A TALE OF ONE CITY:
THE NEW BIRMINGHAM.
Papers Reprinted from the "Midland Counties Herald",
Birmingham: "MIDLAND COUNTIES HERALD" OFFICE.
TO BE HAD FROM CORNISH BROTHERS, NEW STREET; MIDLAND EDUCATIONAL CO., CORPORATION STREET.
The present century has seen the rise and development of many towns in various parts of the country, and among them Birmingham is entitled to take a front place. If Thomas Attwood or George Frederick Muntz could now revisit the town they once represented in Parliament they would probably stare with amazement at the changes that have taken place in Birmingham, and would require a guide to show them their way about the town—now a city—they once knew so well. The material history of Birmingham was for a series of years a story of steady progress and prosperity, but of late years the city has in a political, social, and municipal sense advanced by leaps and bounds. It is no longer "Brummagem" or the "Hardware Village," it is now recognised as the centre of activity and influence in Mid-England; it is the Mecca of surrounding populous districts, that attracts an increasing number of pilgrims who love life, pleasure, and shopping.
Birmingham, indeed, has recently been styled "the best governed city in the world"—a title that is, perhaps, a trifle too full and panegyrical to find ready and general acceptance. If, however, by this very lofty and eulogistic description is meant a city that has been exceptionally prosperous, is well looked after, that has among its inhabitants many energetic, public-spirited men, that has a good solid debt on its books, also that has municipal officials of high capabilities with fairly high salaries to match—then Birmingham is not altogether undeserving of the high-sounding appellation. Many of those who only know Birmingham from an outside point of view, and who have only lately begun to notice its external developments, doubtless attribute all the improvements to Mr. Chamberlain's great scheme, and the adoption of the Artisans' Dwellings Act in 1878. The utilisation of this Act has certainly resulted in the making of one fine street, a fine large debt, and the erection of a handful of artisans' dwellings. The changes, however, that culminated in Mr. Chamberlain's great project began years before the Artisans' Dwellings Act became law.
The construction of the London and North Western Railway station—which, with the Midland Railway adjunct, now covers some thirteen acres of land—cleared away a large area of slums that were scarcely fit for those who lived in them—which is saying very much. A region sacred to squalor and low drinking shops, a paradise of marine store dealers, a hotbed of filthy courts tenanted by a low and degraded class, was swept away to make room for the large station now used by the London and North Western and Midland Railway Companies.
The Great Western Railway station, too, in its making also disposed of some shabby, narrow streets and dirty, pestiferous houses inhabited by people who were not creditable to the locality or the community, and by so doing contributed to the improvement of the town. Further, the erection of two large railway stations in a central district naturally tended to increase the number of visitors to the growing Midland capital, and this, of course, brought into existence a better class of shops and more extended trading. Then the suburbs of Birmingham, which for some years had been stretching out north, south, east, and west, have lately become to a considerable extent gathered into the arms of the city, and the residents in some of the outskirts, at least, may now pride themselves, if so inclined, upon being a part of the so-called "best governed city in the world," sharing its honours, importance, and debts, and contributing to its not altogether inconsiderable rates.
I do not purpose in these pages to go into the ancient history of Birmingham. Other pens have told us how one Leland, in the sixteenth century, visited the place, and what he said about the "toyshop of the world." Also how he saw a "brooke," which was doubtless in his time a pretty little river, but which is now a sewery looking stream that tries to atone for its shallowness and narrowness by its thickness. They have likewise told us about the old lords of Bermingham—whose monuments still adorn the parish church—who have died out leaving no successors to bear for their proud title the name of the "best governed city in the world."
These other pens have also mentioned the little attentions Birmingham received from Cromwell's troops; how the Roundheads fired at Aston Hall (which had given hospitality to Charles I.) making a breakage—still unrepaired!—in the great staircase of that grand old Elizabethan mansion. My purpose, however, is not to deal with past records of Birmingham, but rather with its modern growth and appearance.
After the sweeping alterations effected by the construction of the new railway stations in Birmingham, further improvements were for a time of a slow, jog-trot order, although the town, in a commercial sense, was moving ahead, and its wealth and population were rapidly increasing. Small improvements were made, but anything like big schemes, even if desirable, were postponed or rejected. Birmingham, indeed, some thirty years ago, was considerably under the influence of men of the unprogressive tradesmen class—many of them worthy men in their way but of limited ideas. In their private businesses they were not accustomed to deal with big transactions and high figures, so that spending large sums of money, if proposed, filled the brewer, the baker, and candlestick maker with alarm. They were careful and economical, but their care in finance was apt at times to be impolitic, and their economy has in several cases proved to have been somewhat costly.
Indeed, until recent years, the leading authorities of the town were anything but enterprising, and their view of future possibilities very limited. Could they have seen a little farther ahead they might have laid out money to the great profit and future advantage of the community. They could have erected new corporation offices and municipal buildings before land in the centre of the town became so very costly; the gas and water interests might have been purchased, probably at a price that would have saved the town thousands of pounds. It is also understood that they might have purchased Aston Hall, with its 170 acres close to the town, on terms which would have made the land (now nearly all built upon) a veritable Tom Tidler's ground for the town and corporation. But our shopkeeper senators would have nothing to do with such bold and far-reaching schemes, and were given to opposing them when suggested by men more courageous and far-seeing than themselves.
Between twenty-five and thirty years ago it was felt by the more advanced and intelligent portion of the community that the time had come for the town to arouse itself, and that certain reforms should no longer be delayed. It was beginning to be felt that the Town Council did not fairly represent the advancing aspirations and the growing needs, importance, and wealth of the town. Sanitary reforms were required, the growing traffic in the principal streets called for better and more durable roadways, and Macadamised and granite paved streets no longer answered the purposes required. The latter were heavy, noisy, and lumbering; the former were not sufficiently durable. Moreover, "Macadam" consisted of sharply-cut pieces of metal put upon the streets, which were left for cart and carriage wheels to break up and press down into something like a level surface. When this was done it made objectionable dust in dry weather, and in wet weather it converted the streets into avenues of mud and puddle to be scraped up, or to be swept off, by some curiously-devised machine carts constructed for the purpose. Carriage people, I fear, often cursed the stone stuff they had to grind into the roads, and pedestrians anathematized the mud and the dust.
As many people will remember, in some of the less important streets the footways were paved with what were called "petrified kidneys"—stones about as big as a good-sized potato, very durable but extremely unpleasant to walk upon. Little or nothing was done to improve the slummy and dirty parts of the town, or to remove some of those foul courts and alleys which were not only disgraceful in appearance but were a menace to the health of the inhabitants.
In fact, for one reason or another, the authorities left undone the things they ought to have done, and possibly they did some things they ought not to have done, and if allowed to go on it is probable there would soon have been no health in us. It may, however, be admitted that Birmingham was no worse governed than many other large towns in the comparatively unprogressive days of which I speak, but a new race of more advanced and energetic men were dissatisfied with the sluggish, stagnant state of local government, and they felt that the hour had struck for the inauguration of some large and important improvements. Such was the state of affairs about the year 1868.
ENTER MR. CHAMBERLAIN.
The present position of Birmingham and its improved appearance in these later years are largely attributed to the work and influence of Mr. Chamberlain. To him, certainly, the credit is largely due. At the same time it is only fair to say that he was not the first man who had discovered that Birmingham, some thirty years ago, was, compared with what it should be, in many respects lagging behind. Other persons had been impressed with the idea that the town, in a municipal, sanitary, and social sense, was not advancing at a pace commensurate with its commercial and material progress.
To go just a little farther back for a moment, it must be recorded that Birmingham, in a political sense, made a great step forward when it elected Mr. Bright as one of its members of Parliament in the year 1857. This served to focus the eyes of the country on the midland capital, and from this date the town became a new centre of political activity. The great meetings addressed by Mr. Bright were not regarded as mere provincial gatherings, but they attracted the attention of the whole nation. The proceedings were no longer chronicled merely by the local press, but the London daily newspapers sent representatives to furnish special reports of our new member's speeches. Indeed, the interest and excitement at these political gatherings was often feverish in its intensity, and for many years Mr. Bright's visits to Birmingham were red-letter days in the history of the town.
Mr. Bright, however, not being a resident in Birmingham, took no part in its local and municipal affairs, and the man was wanting who would come forward and energetically take town matters in hand. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain was the man, and the time was ripe for him. He was known to be smart, able, and energetic, and also to be imbued with decidedly progressive ideas. Further, he was justly credited with having a lofty conception of the real importance and dignity of municipal life and the value of municipal institutions.
In the year 1869 Mr. Chamberlain was elected a member of the Birmingham Town Council, and he began to make things spin and hum at a pace which literally soon reached a pretty high rate. His example, and possibly his persuasion, induced several of his friends and associates to become candidates for Town Council membership, and in a very short time he had a strong and influential following, made up of men of energy, substance, and good social position, who soon began to overpower and make things more lively perhaps than pleasant for the anti-progressives in the Corporation. In Israelitish story we are told that a new king arose who knew not Joseph, but in Birmingham a new municipal kingdom arose that knew Joseph and trusted him.
The changes that soon began to take place were enough to take away the breath of some of the nice, complacent, arm-chair, "Woodman" members of the Town Council. If the preceding rulers of the Corporation had been a trifle too parsimonious in the matter of expenditure, Mr. Chamberlain and his party soon began to make amends for any trifling mistakes or past errors in the way of economy. In a very few years the town had a debt, I don't say of which it might be proud, but of which it very soon felt the weight.
When Mr. Chamberlain entered the Town Council the municipal debt stood at some L588,000. When he left it, after about ten years' service, the debt had mounted up to the neat and imposing sum of L6,212,000. Of course, there were very valuable assets to place against this heavy indebtedness, assets which are likely to improve considerably in value as time goes on—that is, if the city continues to progress and prosper. Still, a good many people were not a little alarmed at the big figures that grew on the debtor side of the Corporation accounts, but more persons applauded the spirit, courage, and enterprise of those who had taken the reins of the town into their hands.
When Mr. Chamberlain and his friends had fairly got hold of the Town Council ropes, they set to work in strong earnest. Sanitary improvements were promoted. The principal streets and their lighting and paving were improved, and the general appearance of the town quickly presented a change for the better. Trees were planted in some of the chief thoroughfares. They did not it is true show much disposition to grow and thrive, but they were planted and replanted, though we may still have to lament that our Birmingham boulevards will not compare favourably with those in some other cities. Mr. Chamberlain, however, was not the man to be content with such trifling reforms as these. He had large and spacious ideas in his mind, and he quickly brought them out to air and grow.
In the year 1873 Mr. Chamberlain was elected Mayor, and in the following year he brought forward his schemes for the purchase by the municipality of the gas and water supplies. His proposals encountered very formidable opposition, principally from those interested in the gas and water companies, whose undertakings he proposed compulsorily to purchase. Some of the shareholders in these prosperous companies were fierce in their denunciations of his schemes. They regarded Mr. Chamberlain's proposals as nothing short of confiscation. For years they had supplied the town with gas and water. They had found the necessary money in the "sure and certain hope" of having a good and secure investment for their capital, and lo! when they had fairly established their undertakings, it was proposed to blow out their profitable light and dash the refreshingly remunerative water from their lips. It was hard—I don't mean the water, but the situation! Of course the shareholders were to receive a fair price for their properties, the gas companies practically L1,900.000, the waterworks company L1,350,000. But still they were not happy. They resisted the proposed purchases.
Mr. Chamberlain, however, was not the man to be daunted by the opposition of the gas and water company proprietors. He had made up his mind that it would be for the good of the town for these undertakings to be in the hands of the municipality, and in spite of the Town Council "old gang" and outraged gas and water shareholders, who felt they were being fraudulently despoiled of certain prospective advantages, he carried his point.
There are still those among us who, for various reasons, murmur at these extensive purchases. They maintain, for one thing, that the possession of the gas influenced the Corporation to turn a discouraging eye upon the electric light. Certainly Birmingham has been rather lax in taking up electric illumination, and possibly more enterprise would have been evinced in this direction if the Corporation had not become dealers in gas and water on their own terms, viz., no competition allowed. Some self-constituted prophets shook their heads and said that before the gas debt was paid off gas would literally have "gone out" as a general illuminant. Before the eighty-five years allowed for the redemption of the capital invested in the gas have elapsed a good many things may certainly happen. So far, however, gas is not extinguished, but is in increased demand, and even water is believed to have a future.
With regard to the water purchase, however, a good deal of opposition was offered on special grounds. Having purchased the waterworks undertaking the Corporation were, of course, desirous to make it pay. To buy the thing was a blunder in the eyes of some, to let it be a source of loss would have been a crime. Consequently, it became necessary to force the water supply business, and the municipal authorities went about it in a way that pressed hardly sometimes and provoked not a little hostility and resentment.
"Waterologists" and analysts are somewhat divided in opinion as to what is pure water, or at least good wholesome water. Some authorities take one standard, some another. The Corporation, with an eye to business, selected a very high standard, for this brought grist to the mill, or, I should say, trade to the tap. It meant the closing of a large number of wells yielding water which, under a less rigorous standard than that adopted, would have been considered wholesome. But in this matter again, Mr. Chamberlain and the "new gang" paid no heed to the growls of the disaffected, and pumps were disestablished in all directions, chiefly, it was maintained, to swell the returns of the water department. "O ye wells, bless ye the Lord"—but few were suffered to remain.
Mr. Chamberlain, however, was not long content with having municipalized the gas and water. In accordance with the strong impetus of his nature he sighed for more worlds to conquer. Consequently he was soon ready with a gigantic Improvement Scheme, to be carried out under the adoption of the somewhat misused and delusive Artisans' Dwellings Act. His proposal was to make a grand street and a more direct way to Aston, and in doing so to demolish some dirty back thoroughfares and a large number of foul and filthy unsanitary dwellings.
The scheme was a big one. It affected many interests, and before it was carried out it caused a fierce amount of strife, ill-feeling, and hostility. The discontent and disaffection which Mr. Chamberlain's previous schemes aroused were but as morning breezes compared with the storm and tempest his new proposals raised. His daring and dash almost dazed his fellow townsfolk, for, like Napoleon, he rushed on from one exploit to another with a rapidity that astounded his friends and confused and overwhelmed his foes.
THE ACT AND THE DWELLINGS.
Considering how many interests were affected by the Birmingham Improvement Scheme and the adoption of the Artisans' Dwellings Act, it may be doubted if the scheme would have passed as it did had its full purport and meaning been fully considered and understood. Some persons saw that they would be grievously injured, and they offered strenuous opposition, but there were many others who only found out when it was too late what extreme and arbitrary power was conferred upon the authorities who put the Act into operation.
Of course the scheme was laid before the rate-payers in the usual manner, but few realised the importance of studying it well, or grasped the far-reaching character of its operations till too late.
Let me explain more especially what is meant by this. When it was decided to adopt Mr. Chamberlain's scheme and make the new fine street, land was cleared and was let on leases by the Corporation. In letting this land, agreements were made that the new buildings, when consisting of shops, offices, &c., should be so many storeys high, the object, of course, being to make the properties, which would in due course revert to the city, the more valuable. When, however, these tall buildings were erected, adjacent premises were robbed of light and air, and when the owners or tenants of these injured premises asked for compensation they found out, at least in some cases, that the authorities were not liable. I believe I am right in saying that the powers conferred by the Act absolved them from indictments on the part of those whose property was damaged by diminished air or light. The result was that certain sufferers found to their mortification that they had no redress, but must raise their chimneys at their own cost, if necessary, and in other cases endure the inconvenience of a decreased supply of light. This was an unpleasant revelation that caused much gnashing of teeth among the owners of, and the dwellers in, the properties surrounding the tall buildings erected by the leaseholders of the Corporation.
As for those whose property was required and taken under the Act, it was all very well for owners and for those who had leases: they could not be molested without fair and proper payment. Shopkeepers and others, however, who were only annual tenants, had, I fear in many cases, to go empty away. Some of these had good, old-established businesses that had for years become identified with certain premises. It was nothing short of ruin to them to move, but they had to take up their goods and walk. This is the way that authorities often have to deal with the more or less helpless in view of what they consider to be the greatest good of the greatest number.
It will, of course, be said that some of these traders were extremely short-sighted not to have had leases of premises that were so all-important to them. In many cases, however, they were unable to obtain such agreements, the landlords being unwilling or unable to grant them. The result was that many a prosperous tradesman had his successful career cut short and passed into a retirement he did not desire, probably with a few warm curses upon the Town Council, the Improvement Scheme, and the schemers.
It is not very easy to understand the just laws that should govern compensation. When there is talk of disestablishing public-houses, certain statesmen approve of compensation. The argument is that as public-houses are licensed by law, their owners have been given a sort of status and sanction, which should be properly and considerately dealt with in case their businesses are taken away from them. But other people also take out licences, such as tobacconists, pawnbrokers, grocers, and wine sellers, yet when these traders are disturbed or disestablished, compensation is never suggested.
Let us see what has happened in Birmingham. When the grand new street was made the traffic to the northern part of the town was largely diverted from other thoroughfares, and the consequence was that streets and passages that were once busy highways and byways were soon comparatively deserted. Shops became tenantless, or had to be let at greatly reduced rents. Indeed, the depreciation of property in the localities referred to is said to have been at least thirty per cent. Yet the owners had no redress.
Of course it usually happens that when large reforms are effected the noble work is done at somebody's inconvenience or cost. It is the inevitable result, and people who are not sufferers shrug their shoulders and complacently remark that the few must be sacrificed for the benefit of the many. It is delightfully easy to be philosophical and even philanthropic when our own pockets, feelings, and interests are not concerned. The last new great Improvement Scheme would, of course, be a great thing for Birmingham; it would also shed a considerable amount of glory on its authors; it would likewise put a good deal of power into the hands of its administrators, and not a little money into the pockets of professional men. If some few persons had to suffer in order to bring about such splendid results they must try to be patriotic, noble citizens, or else grin and bear their discomfiture! Those, however, who were despoiled of their businesses, or who found their property seriously depreciated, were not likely to be consoled by such buttered comfort. They raised their voices in impotent protest, and denounced Mr. Chamberlain and all his works.
We do not hear very much of the Artisans' Dwellings Act now, but any towns that contemplate adopting it should profit by the experience of Birmingham, consider its full scope and meaning, and count the cost. The city of Birmingham has applied the Act in connection with its last great Improvement Scheme, and it now remains to be seen what the results, in a commercial sense, will be. The present and succeeding generation, at least, will have to pay off some heavy obligations in the next sixty or seventy years, and then the city should he immensely the richer for its enterprising policy. I say it should be, and probably it will be, but there is a fair-sized "if" to be considered.
It seems to be taken as a matter of course that Birmingham will go on developing and prospering in the future as it has in the past. And it may be fairly presumed that it will do so. This, however, must not be taken exactly as a matter of positive certainty. There are some indications that there may be a pause in the material prosperity of the city by and by—a limit to its progressiveness. If so, the enterprises of our authorities may not prove so advantageous as has been reckoned upon. Partly owing to high rates and the cost of carriage, manufacturers are removing factories outside the city, and in some cases, where they have a large foreign trade, nearer to the seaboard. If this exodus continues and increases it is easy to see that the effect will be to diminish the population, and this in time will affect the value of property. The manufactures of Birmingham are, however, so numerous and so varied there is reason for hope that any circumstances that may apparently show a standstill condition will only be temporary, and that in all general revivals of trade the city will participate.
Whatever may happen, we know the city in the middle of the next century will come in for a fine heritage of reversions, and it is fair to presume that posterity will greatly benefit by the Improvement Scheme fathered by Mr. Chamberlain. In the meantime the citizens—at least, those who bestow much thought upon such matters—shake their heads at the load of debt Birmingham bears upon its shoulders, and chafe at the high rates. It is, however, pointed out to the malcontents that they live in a healthier place than Birmingham used to be, and, further, that the city, owing to its improved character and appearance, attracts more visitors, and this increases local trade.
Of this latter fact there can be little dispute. The new order of things has led to a new and, in some cases, better class of shops being established, and these attract a better class of customers. At one time residents in the adjoining counties looked down upon Birmingham shopkeepers, and would say rather contemptuously that they never "shopped" in this city, but went to Leamington, Cheltenham, or London to make their purchases. But we do not hear so much of this now. On the contrary, I have heard of people—even aristocratic people—who actually say that they now, for many reasons, prefer to "shop" in Birmingham rather than go to London. Of course this is not an ordinary circumstance—for Birmingham has not yet a Bond Street or Regent Street; still, exceptional though it may be, it indicates a change of feeling and shows that, in one sense at all events, Birmingham is on the rise.
The increased number of large and important shops in central Birmingham has led to the formation of trading establishments and Stores of the latest order of development. There are now large shops of the "universal provider" type, where they sell everything from blacking to port wine, and where you see silk mantles in one window and sausages in another.
Some of us rather preferred the old order of things. We liked and still like to go to shops kept by tradesmen who have been brought up to certain lines of business, and who know from actual knowledge and experience what they are buying and selling. But in these large new shops and Stores people sell you almost everything without having any special knowledge of anything. They recommend this, that, and the other, but you have often good reason to know that it is not from any experience of the commodities they offer, but only the tradesman's instinct and desire to dispose of what he wants most to sell rather than what his customers may most wish to buy.
Such is the new style of large shopkeeping, and it is not, of course, peculiar to Birmingham. It must be owned, however, that it means cheapness, and also that it has been largely developed by the new order of things brought about by the recent street improvements in the city.
ECCE MR. CHAMBERLAIN.
Having said so much of what Mr. Chamberlain has done in, and for, Birmingham, perhaps I may be permitted to say a few words, "mostly all" my own, respecting a much biographed man. Although Mr. Chamberlain is so prominently identified with Birmingham and Birmingham with him, it is well known that he is not a native of the place. He was born in London in 1836, and came to Birmingham in 1854. We took him in and he did for us. His father joined the well-known firm of Nettlefold, the wood screw makers, and in the course of time his eldest son, Joseph, succeeded him. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain soon found his feet in trade, and by his business acumen, his foresight, capacity, and shrewdness he advanced the business, which had already been highly successful, to a rare pitch of prosperity.
At one time I saw and heard much of Mr. Chamberlain, especially in the earlier part of his Birmingham public career. He was always what he is now—a sharp, smart, and ready man. A man to inspire admiration and confidence. There was always a promptness and "all thereness" in his nature, with a decided touch of self-reliance, and I may even say audacity. In fact, without intending any reflection upon him, I might perhaps suggest that he could appropriately take as his motto "De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace." In proof of this I may cite one or two incidents that came under my notice.
Some thirty years or more ago Mr. Chamberlain was a prominent member of a local debating society. Now, this society used to have every year two social gatherings, and it was observed that many members who rarely or never came to the debates were not conspicuous by their absence when the summer "outings" and other little feasts took place. The committee thought it would be rather good sport to give these knife and fork debaters a little mild and gentle rub. Consequently they made them the subject of a toast at one of their social meetings, held at the Lyttelton Arms, Hagley. A word was coined for the occasion, and they were toasted as the "Artopsareocoluthic Members" (signifying the lovers of the loaves and fishes), and to Mr. Chamberlain was entrusted the task of proposing the toast.
In a smart and brilliant speech he poked rare fun at the dinner-debating members who were so ready to participate in the festivities of the society and so lax in attending the discussions. He not only did this with delicious banter and pointed sarcasm; but, with an audacious touch all his own, he coupled the toast with the name of one member present. This brought the ruffled gentleman up on to his legs, and, smarting under Mr. Chamberlain's ironical philippics, he tried to pay back "our young friend" for what he considered his unwarrantable impertinence.
But Mr. Chamberlain was not in the least disconcerted by the hotly expressed resentment of the offended member. With his cigar in his mouth and his eye-glass in his eye he smiled with amused complacency, while his irate friend tried to pay him back, though hardly in his own sharp, ringing coin.
The other incident to which I have referred took place when the Birmingham Corporation Gas Bill was under consideration. A town's meeting was held to discuss and decide whether the gas undertakings should be purchased by the municipal authorities. As there was considerable difference of opinion upon the question there was a large gathering in the Town Hall, and the opponents of the scheme were in strong force.
Mr. Chamberlain, in the course of his speech advocating the purchase, pointed out with characteristic force all the advantages of the proposed scheme, and when he mentioned the satisfactory sum for which the gas undertaking could be bought a prominent opponent called out, "Will you give that for it?" "Yes, I will," was the prompt reply, which rather surprised and silenced his antagonist.
And no doubt he meant what he said. He regarded the amount named as an advantageous price for the purchase—as it has proved to be—and he would have been willing, and would doubtless, with the aid of his friends, have been able, to find the money to secure such a valuable monopoly. It was, however, the decisive and ready manner in which he answered his interrogator that was so characteristic of the man, and which so appealed to the meeting as to elicit a hearty volley of cheers.
Mr. Chamberlain was never easily disconcerted, nor was he ever a touchy, over-sensitive man. In fact, he has been heard to say, I believe, that a man who takes to public life must not be thin-skinned. If he is to give blows, he must be prepared to take blows in return, and whether he takes his punishment fighting or lying down, he must take it smiling, or at least with complacency. This he does himself, as a rule, and whatever he may feel under the blows of his adversaries, he does not wince nor whine, but always appears more or less imperturbable, good-humoured, and unscathed. We see him demonstrative, combative, even saucy sometimes on the platform, but rarely or never ruffled, sour, or out of temper.
As I have hinted, I heard a good deal of Mr. Chamberlain's public speaking when he first came to the front as a public man, and it was impossible not to be interested, edified, and oftentimes amused by the intelligence, point, and smartness of his speech. At the same time there was—especially in the earlier days of his public career—a certain setness and formality of style that suggested the idea that his speeches were anything but the inspiration of the moment, but had been made beforehand, and were being reeled off. Indeed, many of those who knew him well maintained that his speeches were at this time the result of painstaking study, care, and elaboration, and that those who had a nose for oratory might detect in them a strong smell of the lamp.
One incident that came under my notice certainly went far to corroborate this view. I refer to the occasion of a little semi-public dinner at which Mr. Chamberlain was put down to propose a certain toast. He proceeded for a time in his usually happy, characteristic manner, when all at once in the middle of a sentence he came to a full stop! We all looked up, and he looked down embarrassed and confused. He apparently had lost the thread of the discourse he had so carefully woven; he could not pick up the dropped stiches; and, if I remember rightly, he sat down, his speech not safely delivered.
It seems difficult now to fancy Mr. Chamberlain making such a fiasco. He is at the present time probably one of the most ready and fluent speakers we have, and although many strange things might happen in the House of Commons, one of the most astonishing would be to see Mr. Chamberlain break down in a speech. It would create a sensation in that unserene assembly which would almost be enough to make a seasoned pressman swoon, and before the incident had been completely realised the unexpected and startling fact would probably be known at the Antipodes. Mr. Chamberlain can now make his speeches as he goes on—although the material may be prepared beforehand—and, as we know, he can turn from the course of his argument to answer quickly and effectively some pertinent or impertinent question or interruption.
Since Mr. Chamberlain has become such a leading light in Parliament, his speeches have taken a much more solid, sedate, and serious tone than they had in his early Birmingham days. They have become considerably more weighty—perhaps some of his unfriendly critics would say more heavy—than they were in bygone times. Without being open to the charge of levity or flippancy, Mr. Chamberlain's speeches used to be remarkable for a certain amount of humour, banter, touch-and-go smartness, as well as terse argumentative force.
At one time he was an appreciative student of the American humorists, and he was very fond of spicing his remarks with apt and amusing quotations from Hosea Biglow, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and other comic classics. Indeed, at one time, no speech of his would have been complete without some little sallies of this kind. Now, however, he rarely indulges in such pleasantries. Mr. Chamberlain's speeches in the House of Commons though never dull are never funny. He soon learned his lesson. He very quickly discovered that members of the House may not object to be amused, and are often, it must be admitted, easily moved to mirth. At the same time the members of that assembly do not place a high value upon the words of funny or would-be funny speakers.
Unless he has changed very much, Mr. Chamberlain has a very keen sense and appreciation of humour. Probably he would like sometimes to indulge himself and amuse the House by firing off some humorous hits and quotations, but he knows the importance of suppressing such instincts and tendencies if he is to be taken seriously and regarded as a statesman. Blue books and Biglow, Bills and Sam Slick, do not make the sort of political punch that an influential leader can afford to ladle out at St. Stephen's. At the same time, if he cared to indulge his own ready wit, or to make use of the amusing extracts he has stored away in his memory, he could doubtless make some lively and diverting speeches.
I remember when Mr. Chamberlain was Mayor of Birmingham, the late Mr. George Dawson at a little dinner proposed his health, and in doing so indulged in some characteristic banter and chaff. Mr. Chamberlain, then as now, was not a man of Aldermanic girth, and Mr. Dawson in the course of his humorous remarks took occasion to allude to his slight and slender proportions, and said he wished there was more of the Mayor to look at, and that he should like to see him "go to scale better."
When he rose to reply Mr. Chamberlain, in a quiet, dry manner, and without a smile on his face, remarked, "Mr. Dawson has been good enough to refer to me as a Mayor without a Corporation." This was so neat and smart that I need hardly say the company laughed most amusedly. Probably, if I had kept a notebook, or were now to search well my memory, I might give other instances of Mr. Chamberlain's smart, ready wit.
Now, however, as most people know, his speeches are remarkable for their point, force, logical reasoning, incisive language, and straight, hard hitting, but, as I have observed, he rarely if ever essays to be funny. By his sharp remarks and his adept turns of speech he often, however, creates much laughter—as, for instance, when he once spoke of an ex-Premier's opportunism and readiness to make promises which, when they ought to be fulfilled, "snap went the Gladstone bag"—but he never degenerates into anything approaching buffoonery.
Mr. Chamberlain is always prompt and straightforward in action, and is pleasant and agreeable in manner and speech. Moreover, he is a man of consummate tact. I remember in 1874, when he was Mayor, and the Prince and Princess of Wales paid a visit to Birmingham, there was much wondering and questioning as to how he would comport himself on the occasion. At that time he was credited with cherishing rather strong Republican sentiments. It was even said that he had been known to go so far as to remain seated when the loyal toasts were drunk. I certainly cannot say that I was ever witness of such a proceeding, nor have I been able to trace the statement to any authentic source. Still, there was a widespread idea that he was not overburdened with feelings of loyalty, and many people naturally wondered how he would manage decorously to entertain his Royal guests.
Mr. Chamberlain was quite equal to the occasion. In speech and manner his conduct was irreproachable, and he won golden opinions from all sorts of people. I remember that very curious stories were in circulation at the time as to the etiquette which, it had been laid down, should be observed on the occasion. It was, indeed, said that, in consequence of Mr. Chamberlain's supposed Republican sentiments, special regulations were enjoined, and that the formalities to be observed in receiving and entertaining the Prince were to be of an extra rigid character. I, for one, never believed there was any foundation for these silly reports, but, if any special formalities were prescribed, Mr. Chamberlain brushed them aside, and simply conducted himself with quiet, easy grace, always calm and self-possessed, and never fussy or needlessly obsequious.
Mr. Chamberlain entertained the Royal visitors and others at luncheon at the Society of Artists' rooms, and it struck me that if he had been a born courtier, and had been bred in the atmosphere of palaces, he could hardly have been more "at home" in the position in which he found himself. His speech, in which he proposed the health of the Prince and Princess of Wales, was a model of adroitness and good taste. Without giving himself away by indulging in effusiveness, or being carried away by the glamour of the occasion, he managed to make a very circumspect, clever, and appropriate speech, which, though closely scrutinised, brought no reproaches or even adverse criticisms from Republicans or Royalists. No doubt it was a somewhat scorching ordeal for Mr. Chamberlain to pass through, but he came out of it unsinged and triumphant, and was afterwards more popular than ever.
I have some hesitation in speaking of Mr. Chamberlain in his private and "at home" character, though in these days I hardly know that I need be very timid or scrupulous. The public has a ready, I might almost say a greedy, ear for personal details concerning the lives and habits of public men, and there are plenty of writers willing to gratify its desires in this respect, and that, too, with the knowledge and consent of the eminent personages themselves. Many people like to hear all about the characteristics of prominent men, and have a keen appetite for all particulars concerning their personal habits and peculiarities. They love to hear what a celebrated man eats, drinks, and avoids, what time he rises and at what hour he usually goes to bed; and even a little thimbleful of scandal touching his shortcomings, delinquencies, and, possibly, his small vices, is as nectar to the gossip-loving taste. To tell some people what they have no right to know is often to delight them.
Without at all professing to be in any sense an intimate friend of Mr. Chamberlain's, I may, perhaps, say that I have many times had the pleasure of sitting at his table, and a more genial and interesting host it would be difficult to describe. He is bland and gentle to a degree that might surprise those who only know him as a vigorous, fighting politician.
I remember that once when Sir William Harcourt was a guest of Mr. Chamberlain's at Highbury, he said that he went to stay with his honourable friend with feelings almost amounting to trepidation, but he soon found that Mr. Chamberlain was by no means the ogre he had been represented. Mr. Chamberlain eat his meals with an ordinary knife and fork; and he rose up in the morning and went to bed regularly like any other sane and well-conducted person. Indeed, he found him quite a tame and inoffensive creature compared with the rampant, rampageous autocratic being he had so often heard him described.
I do not pretend to quote Sir William Harcourt's words literally. I am repeating entirely from memory, but I give the gist of some of his amusing, characteristic remarks when speaking in the Birmingham Town Hall at the time he was Mr. Chamberlain's friend and guest. Certainly, I have always found Mr. Chamberlain a delightfully pleasant host. He is not given to monopolizing the talk. He does not dogmatize or lay down the law; in fact, when acting as host he is so mild, docile, and pleasant that a fossilized Tory, or even a fiery Nationalist, might play with him.
Sometimes I have been among a favoured few who have been asked to stay after most of his guests have left, and have a cigar with Mr. Chamberlain in his library. On such occasions there has been some rare good talk. I remember on one occasion the conversation did become warmly political, and there was quite a smart little tussle between our host and Mr. Jesse Collings. At that time Mr. Collings had a trifle more sympathy with Irish patriots than I fancy he has now, and with his naturally warm sympathetic feeling he was for liberating Mr. Parnell, who was then a prisoner at Kilmainham. But Mr. Chamberlain would have none of it. He maintained that Mr. Parnell and his friends had broken the law and must pay the penalty. He was quite willing to consider their demands, and what they considered to be their wrongs, but they must not defy the law. Yes, there was some pretty sparring between these two friends on that occasion, very earnest but, of course, perfectly good-tempered on both sides.
I have before remarked upon Mr. Chamberlain's self-command and imperturbability. Some persons are, perhaps, inclined to think that because he keeps himself so well in hand and so rarely indulges in sentiment that he is devoid of feeling and emotion. Not so. I recollect that on the death of Mr. John Henry Chamberlain—no relation of his, but a gentleman whose personal character, artistic skill, and intellectual gifts he, and many others, held in high esteem—a meeting was held to consider the desirability of having some memorial of one whose loss was so deeply deplored. Mr. Chamberlain took a prominent part in the proceedings, and I well remember how deeply affected he was when, in the course of his touching references to his deceased friend, he said, "I feel that his death, then, is the crowning of a noble life. He has been called from us in the moment of victory, and we who remain behind are to be pitied, for we have lost a great leader, and there are none to take his place."
"The task which is imposed upon us is certainly a very melancholy one. One by one our leaders are removed from us. The gaps in our ranks are becoming painfully apparent. Still, there is much work to be done, and we shall best honour those who are gone by endeavouring, as best we may, to continue and complete the work which they have so well commenced. In this spirit we may be content to bide our turn, hoping that when we, too, are called away our record may not shame the bright example of those who have gone before us."
When making these touching remarks Mr. Chamberlain's voice became tremulous with emotion. He evidently experienced the greatest difficulty in commanding his feelings, and when he sat down I saw tear-drops in his eyes. Never have I seen him so overcome, and it is only justice to him to cite this incident as showing that sentiment and feeling, though rarely manifested, are not foreign to his real nature.
With respect to Mr. Chamberlain's personal appearance his form and features are now well known, but for a time he was a somewhat troublesome subject to caricaturists. When he was first budding out into national importance the clever artist of Vanity Fair at that time came down to Birmingham to draw him. He succeeded in making a good caricature, but it was said that he found his task by no means an easy one. It was the nose, I believe, that puzzled the artist. Mr. Chamberlain has a pointed, slightly upturned nose, and some cynical people may be disposed to say that it has become more pointed and sharp the more he has poked it into political business. Anyway, it is a characteristic, perhaps the characteristic, of Mr. Chamberlain's face, and the skilful Vanity Fair artist caught it after a time, and just sufficiently exaggerated it to make a genuine caricature. Seeing, however, that Mr. Chamberlain was born to be a much-pictured man, one thing has stood him in fine stead—his eye-glass. When "Mr. Punch" first took him in hand he could make little or nothing of him, but the eye-glass saved the Fleet Street artists from failure. They found nothing they could lay hold of at first, not even his nose. They saw a man with a pleasant, good-looking, closely-shaven face, some dark hair brushed back from his forehead, but there was nothing they could hit off with success, and the only way they could secure identity was by the eye-glass. "Mr. Punch" used at one time to represent Mr. Bright as wearing an eye-glass, but I don't think he ever used one. Certainly I never saw Mr. Bright with an eye-glass, and never saw Mr. Chamberlain without one. Great and prominent men should have some characteristic peculiarity that should be their own special personal brand, and if they have it not, it must be made for them—as in the case of Lord Palmerston and the wisp of straw that "Mr. Punch" always put in his mouth. Mr. Chamberlain, however, has kindly obliged, and given caricaturists and others something by which he can be unmistakably "featured."
EXIT MR. CHAMBERLAIN.
In 1876 Mr. Chamberlain was elected a member of Parliament for Birmingham, and his municipal career shortly came to an end. It may be remembered that he made an unsuccessful attempt to represent Sheffield some little time before he aspired to become a candidate for Birmingham. He made a very plucky fight in the cutler constituency, and the Sheffield blades were hardly so sharp as they might have been in rejecting such an able and rising politician. Probably, if they could have peered a little into the future, Mr. Chamberlain's first seat in Parliament would not have been as a representative of Birmingham.
Mr. Chamberlain, however, was elected as one of the members of his adopted town in the year mentioned, and, as I have said, he retired more or less from municipal life. It may further be said that he relinquished his local position at the right moment. He was lucky as to the time in which he took up public life in Birmingham, and he was equally fortunate in regard to the period at which he quitted it. He had set afloat great local schemes, he had laboured assiduously for the good of the town, he had attained the acme of his local popularity, he was admired even by his opponents, and an imposing memorial was erected in his honour. After this, anything that might have happened would have been in the nature of an anti-climax so far as his local career was concerned.
When at some future day Mr. Chamberlain's life comes to be fully written, it will probably be noted as something remarkable that he should have done so much, and achieved such a position, while yet only a young man. For be it remembered, that after he had been for three successive years Mayor of Birmingham, had carried out the large and important schemes associated with his name, and had become one of the representatives of the town in Parliament, he was only forty years of age. It will also be noted that very soon after making his appearance in the House of Commons he quickly got his foot on the ladder and rapidly mounted the rungs that lead to pre-eminence, and in a very few years attained the position of Cabinet Minister.
What more he might have done for Birmingham it is impossible to conjecture had he remained longer our local leader. But he was called up higher. Perhaps this was lucky for him. The great enterprises, or at least some of them, were only fairly started when he relinquished his grasp of them, and it remained to be seen whether they were to prove all they had been painted. If they succeeded, nothing could deprive him of the honour and glory of having inaugurated them. If they failed, it was in his power to say that had he remained to carry them out the results would have been altogether different.
The working-out of some of his larger schemes and undertakings created, as I have already intimated, considerable soreness and friction in various quarters. They brought hardship on many persons and produced, at any rate for a time, considerable ill-feeling and discontent. The piper had to be paid for the great enterprises he had set afloat. With regard to the gas and water purchases, the former has returned a profit to the tune of L35,000 to L40,000 a year, and is now (in 1899) realising about L50,000 per annum. The profits of the water scheme are still more or less prospective, whilst the gains to be realised by his great Improvement Scheme are in the dim and distant future.
Any adverse criticisms on these undertakings do not now directly affect their author. He has taken up national in place of local work, and he has left others in Birmingham to carry out more or less ably what he so successfully began. Some of us are occasionally inclined to think that his brilliant example and career have inflamed some of our remaining public men with a desire to do heroics, and to follow his lofty lead in the way of promoting large schemes.
For instance, the city is now committed to a huge expenditure for the purpose of bringing a supply of water from Mid-Wales. There was considerable opposition to this very costly project, but it was at last carried, though only the future can decide whether it will prove to be an altogether wise and prudent, not to say profitable, undertaking. Experts and some far-seeing men are confident as to its future benefits. We are to have a good supply of excellent water, and we are to save a great many thousands a year in soap. Further, we shall be independent of merely local supplies, which, we are told, will be quite inadequate for our needs in future days. I am not in a position to controvert what has been said in favour of the project, nor have I reason to doubt that the scheme—especially under certain conditions—will be of great benefit and value to the community in the coming by and by.
At the same time it may, perhaps, be doubted whether the undertaking, like the Improvement Scheme, was fully comprehended in all its bearings when it was decided to apply for an Act of Parliament to carry out the Welsh water project. But its promoters having made up their minds upon the question bustled, I won't say rushed, the proposal along, and before many of the inhabitants were fairly awakened to what was being done, the initial part of the business was accomplished.
When, however, the matter was brought out more into the open in the Parliamentary Committee Rooms many of our townsmen opened their eyes and their mouths and pressed for a little time for the further consideration of this gigantic scheme. But the opposition was not strong enough to procure any delay; the advocates of the proposal had our most influential public men on their side, so the bill passed through Parliament.
Occasionally now mutterings of doubt and dissatisfaction are heard, and there are still those who prophesy evil in the future in consequence of the enormous outlay to which the city is committed. If, however, Birmingham grows and prospers all will be well. If otherwise—and the last census did seem to indicate that our progress, as measured by increasing population, was inclined to steady down—Birmingham will have a huge debt in the future which even a large supply of good wholesome water will not altogether liquidate.
Returning, however, to make a few further observations respecting Mr. Chamberlain, it may be said now that the voices of those who had any grudge against him for the daring innovations he made, and the bold undertakings he promoted, have become nearly mute. There are, however, some who speak disparagingly of him, partly, perhaps, because they are envious of him, and cannot complacently realise his rapid rise to the position of eminence he has attained.
Some of his former Radical friends and associates especially denounce in no measured terms his unpardonable heresy in departing from what they consider was his old political path. Vituperation is almost too mild a term to describe their expressed disgust when they see one who was, they believed, a man of the people consorting with royal dukes, belted earls, and even with the Sovereign herself. This is too much for some of the old full-blooded Radicals who are still found in our midst.
Very possibly some of these would do the same if they had the chance, for your thorough-going Radical is often a curious creature. I remember once being at a London theatre with a friend of mine who was a desperate and despotic democrat, and who has been a leading light for years among our advanced Radicals. Now it so happened that on the evening of our visit the Prince of Wales was at the theatre we attended, and I was greatly amused to notice how interested my democratic friend was in watching the royal box. When the performance was nearing the end he amused me still more by suggesting that we should hurry out and watch the Prince drive off. "I do so like to see that sort of thing," he added.
Mr. Chamberlain, however, is not the man to care what his foes or his old political friends think or say about him. Water on a duck's back is, I fancy, an oppressive agony compared with the right honourable gentleman's feelings when he hears or reads the condemnatory and abusive remarks of some of his former allies. If at any time he does perchance feel at all stung by any of the adverse criticisms he hears or reads, he takes care not to show that he is hurt.
Sparks will fly upwards, and Mr. Chamberlain has had his troubles, but he does not wear his heart on his sleeve, or carry his woes into the market place. I remember many years ago, under the stress of severe domestic affliction, he retired into private life for a considerable period, and it was said that during his self-imposed obscurity he sought occupation and solace in the study of Blue Books. Anyway, when he emerged into public life again he appeared as the author of a magazine article of an advanced political character, which seemed to shew that he had spent his solitude in studying and trying to solve some of the large political problems of the day.
In contemplating Mr. Chamberlain's remarkable career and his high rise in the political world, I am tempted to wonder whether he would have built his large mansion near Birmingham if he could have foreseen the immediate future. When he made up his mind to erect his house at a great cost he perhaps scarcely dreamed he would so soon become a Cabinet Minister. Possibly he looked forward to being little more than a local member of Parliament—for he is not, I fancy, a dreamer of dreams—and felt he should like to pitch his tent near to his constituency.
Anyway he built his house at Moor Green, which he called "Highbury" after the name of the district in London where he was born. The house is well situated, though in some respects hardly built upon a site worthy of such a costly residence. It stands on a piece of rising ground, and commands a good prospect. In the front of it are the Lickey and Clent Hills some eight or ten miles away, but in the mid-distance is a manufacturing suburb with several tall chimneys which are obtrusively conspicuous, and which behave as factory chimneys generally do, scarcely improving the prospect or the atmosphere. These disadvantages were, I believe, pointed out to him before a brick was laid, but he had made up his mind, and when it is made up I fancy it is made up very much.
The day may come when he may be able to spend but little of his time at his Highbury home, but he has children who will keep the house inhabited and well aired if he himself does not. His eldest son, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, M.P. for one of the Worcestershire divisions, is in training to walk in his father's footsteps, and to see eye to eye—or I might say eye-glass to eye-glass—with him in matters political. What the future of this eldest son may be it is not for me to forecast. He has made an exceptionally good start, but he will have his work cut out to follow successfully in the tread of such an able and distinguished father.
When people see Mr. Chamberlain pere in such prosperity, flourishing like a green bay tree, with a country house that has cost a fortune, a town house to maintain, and plenty of money to do a fair amount of globe-trotting, they wonder and ask how did he get such a lot of money? Well, I cannot say, because I do not know, and if I did know I should not tell. Doubtless he had something considerable from his father, who must have been well off, but as there were some seven children to share what was left by the late Mr. Chamberlain it may be assumed it was not simply what he inherited that made him rich.
Doubtless his wealth was chiefly acquired by his shrewdness, business capacity, and enterprise when he was a member of the firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain, and probably when he retired from that prosperous business it was with a sum of money which would, perhaps, make some of us blink with envious surprise if we knew the figure.
It is no secret that when he was engaged in business Mr. Chamberlain adopted a policy which created much comment at one time, and was, indeed, rather severely criticised. It was understood that he had set his heart upon making the trade of his firm as much of a monopoly as possible, and to this end he made it known to his local competitors that they must sell their businesses to him or be prepared for certain consequences if they did not.
Such a course of action was regarded as somewhat tyrannical, especially by those directly concerned, and it made bad blood for a time between Mr. Chamberlain and some of those with whom he was associated in public work. After a while his trade opponents came to the idea that it would be better to surrender at discretion than to enter into conflict with a firm that was in such a strong position, and had such a big war chest at its disposal.
It is hardly necessary to go into the merits of this trade question, or, indeed, to say anything about it now, as it is all a matter of ancient history. Indeed, I only refer to the matter because it formed an incident in Mr. Chamberlain's Birmingham career and left its mark upon the business that went up and the businesses that went down. Moreover, it is a little instructive and edifying, as showing how Mr. Chamberlain's combative nature manifested itself in his everyday life. He recognised, as other men have done, that business is not a matter to be played with, and that trade is in fact a commercial conflict in which one must whip and the other be whipped, and as he felt himself in a strong position, was on the box and had the whip in his hand, he was resolved to drive and to choose the pace and the road.
Live and let live is, of course, a very good and proper maxim, but it finds no place in the copy-book of sharp, smart, successful men of business. It is their aim and purpose to get money—without harm to others, if they can, if not, others must look out for themselves—that is all. In one sense at all events Mr. Chamberlain's tactics were justified. They were successful.
AND HIS BRETHREN.
Mr. Chamberlain having obtained such distinction in public life, it was perhaps only natural that some of his brothers should be tempted or induced to follow his shining star. Possibly they had no strong inclination to distinguish themselves in public, and were rather pressed to come forward on account of the influential name they bore. Anyway, some of them did appear in various offices and capacities, but without meaning any disrespect to them or any reflection upon their abilities, it may perhaps be said that they found their fires so pale and ineffectual compared with the brilliant light of their eldest brother—or it may be that they found public work comparatively uncongenial to them—that, most of them soon preferred to efface themselves and leave one of their family and his son to take all the honours and have all the court cards.
Mr. Richard Chamberlain took the most prominent position, and made the highest mark of all Mr. Chamberlain's brothers. He was Mayor of Birmingham in the years 1879 and 1880. During his years of office he was public-spirited and popular, and in the way of civic hospitality he made things lively and gay. He kept the Council House warm with his entertainments, and lavished so much money in hospitalities of one kind or another that he made it difficult for his immediate successors to follow in his wake, and none of them tried to do so. So far as I could judge of his character, Mr. Richard Chamberlain did not spend his money so freely for the sake of purchasing popularity, and certainly not for the sake of making ostentatious displays of his wealth. He was naturally generous and genial, and as Mayor of a large and important town he found many ways of humouring his bent, and he did not mind paying the piper pretty handsomely for his pleasure. As is well known, he was afterwards M.P. for one of the Islington divisions for some years. Ill-health however overtook him, and he died much regretted on the 2nd of April, 1899.
Another brother, Mr. Arthur Chamberlain, was a town councillor of Birmingham for a limited period, and owing to his business capacity he became a useful member of the Corporation. He did not apparently go into the Council to make a long stay, or if he did he changed his mind, and soon retired from municipal work. He has since spent his time in minding his own business; in strengthening, mending, and making certain public companies; in giving fatherly advice to company shareholders; and in dispensing justice, sometimes with pertinent observations, on the local magisterial bench.
Two other brothers, Mr. Herbert and Mr. Walter Chamberlain, have at times been induced to take a little hand in public work, but their efforts have been of a mild, modest, innocent character. Now, however, they have retired into that privacy from which they so timidly emerged. For many reasons Mr. Chamberlain's brothers were, perhaps, wise not to bid high for public place and position in Birmingham. People are apt to be needlessly suspicious of too much family influence in public concerns. There is always a tendency and a readiness to inveigh against cliques, especially family cliques. And at one time there was certainly a disposition in some quarters to keep a jealous eye upon Joseph and his brethren, lest they should acquire an undue amount of influence and power. One blunt, outspoken Scotchman, I remember, expressed this feeling in his own characteristic way by saying, "If we don't mind we shall be having too much dom'd Chamberlain."
The Chamberlain family, however, being more or less smart, spry men, were doubtless sharp enough to detect some inkling of this sort of feeling, and consequently they thought it better to silence any such cavillings by eschewing as far as they could public life, and contenting themselves with being brothers of a big man and sharing a little reflected glory.
Whilst mentioning Mr. Chamberlain's family I must say a word of his brother-in-law, Mr. William Kenrick, for some years M.P. for the Northern Division of Birmingham. Mr. Kenrick was Mayor of Birmingham in 1877, and a worthy and modest chief magistrate he made. A generous, intelligent, public-spirited man, he has always been liberal with his purse and his time, and has done much to further educational and philanthropic schemes. Mr. Kenrick belongs to a class some cynical people consider very "cliquey." It is, however, to be wished there were more such "cliquey" people in our midst, for they are always conspicuously at the fore in supporting by their influence and their money every good cause which has for its object the alleviation of suffering and the improvement of the people.
It is true that there was one important project inaugurated some few years ago that did not enlist their sympathy. This was the Birmingham Bishopric Scheme. But, seeing that most of the "clique" are Unitarians, they could hardly be expected to support a proposal for the benefit of the Established Church. It was a misfortune for that Church that the Chamberlain party and their friends were aliens in religious matters. Had it been otherwise the results of the proposed scheme might have been very different. The "clique," when they do support a cause, do it with no niggardly hand, and if it had so chanced that they had been Churchmen instead of Unitarians, the probabilities are that by this time Birmingham would have been in possession of a full-sized Bishop all its own, and possibly a fine, bran-new, costly cathedral to boot.
Owing to the lack of monetary support the Birmingham Bishopric Scheme is dead, or in such a very sound trance that it is hardly likely to revive. At its birth it was not very strong, and its early existence was jeopardised by conflicting ideas among its sponsors, chiefly caused by the difficulties in the way of raising all the money required. Birmingham, therefore, had to settle itself down and be content with a Suffragan Bishop, at least for a time, and this, it is thought, may prove to be a good long time.
In connection with the Birmingham Unitarians I may here, perhaps, appropriately allude to a matter connected with the growth of our modern city. The New Meeting House of the Unitarians in which Dr. Priestley ministered was situated on the east side of the town, and as the congregation was migrating westward they desired to have their place—I won't say of worship, but their place of meeting, nearer to their homes. Moreover, moved by the advancing spirit of the age, they wished for a more important and ornamental looking edifice than the extremely plain, I might say ugly, structure which their fathers had attended. Unitarians may appear to be rather rigid and frigid, but they have an intelligent appreciation of art and beauty.
Accordingly some forty years ago they selected a site on the west side of the town, and erected what was then considered a handsome place of meeting, which they called the Church of the Messiah, and which was opened in 1862. The architect of this Church did not seem to be unduly weighed down with Unitarian ideas. By accident or design he marked the edifice with emblems of the Trinity, for at the very entrance there is a large opening encircling three arches, which are suggestively emblematical of the Three in One.
The building of this somewhat florid structure, and the move of the Unitarian church from east to west, provoked a considerable amount of caustic comment and humorous criticism at the time. These advanced Unitarians were scoffed and sneered at for deserting the simple tabernacle of their ancestors, and one which was associated with the revered name of Dr. Priestley. They were also mocked for their greater iniquity in selling their tabernacle to the Papists. Yes, the New Meeting House of the Unitarians became a chapel of the Roman Catholics. They rendered to the priests the things that were Priestley's, as they were reminded by a facetious paper published at the time. But, however much the Unitarians may have been chaffed and sneered at for abandoning their old conventicle, they have lived it all down, and, if I mistake not, Joseph and his brethren, the Kenricks, the Oslers, the Beales, and others, now congregate in peace in their un-Unitarian-looking Church of the Messiah.
MR. CHAMBERLAIN'S ASSOCIATES.
Having spoken of his brethren, I may now refer to one or two of Mr. Chamberlain's friends and associates. Among these I will specially mention Mr. Jesse Collings, Mr. Schnadhorst, and Mr. Powell Williams. Mr. Collings, like Mr. Chamberlain, is a stranger within our gates. He is a Devon man by birth, but as a comparatively young man he came to Birmingham, and he not only came but he saw and he prospered. He entered local public life about the same time as Mr. Chamberlain, and they soon became kindred spirits. From the first Mr. Chamberlain seemed to take a special fancy to Mr. Collings—in American phrase, he "froze to him." They became a sort of David and Jonathan company limited, and although each of the partners may have preserved a certain amount of independence and individuality, in many things they pulled together in their work and policy like one man.
When Mr. Chamberlain took leave of local municipal life and went up higher, Mr. Collings was not long in following him, and now both have been for some years very familiar figures in Parliament. Since they first entered public life both men have in some ways mellowed down. Compared with what they once were, their foes at any rate say, they have both lost colour. They were once ripe, full-bodied Radicals, and now they are tawny Liberals, who have been bottled late—but bottled.
Although time and experience may have taught Mr. Collings many things, he probably retains more of the old Radical Adam than does Mr. Chamberlain. At one time he was regarded by some of his opponents as a political fire-eater—a democratic despot who would have decapitated kings and queens without a tinge of remorse, and slain wicked Tories with the sword. He was, however, never the ungenial, self-seeking, aggressive person some of his foes may have fancied him. He was always an affable, pleasant, agreeable man, who could be civil and even polite to his adversaries, especially when political fighting was not going on in front. But, as I have said, he has toned down during late years and has learned, as many other men have done, that there are large lessons to be learnt by experience, and that there is some virtue in expediency.
Of course a good deal of mud has been flung at Mr. Collings by some of his local friends in consequence of what they consider his political perversion, but I don't know that much of it has stuck to him. With some of his former allies it is not so much that he may have become more temperate in his views, or that he did actually abandon his absolute freedom and take a Government office. They might have forgiven these little backslidings, but in their eyes he sinned past redemption when he consorted with titled people, broke the bread of kings, and even suffered himself to be entertained at Sandringham. These were offences outside forgiveness in the eyes of some few of his former associates. With Mr. Chamberlain, however, as his friend and prototype, he probably feels that he can afford to smile at the sneers and jeers of those who, not being able to make much way up the political ladder themselves, take their revenge by pelting those who are climbing their way towards the top.
Among Mr. Chamberlain's working associates, Mr. Powell Williams has been a sort of "surprise packet." Poets, we are told, are born, and not made, but Mr. Powell Williams seems to have been made, and not born. At least, no one seems to know anything much about his early career. He appeared to burst upon the municipal horizon all at once, like a meteor emerging from outer space, but when he came in contact with the Corporation atmosphere he soon became ignited and fired by municipal enthusiasm, and, encouraged by those who perceived his capacity, he rapidly began to be a conspicuous luminary in our local Forum. He quickly distinguished himself in the matter of local finance, and indeed soon became Birmingham's Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Without being a brilliant or learned orator, Mr. Powell Williams had the gift of fluency, and he could generally be reckoned upon to get up at a moment's notice and make an effective speech. He could also do a little fighting if it came in his way, and in the course of his Town Council career he had one or two pretty bouts with some of his opponents. When he is not on the war horse he is a pleasant, intelligent, un-sour man, with a touch of smartness and humour which give point to his words. As is now well known, Mr. Williams was returned to Parliament for one of the Birmingham divisions. He became the successful helmsman in London of the central organization of the Liberal Unionist party. On the formation of the Government in 1895, to the surprise of many of his friends and acquaintances, he became a member of the administration. It was believed that he was well taken in tow by Mr. Chamberlain, but it may with truth, perhaps, be added that by his own energy and ability he placed himself in a prominent position where he could hardly be overlooked.
With respect to Mr. Schnadhorst, there can be no question as to Mr. Chamberlain's prescience in judging of the capabilities of men, and his quick appreciation of Mr. Schnadhorst's attributes is a case in point. The pre-eminence this latter-named gentleman attained in the political world was somewhat of a surprise to many of his old friends, and probably not least of all to himself. Doubtless at the beginning of his career he little dreamt that owing to his being taken in hand by men of influence; to unforeseen circumstances in the evolution of political affairs; and also, it must be admitted, to certain capabilities of his own, he would attain to the position of importance he somewhat quickly reached, and his name become a synonym for systematic political organization.
I knew Mr. Schnadhorst long before he blossomed out into fame. He struck me, and doubtless others, as being an intelligent, good, easy-mannered man, with a touch of "Sunday schoolism" in his character and manner. He was not brilliant, and he did not appear to be burdened with much originality. He seemed to be a pointless sort of man, apparently destitute of any keen sense of humour; a spectacled, sallow, sombre man, who would have been an ornament to a first-class undertaker's business. Certainly he was not one who, by his smartness, wit, cleverness, and courage would have tempted anyone to say, "There is the great political organizer of the future."
In his earlier life and in his own particular line of business he was not a conspicuous success. His heart was not in it or his hand either. Speaking from my own experience, he made me about the worst fitting coat I ever wore. Mr. Chamberlain, however, took his measure more successfully than he himself took other people's, in a sartorial sense, and soon saw that he would make up into something useful if the cutting out was done for him.
Mr. Schnadhorst as a young man began by taking a keen and intelligent interest in local public life. He came under the eye of Mr. Chamberlain, who quickly perceived that he possessed certain qualities which would prove useful and valuable if properly employed. He saw in him a man of aptitude and capacity, who had the suaviter in modo, even if he had not much of the fortiter in re—a man of method, persuasiveness, and industry, with a cool head, a safe temper, and a calm mind.
Of Mr. Schnadhorst's possession of the last-named qualities I once had a striking proof. It was on the occasion of one of Mr. Gladstone's visits to Birmingham. A great political meeting was held in Bingley Hall, and the immense gathering was in a fever of excitement. I remember speaking with Mr. Schnadhorst in the course of the evening, and was greatly struck by his self-possessed, quiet, easy manner. So far from being affected by the intense enthusiasm and feverish excitement that prevailed, he was just as cool and collected as though the occasion was some little tea party affair or a ward meeting, instead of the greatest indoor political demonstration ever held in Birmingham.
As already stated Mr. Chamberlain quickly perceived and plumbed to the bottom Mr. Schnadhorst's capabilities, and as he was bent on solidifying and systematising, or, in other words, "caucusing" the Liberal party in Birmingham, he thought he saw in Mr. Schnadhorst the organising mind and methodical skill that would be eminently useful in carrying out the work. Nor was he wrong. Mr. Schnadhorst proved to be all that was expected of him, and the political world knows the rest. How he became the great political machinist of his day, and how, by his zeal, ability, and method, he elevated "caucusing" or party "wire pulling" into a recognised system—I had almost said a political science.
Circumstances have changed since that period. Mr. Chamberlain made Mr. Schnadhorst, but Mr. Schnadhorst turned his back upon his maker. He was probably actuated by conscientious motives and convictions, although professional politicians may not, as a rule, be credited with being greatly overburdened with conscientious scruples. Still, Mr. Schnadhorst was, I think, generally credited by those who knew him with being an upright, earnest, honest man, so he may well be allowed the benefit of the doubt.
It must, I think, have cost him a struggle to part company with such a man as Mr. Chamberlain—with one who had put him in the way he should go, and which led him to such a commanding position of influence and importance. Anyway, from whatever motive, he was induced to forsake the rising star in the political firmament, and to worship Mr. Gladstone, the setting sun. The sun went down below the horizon, but we saw how Mr. Schnadhorst continued to work his political orrery with the major and minor planets, the shooting stars and comets, that shone at Westminster with such varied lustre, or wished to shine there if they could.
THE BIRMINGHAM BELGRAVIA.
Seeing how Birmingham has grown and prospered, it is interesting to consider what might have been the result if the town and its outskirts had not been fairly pleasant for well-to-do people to reside in. Fortunately, there is one extensive west-end suburb—Edgbaston—which forms a suitable, healthy, and desirable residential locality for the Birmingham upper classes. But for the existence of this well laid out—I was going to say genteel, but Heaven forbid—neighbourhood, a very large number of its wealthiest manufacturers and professional men would doubtless now reside some distance from the city. An increasing number of those who work in Birmingham now live—at least have their houses—outside its limits, owing to facilities afforded by the railways; but Edgbaston is still a rich, well-populated suburb within a very easy distance of the centre of the city. Mr. Schnadhorst, when he pulled political strings in Birmingham, regarded Edgbaston as a fine, good piece of vantage ground from an electoral point of view, since it kept so many rich residents within the pale of the town, and added so much to its influential voting power.
Edgbaston is chiefly, I might almost say entirely, the property of the Calthorpes, and the late Lord Calthorpe, also his predecessor, were wise in their day and generation, and they had agents who were shrewd and far-seeing. They saw the importance of reserving Edgbaston and laying it out as an attractive, quiet suburb, and the late lord at least lived to see it covered with leasehold residences, many of them—indeed a very large number of them—of considerable value and importance. When these leases expire, as some of them will now before many years are over, and the noble ground landlord begins to draw in his net, what a big haul he will make in the way of reversions of the properties that have been built upon his land!
Some of these Edgbaston houses are not only large and commodious, but are architecturally handsome and artistic. Birmingham has been fortunate during the last thirty or forty years in having two or three local architects who have not only possessed professional skill but also taste. The old square, solid, "money box" houses, so much esteemed by our fathers, are rarely erected now, but in their place residences of a more attractive design and artistic type.
The Gothic revival has spread to domestic architecture, and the old, dreadfully-symmetrical brick and stuccoed house, and the hybrid Italian villa, make way for residential structures with gabled roofs, pointed arch windows, red tiles instead of dull-coloured slates, and attractive detail and ornamentation. In looking at such houses, one can hardly fail to be struck by the difference that may be effected by using the simplest materials—but using them with discrimination and taste. One architect may plan a house which will be plain to ugliness, the bricks laid in the most severe and commonplace fashion, and the outlines of the design—if design it can be called—devoid of any grace or variety. No projections to break up the dull flatness and give light and shade; no attempt to relieve the unmitigated square, hut-like appearance of the building. Another puts a pointed roof to his house, pierces it with pretty windows that have form without diminishing the light. He runs some courses of brick work round his building laid in diagonal or otherwise diversified lines. He places a porch at the entrance which has a touch of picturesqueness, and the result is a house that is pleasing to look upon, has at all events a suggestion of form and appearance, and all without any corresponding expense, because he has used his material with skill and taste.
In Birmingham we have seen how much may be done in this direction in various ways, especially in the matter of the Board Schools. When the building of these schools was commenced the firm of Martin and Chamberlain were selected as architects. They had to design comparatively cheap buildings, for anything like extravagance in the way of ornamentation would probably have provoked much hostility. Brick and wood had to be the chief materials employed, but by using these with device and taste good schools were produced from an art point of view, and which, in their way, are a little education to those who attend them.
Possibly there are still not a few among us who think that because there is an element of design and attractiveness in the appearance of these schools money has been needlessly expended. Such persons insist upon it that only ugliness can be really economical, and that the simplest ornamentation or beauty of form must mean superfluous cost. The number of those who take this narrow view is happily limited, and is becoming less owing to the improved and growing taste for art that has been unmistakeably manifest of late years.
I have been led into this trifling digression by speaking of the houses now built in that suburb of Birmingham inhabited by the wealthier classes. These residents are, as I have said, better educated than their fathers, and they have different notions as to how they should live and what sort of houses they should live in. They are not merely people who are beginning to prosper and have only just emerged from the chrysalis state of modern civilization, but are citizens who have been prospering for some time, or are the children of men who have been prosperous, and they "live up" accordingly. They like their residences to be convenient and comfortable inside; but they also feel a little pride if they look attractive from without. Nor are tastefully-designed dwellings confined to Edgbaston. The example of our "Birmingham Belgravia" has spread to other suburbs, and if we go to Moseley, Handsworth, Harborne, and other places in the vicinity of our city we find houses of a very much improved pattern from an ornamental point of view compared with those of a bygone generation. Edgbaston, however, set the example in the way of Gothic house architecture, and the first specimen, I believe, was a house in Carpenter Road, designed by the late Mr. J.H. Chamberlain, and which was built for Mr. Eld, a partner in the firm of Eld and Chamberlain, now Chamberlain, King, and Jones.
I remember that the erection of this Gothic house created quite a little stir. To some eyes it was a very startling innovation. Pointed arch windows for an ordinary dwelling house, who ever heard of such a thing? What next? asked some square-toed, un-compromising, old-fashioned folks. The idea was indeed so novel that it did not take people by storm, and there was no immediate rush for Gothic houses. Gradually, however, people began to like the style, or their architects told them they must like it, and after some time residences of the new order began to be seen in many directions.
There are now a number of large, costly, handsome Gothic houses in Edgbaston, which will be, indeed, a goodly heritage for the ground landlord when the present leases expire—a fact that often gives rise to some serious thoughts and reflections. Many people feel very sore upon this matter, and wax strong and vehement upon what is known as the "unearned increment" question. I do not propose to lash this horse, which is every now and then trotted out and properly thrashed by reforming economists and others. "Unearned increment" is one of those accidental incidents of life which can hardly be controlled or reckoned with. Why should some men be sound and healthy and six feet high, and others weak and feeble and only four feet ten? Most unequal and unjust! If I have a field, and a town grows up to it of its own accord, and somebody offers me four times as much as I gave for it, I hardly see why I should be reckoned a thief and a robber if I pocket the proffered cash. To take another illustration. I may have on my house-walls a picture for which I gave twenty pounds. The artist has "gone up" since I made my purchase, and I am now offered a hundred and twenty pounds for my painting. "Unearned increment!"
But away with this question! I find I am getting the whip out, although I promised not to thrash this wretched old economic hack. Only just one little parting crack of the lash. Dealing with "unearned increment" being an impracticability, perhaps it would be well for landlords who benefit immensely by the accident of circumstances to recognise the fact that they do pocket a great "unearned increment," and be ungrudgingly generous in return for benefits received. If this were done the names of suburban landlords would not be received with such derision and contempt as they are sometimes now, and "unearned increment" would become all but an obsolete phrase.
THEN AND NOW.
Great indeed are the changes that have taken place in Birmingham during the past forty or fifty years. I do not speak merely in regard to the growth, appearance, and the commercial progress of the town and city, but in respect to the life and habits of the people—especially the better class of the inhabitants.
Half a century ago many of the well-to-do prosperous manufacturers were practical men—men who had worked at the bench and the lathe, and, from being workmen, had become masters. There were not so many manufactories then as now, and the leading manufacturers found themselves in the happy position of men who were "getting on" and becoming rich. Men as a rule are, perhaps, more happy when they find they are making money than when they have made it, and have nothing to do but to spend it, or to puzzle their brains as to how they shall do so. "Oh! Jem," piteously said a man I knew, to his nephew, "what am I to do with that ten thousand pounds a-lying at the bank?"