Inclusion and Diversity Resources

Sir Joseph Chamberlain

(1836 - 1914)

Joseph Chamberlain is often celebrated as the forward-thinking godfather of modern Birmingham. His policies enabled the creation of the 1870 Education Act and 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act. He was instrumental in establishing the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, but he remains a controversial character.

Joseph Chamberlain’s eight years as Colonial Secretary were dominated by his work to expand British rule in South Africa. Having been divided by the white colonists into separate states (English-speakers, subjects of the British Empire, and the Dutch-speaking Boers) the discovery of gold by the Boers in 1895, led to 600 armed men headed by the British official Leander Jameson to enter Boer territory in a failed attempt to overthrow their government. Chamberlain was aware of this action, although it was not ordered by him. Increasing friction led to the outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer War which came to be known as ‘Joe’s War’. To reduce the Boer combatants’ access to supplies, thousands of civilians were imprisoned in poorly organised internment camps. Over 26,000 Boer women and children and 20,000 black South Africans died in the camps.

Chamberlain’s decisions helped widen deep divisions in modern South Africa. A stroke in 1906 forced him to retire from politics, but his influence contributed to inequality, such as the Land Act, which prevented black South Africans, except those living in Cape Province, from buying land outside reserves. And later Apartheid, a system of legally institutionalised racial segregation in South Africa.

Like many British cities, Birmingham benefited greatly from imperial exploits, such as the South African gold rush.

Despite his aggressive and racist imperial policy, statues, memorials and street names continue to celebrate Chamberlain. These landmarks belong to all residents of the city and it’s important we foster an open dialogue about what they represent and what they mean to modern, multicultural Birmingham.

Louise Deakin