entered the war with some very efficient factories, able to turn out the best weaponry at a very high rate.

Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, pursuing a radical domestic policy which is largely overlooked today. The Factory Act of 1937 improved workplace conditions and limited women's working hours. Healthy exercise and a good diet were promoted by the Physical Training Act 1937, which also provided for medical check-ups for all. The Housing Act 1938 boosted slum clearance and brought in measures to reduce overcrowding, whilst The Holidays with Pay Act of the same year brought paid holidays to over 11 million workers. 

His approach to Nazi Germany was influenced by several factors. Like most who had lived through the First World War, he had a passionate abhorrence of war. He believed, along with many others, that Germany had been treated with unreasonable harshness in the Treaty of Versailles; that the resulting sense of injustice felt by the German people had contributed to the rise of Nazism; and that permitting some of those injustices to be righted would weaken German support for the Nazis. At the same time, he was advised by the Chiefs of Staff that Britain's military machine was in no fit state to take on the Germans and that the country needed to play for time - all the more so, given that no other country was willing to be allied with Britain in going to war with Germany. All of these considerations pointed towards a policy of appeasement, which though now a dirty word, was very popular at the time. 

Hitler had already re-annexed the Rhineland by the time Chamberlain became PM. Then, in March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, in the so-called Anschluss. Czechoslovakia was threatened. The masterful Chamberlain, determined that change must be managed and not just left to the whims of the German dictator, took the courageous decision to fly to Munich and confront Hitler for the world's first summit meeting. They met in Berchtesgaden on 15th September, Hitler agreeing not to invade Czechoslovakia if that country could be persuaded to cede to Germany the Sudetenland, which had a large German population. Under heavy pressure, the Czech government agreed and a week later Chamberlain and Hitler were to meet again, this time at Bad Godesberg on the Rhine. Hitler at first rejected out of hand the conditions implicit in the agreement Chamberlain had secured, softening his demands only a little in response to Chamberlain's angry recriminations. Given that the Chiefs of Staff were still advising that Britain was in no shape for war, Chamberlain advised the Cabinet that there was nothing for it but to accept Hitler's terms but found, somewhat to his surprise, that attitudes in the Cabinet had hardened. The 29th September saw Chamberlain in Munich for a third time, meeting with Hitler, Daladier of France, and Mussolini. Although Hitler's Godesberg demands were conceded, it was agreed that all future transfers of territory in Europe would be agreed by an ambassadors' conference and that the shrunken Czechoslovakia would be given an international guarantee. Chamberlain also secured Hitler's signature on an agreement to the effect that Britain and Germany would in future settle all their disagreements by negotiation, and would never again go to war. It was the piece of paper on which this agreement was written that Chamberlain so infamously held aloft on his return, declaring, 'I believe it is peace for our time'.

Though public opinion was initially euphoric and Chamberlain was feted wherever he went, it was not long before doubts began to surface. By the end of the year events in Germany made it clear that Chamberlain's piece of paper was worthless. In March 1939 Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, and in a bid to forestall further incursions, Britain issued guarantees to Poland, Romania, Greece and Turkey. The government decided to expand the army, and conscription was introduced.  On 1st September Germany invaded Poland. Britain issued an ultimatum demanding a withdrawal which did not come. Two days later Chamberlain broadcast to the nation the news that Britain was once again at war with Germany. 

Once war had been declared, Chamberlain was as staunch as Churchill, rejecting peace feelers which came via Roosevelt and others. During the phoney war, which lasted into 1940, the Hurricane and Spitfire were completed, and the country's radar defences strengthened. Both of these developments would be decisive in the Battle of Britain. Meanwhile, serious weaknesses in the British armed forces were concealed until hostilities began in earnest, only to be cruelly exposed when an expeditionary force to Norway had to be hurriedly evacuated.  The three armed forces, it seemed, were unable to mount combined operations. The shock of this, and other setbacks, led to an acrimonious debate in the House of Commons on 8th May 1940, which led to Neville Chamberlain offering his resignation as Prime Minister. Two days later he stood down and Churchill took over. On 9th November of that year, aged 71, Neville Chamberlain was dead of stomach cancer. 

Today, Neville Chamberlain is remembered for the 'peace for our time' episode and little else. This really does not do justice to the man. He was one of the most able, energetic and reforming ministers of the twentieth century. Most of the many Acts he was responsible for made life better for ordinary people - bringing them holidays with pay, higher pensions, abolition of the workhouses, slum clearance and improved housing. Even his bitterest critics respected him as a decent and well-intentioned man. But when it came to his dealings with Hitler, he had the misfortune to be the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his self-confessed abhorrence of war (see right-hand column) led him to be in denial about the true nature of Hitler's intentions. How else can one explain the fact that he lied to the Commons about the extent of German rearmament, or his making so much of a paper signed by a dictator who had persistently double-crossed him? 

On the other side of that argument, it was Chamberlain as Chancellor who provided funds for rearmament and initiated the industrial rationalisation policy which proved so valuable once war started. With the Chiefs of Staff advising that we lacked the military muscle to take on Germany, it is doubtful whether anybody could have declared war much sooner than he did. Crucially, in 1938 the country had been divided on the need for war, yet by the time war came in 1939 everyone could see that, everything possible having been done to avert it, the war was inevitable and the whole nation united behind the war effort. And once war was declared Chamberlain stood firm, despite hating every minute of it. Shy, uncharismatic and war-hating as he was, he could never have provided the inspirational war leadership that Churchill did. But consistently over two decades, his peacetime record far outshone anything that Churchill achieved in peacetime.




The walk

More about ...

Sources of information

Get in touch

Other sites: 

Jospeh Chamberlain  (1)  (2)

Austen Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain  (1)  (2)




Joseph Chamberlain, on becoming mayor: 'The town shall not, with God's help, know itself'

On privatised water companies: 'It seems to me absolutely certain that the power of life and death should not be in the hands of a private company, but should be conducted by representatives of the people.'

On his plans for Corporation Street: 'It might run [as] a great street, as broad as a Parisian boulevard, from New Street to the Aston Road; it might open up such a street as Birmingham had not got, and was stifling for the want of'

Beatrice Potter on Chamberlain speaking in the Town Hall: 'As he rose slowly and stood silently before his people, his whole face and form were transformed. The crowd became wild with enthusiasm. Hats, handkerchiefs, coats even, were frantically waved ... There was one loud uproar of applause.'


'Towards the end of the banquet came ... the great world-stirring news, that Neville, on his own initiative, seeing war coming closer ... had telegraphed to Hitler that he wanted to see him ... The German government, surprised and flattered, had instantly accepted and so Neville, at the age of 69, for the first time in his life, gets into an aeroplane tomorrow morning and flies to Berchtesgaden! It is one of the finest, most inspiring acts of all history. The company rose to their feet electrified ... and drank his health ... Neville, by his imagination and practical good sense, has saved the world. - Henry Channon MP, 14 September 1938

'The Prime Minister then told us the story of his visit to Berchtesgaden. Looking back upon what he said, the curious thing seems to me now to have been that he recounted his experiences with some satisfaction. Although he said that at first sight Hitler struck him as 'the commonest little dog he had ever seen' ... he was obviously pleased at the reports he had subsequently received of the good impression that he himself had made ... But the bare facts of the interview were frightful. Not one of the elaborate schemes ... which the Prime Minister had intended to put forward had ever been mentioned. He had felt that the atmosphere did not allow of them. After ranting and raving at him, Hitler had talked about self-determination ... From beginning to end Hitler had not shown the slightest sign of yielding on a single point.' - Duff Cooper, First Lord of the Admiralty, 17 September 1938 

'For the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.' -Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich, 29 September 1938

'The other element that gave fuel to the fires of criticism was the unhappy phrases which Neville Chamberlain under the stress of great emotion allowed himself to use. 'Peace with honour'; 'Peace for our time' - such sentences grated harshly on the ear and thought of even those closest to him. But when all has been said, one fact remains dominant and unchallengeable. When was did come a year later it found a country and Commonwealth wholly united within itself, convinced to the foundations of soul and conscience that every conceivable effort had been made to find the way of sparing Europe the ordeal of war, and that no alternative remained. And that was the best thing that Chamberlain did.' - Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary in Chamberlain's government from 1938

'Is this a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force? No greater mistake could be made than to suppose that, because it believes war to be a senseless and cruel thing, this nation has so lost its fibre that it will not take part to the utmost of its power in resisting such a challenge.' - Neville Chamberlain, following Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

'It is evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution, and against that I am certain that right will prevail.' - Neville Chamberlain on the occasion of the declaration of World War 2, 3rd September 1939.

'How I loathe this war. I was never meant to be a War Minister.' - Neville Chamberlain, writing to his sister, Hilda.


2001, 2004, 2005, 2006   Bob Miles