Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Joris Van Dael and PG Distributed
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.,
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
When "getting on," men go to their various businesses day after day and
find orders rolling in and goods going out, and themselves prospering
and becoming better and better off, they are disposed to be contented,
well pleased with their neighbours, and well satisfied with themselves.
So with these old Birmingham manufacturers. They were well content,
genial, and hospitable. They did not give themselves any fine airs or
pretensions; indeed, they were often proud of their success and
prosperity, and would sometimes delight in openly boasting of their
humble beginnings, not always to the joy and delight of their children
who might hear them. They were sociable, hospitable, generous-hearted,
open-handed men. They gave bountiful entertainments, not of a mere
formal give-and-take character in which the feast largely consists of
plate, fine linen, and flowers, the eatables on the side table, and too
much remaining there. They delighted in welcoming their friends; they
liked to put a good spread on the board, and to see their guests eat,
drink, and be merry.
In my younger days I knew what it was to enjoy the hospitalities of some
of these wealthy manufacturers, and I can call to mind some little--I
should say large--dinners, in which I have participated, the like of
which are, I fancy, rarely seen now. Let me briefly describe one of
these informal, old-fashioned, friendly feasts.
My host would invite members of his family and some friends to dinner at
two o'clock, say. The dinner proper--which was a good, substantial, and
even luxurious meal--being over, we adjourned to the drawing room. There
the dessert would be laid out on a large round table around which we
gathered. Then would mine host call for his wine book--for he had a
well-stocked cellar of fine vintages. Turning over the leaves of this
book he would propose to begin with a bottle of '47 port, which was then
a comparatively young and fruity wine. This would be followed probably
by a bottle of 1840, and then we should come to the great 1834 wine, of
which mine host had a rare stock.
Sometimes we should hark back to 1820 port, a wine which I remember to
have had a rich colour and a full refined flavour, and once I tasted the
famous comet wine, 1811, which, however, had lost something of its
nucleus, and only retained a certain tawny, nebulous tone. On one
occasion I remember my host said he had some seventeen-ninety something
wine in his cellar, which he proposed we should taste, but for some
reason, now forgotten, it was not produced, and I sometimes rather
regret that I so narrowly missed the opportunity of tasting a last
century wine. Perhaps it may be thought from the procession of ports
produced on such occasions as I have described that we indulged in a
sustained and severe wine-bibbing bout. But it was not so. In reality we
only just tasted each vintage, so that we had the maximum of variety
with the minimum of quantity.
The wine ended, we betook ourselves into another room, there to enjoy a
cigar. Then would come tea and coffee, and a little music. Supper--yes,
my reader, a good supper would be announced about nine o'clock; after
that another little smoke, and about ten o'clock or soon after we should
take our departure.
Of course all this made up the sum total of a pretty good snack--I mean
a good, well-sustained feast--but whether it was owing to the excellence
of the viands, or to the fact that we took our pleasures not sadly but
deliberately, I for one cannot remember ever feeling the worse for my
little-indulgences. Perhaps something was owing to the glorious
continuity of our feasting and pleasure.
I also remember once being at an unfrugal, old-fashioned, festive dinner
at a friend's house, when one of the guests proposed our host's health,
and finished up by saying, "I shall be glad to see everyone at this
table to dinner at my house this day week." Considering there were about
thirty persons sitting round the mahogany this was a fair-sized order.
But it was no empty compliment. The dinner came off, and a fine good
spread it was, and as for the wine I seem to sniff its "bouquet" now.
Some of the old Birmingham men whose characteristic hospitalities I have
just described had, as is pretty well known, certain habits which,
looked at by modern light, would seem somewhat plebeian. For instance,
there were men of wealth and importance who made it their custom often
to go and spend an hour or two in the evening at some of the old
respectable hotels and inns of the town. They had been in the habit of
meeting together at these hostelries in their earlier days to talk over
the news, at a period when daily local newspapers were not published,
and they adhered to the custom in their advanced years and wealthier
position, and rejoiced in visiting their old haunts and smoking their
long clay pipes, and having a chat with old friends and kindred spirits.
All this has died out now. For one thing, most of these old inns and
hostelries have disappeared with the march of modern times. We have
clubs now and restaurants, also hotels, where visitors "put up," but the
old-fashioned inns and taverns have mostly gone. The present generation
of prosperous well-to-do men, too, are of a different stamp from their
predecessors. They do not take their ease at their inns after the manner
of their fathers. They have been educated differently, and take their
pleasures in a more refined way, as is the fashion of the time.
Some of them have been to public schools and to the university, and
they naturally live their lives on a more elevated level. As a rule,
they are good, practical, straightforward, worthy men, though there are,
of course, some who are rather amusing in their little pretentious
ways--as there are in all large communities. Many of these, finding
themselves well off, begin to discover they had ancestors. They name
their houses after places where their grandfathers lived or should have
lived. They put crests upon their carriages; they embellish their
stationery with a motto, and otherwise put on a little of what is called
"side." But Birmingham people are not worse than others in this respect.
In fact, I think there is less affectation, pretence, and snobbishness,
or at any rate as little as will be found in most places of the
standing, wealth, and importance of Birmingham.
Sometimes when I am visiting a newly-risen manufacturing town which has
lately blossomed out into a state of thriving progress, I am forcibly
reminded of what Birmingham was some years ago, and think of the changes
that have come over our city during the past thirty or forty years. The
everyday social life is in many respects different from what it was.
Young people, with a higher education and more advanced ideas than their
sires, keep their parents up to date, and it is the young people who
rule the roost in many houses. The hearty but comparatively simple
hospitalities of a generation or so ago are regarded as quite too
Young men who have been to Harrow and Oxford are not likely to look with
favour upon suppers of tripe or Welsh rarebits. They must, of course,
dine in a proper, decent manner in the evening, and there must be a good
experienced cook to give them a fair variety of dainties; or, at least,
of well-prepared dishes. Under such circumstances social functions have
naturally a tendency to become more formal, ornamental, and refined.
Many of the older-fashioned school mourn the decay of the very thorough
and hearty hospitality of times back, and have often complained that
they saw too many flowers and too little food at modern dinner parties.
Still, the knock-down entertainments of our fathers were often a trifle
too formidable perhaps, and did not always bring the pleasant
reflections that follow the more gentle hospitalities of the present
Before I close this chapter, in which I am comparing the present with
the past, I cannot help calling to mind features of Birmingham nearly
fifty years ago, when I began to look about me with my boyish eyes. I
made some general reference to these in the opening chapter of these
sketches. I will now just indulge in a few brief details. To go no
further than quite the centre of the town, I call to mind some important
places that disappeared when the New Street railway station was made.
I remember Lady Huntingdon's chapel--a place of worship that was popular
in its day--and seem to have a hazy recollection of the King Street
theatre (or the remains of it), in which was held the first evening
concert of the Birmingham Musical Festival in the year 1768. Cannon
Street chapel has been too recently removed not to be remembered by many
people, but I can recollect going to this place of worship when it was a
real old-type Baptist chapel, and where special disciples or devotees
were deeply immersed in religion and water.
Most of us can also remember when some unostentatious private houses
occupied the side of New Street opposite the Society of Artists' rooms,
and not a few of us can call to mind the dirty, slummy buildings that so
closely blocked up the back of the Town Hall. It was, indeed, an
improvement when these wretched houses were removed and the back of the
Hall was finished and opened out. It is, I believe, true that what
became the back of the Town Hall was really intended by the architect to
be its front. However this may be, the proportions of the north side of
the Town Hall are, I think, more symmetrical and imposing in appearance
than the south side fronting Paradise Street.
It is but yesterday, so to speak, since the Old Square, with its sedate
looking houses disappeared, including that of Edmund Hector, the friend
of Dr. Johnson, and many of us can readily recall to mind the
old-fashioned Birmingham Workhouse standing in Lichfield Street--that
poor, dirty thoroughfare which doubtless furnished a fair number of
occupants for the afore-mentioned institution. Looking forward as I
do--at least in my sombre moments--to the "Union" as being my ultimate
home, I feel a sense of satisfaction that the Birmingham workhouse has
been removed to a more salubrious and pleasant locality than its
unlovely quarters in Lichfield Street.
These are just a few of the more important changes that have taken
place, with one exception, namely, the disappearance of Christ Church. I
almost shed tears to see the demolition of this church and landmark that
had so many old associations. Some of these were not always of a
pleasant and joyous character, for in days past the Sunday services were
very long, and the sermons anything but short.
I hope my memory has not "berayed" me in making these little reminiscent
remarks. I did not make notes in my early days, and now in my later
years I may make little mistakes; but I do not think I have tripped very
THE CITY FRINGE.
It is my constant habit to take little runs into the outskirts of our
city, and when doing so I often stare with all my eyes as I note what
has taken place in a limited number of years. Districts hardly more than
a mile or so from the centre of the city, which in my boyhood were
fields and meadows, are now laid out into streets and covered with
houses and shops. Indeed, I sometimes feel very aged when I look upon
places where as a boy I went fishing for small fry, and now find the
river that afforded me such juvenile sport is, owing to the enhanced
value of laud, compressed into the dimensions of a fair-sized gutter,
with houses and small factories closely packed on its margin covering
every foot of ground.
I go in another direction, and scarcely farther than the distance just
named, and I come to a spot where once stood the fine large park (Aston)
which I remember was enclosed by a brick wall on every side. Scarcely a
trace of this extensive old wall can I now see, and the site of the old
park, or nearly the whole of it, is now covered with streets and
buildings. Aston Hall, the grand old Elizabethan house built by the
Holtes in the time of Charles I., still stands in a state of good
preservation, and is fortunately now the property of the city, together
with some forty acres of surrounding land, which is, as is well known,
used as a public recreation ground.
To speak a little more in detail, I am not the only person living who
remembers "Pudding Brook" and "Vaughton's Hole." The name of "Padding
Brook" was, in my boyish days, given to a swampy area of fields now
covered by Gooch Street and surrounding thoroughfares. Pudding Brook
proper was, however, a little muddy stream that flowed or oozed along
the district named and finally emptied itself into the old moat not far
from St. Martin's Church. Vaughton's Hole, to my juvenile mind, was
represented by a deep pool in the River Rea, where something direful
took place, in which a Mr. Vaughton was tragically concerned. The real
facts are--at least, so I read--that there was a clay pit, sixty feet
deep of water, situated near the Rea, and in this pit at least one man
was drowned. The place was named after an old local family named
Vaughton, who owned considerable property in the neighbourhood of the
present Gooch Street.
Where Gooch Street now crosses the Rea, I remember there was a
footbridge, and beyond that the river was a pretty, purling, sylvan
stream, with bushes and rushes growing on its green banks. A field walk
past an old farm house led on to Moseley Hall, which was looked upon as
being quite away in the country. As for Moseley itself, it was a pretty
little village in those days. The old village green, the rustic country
inns (of which the "Fighting Cocks" was the chief), and some low-roofed,
old-fashioned houses, backed by the parish church tower, made up a
picture which still remains in my mind's eye. The railway tunnel which
is now looked upon as only a long bridge, was then regarded as something
large in its way, and, perhaps, slightly dangerous, almost justifying a
little something strong to sustain courage when travelling through it.
Beyond Moseley Church was a pretty road to Moseley Wake Green, in which
were, if I remember rightly, one or two timbered houses and some
old-fashioned residences, surrounded by high trees. Many of these have
now disappeared. In another direction from the church was a country road
running to Sparkbrook, and near which were an important house and lands
belonging to the wealthy Misses Anderton, whose possessions have been
heard of in more recent days.
I now often visit Moseley, and change, but not decay, in all around I
see. The prevailing colour of the old village green is now red brick,
and the modern colour does not agree so well with my vision as the more
rustic tones of a bygone day; whilst the noise and bustle of tram cars,
the swarms of suburban residents that emerge from the railway station
(especially at certain times in the day), are fast wiping out the
peaceful, pretty Moseley of my youthful days.
These new old villages often present some curious anachronisms. A grey
old church, partly buried by a hoary fat churchyard, is surrounded by
the most modern of shops and stores; and a primitive little bow-windowed
cottage, with a few flower pots in the window, has, perchance, a glaring
gin shop next door. This is more or less the case at Moseley, and it is
pretty much the same at Handsworth.
I remember when old Handsworth Church stood surrounded by fields, and
now it is built up to with villas on nearly every side, and has a
neighbouring liquor vault instead of the old-fashioned inn such as often
keeps old parish churches in countenance and affords a place of refuge
and refreshment for rustic churchwardens, bell-ringers, parish clerks,
and the like.
Old Handsworth--how well I remember it--also Soho, and the remains of
the old mint, associated with the honoured names of Boulton and Watt.
Then there was that long straight stretch of road from the old pike at
the top of Soho Hill, along which were some large and important
residences, occupied by business men of Birmingham, who doubtless
regarded this Handsworth and Soho district as being quite out in the
country. The stretch of road to which I have just referred is now one
long street, or soon will be, reaching from the once Soho toll-gate to
the New Inns, and farther on, indeed, to the park wall of Sandwell.
Sandwell Park--ah, yes, I have a pretty distinct recollection of what
that was, also the Hall, in my boyhood days. The park, or portions of
it, still shews some signs of its past picturesque glories; at any rate,
it is not built over after the manner of Aston. The Hall, however,
scarcely now conveys an idea of the place it once was. I remember its
interior when it was the residence of its noble owner and his family,
and I recall the splendidly furnished rooms, the riding school, and the
gardens. I remember, too, that the Lord Dartmouth of the time of which I
speak was, like Mr. Gladstone, an amateur woodman. He used to like to go
about with axe and saw, and do a little tree felling and branch lopping
to please his fancy, and exercise his limbs and muscles. Sandwell Park,
as most people know, has now been deserted for many years by its titled
owner, and Sandwell Park Colliery, Limited, reigns in its stead.
But recollections of the past are making me "talky," and, I fear,
tedious. I could scribble and chatter about bygone Birmingham from now
till about the end of the century, which, however, as I write, is not
very far off. But, my gentle reader, you shall be spared. Most people
know that Birmingham is swallowing up its immediate suburbs, and the
process of deglutition is still going on. The city has had its rise, and
will have its decline some day probably, but not while people want pins,
pens, electro-plate, guns, dear and cheap jewellery, and while
Birmingham can make these things better or sell them cheaper than other
As for the centre of the city, I have already made some references to
the transformations that have recently taken place. A few words may,
however, be said about our modern street and shop architecture. In the
important new thoroughfare, Corporation Street--the outcome of Mr.
Chamberlain's great improvement scheme--there is a curious series of
shops and public buildings. Some are of one style, some of another, and
many of no style at all. The architecture in this thoroughfare
certainly presents plenty of variety--more variety perhaps than beauty.
There are the new Assize Courts--the foundation-stone of which was laid
by the Queen in 1887; they are built of brick and terra-cotta, redundant
with detailed ornament, some of it perhaps of a too florid character.
Near to our local Palace of Justice is the County Court, which is severe
in its simplicity, quasi-classic in style, and decidedly plain in
design. There are shops that have a certain suggestion and imitation of
old-fashioned quaintness, and there are other buildings that have a
tinge of the Scotch baronial hall style of architecture. Then there is
the coffee-house Gothic, the pie-shop Perpendicular, the commercial
Classic, the fender and fire-grate Transitional, the milk and cream
Decorated, and various hybrid architectural styles.
The buildings in this street have, as I have said, the charm of
diversity, and that, I suppose, is something to the good. Regent Street,
London, is a fine thoroughfare, but it will probably be admitted that
it is anything but unmonotonous in appearance or lovely to look upon
from an architectural point of view. The buildings in our grand new
street may not be beyond criticism, but there are no long lines of
buildings of the same heavy dull pattern from end to end. This arises
from the fact that the land has not been let in big patches to
capitalists or builders who might have erected a series of shops of one
uniform pattern, but has been leased to tradesmen and others who have
taken a few yards of land, on which they have built premises suited to
their requirements, and in accordance with their aim, tastes, or the
bent and ability of their architects. Hence the variety, charming or
otherwise according to the taste and eye of the spectator. Anyway, we
have in Birmingham a fine broad street which will, perhaps, compare
favourably with any thoroughfare in any other British city, with the
exception of Princes Street, Edinburgh. In the way of splendid streets
the Scotch capital must be allowed to take the plum.
THE FOURTH ESTATE.
I cannot say how it may have been in other large cities and towns, but
certainly the newspaper mortality in Birmingham during the past half
century has been quite distressing. I think that without difficulty I
could reckon up from twenty-five to thirty papers and journals that have
been first published and last published in the period named. I do not
propose to say much or to give a list of the dear departed. They were
born, they struggled for existence, and they died in the effort. That is
all that need be said of most of them.
There is, however, one defunct paper to which I must make a short
reference, partly because I remember something about its birth and
death. I refer to the _Birmingham Daily Press_, which first appeared in
May, 1855. If my memory serves me, the Act of Parliament repealing the
newspaper duty had not passed and become law when the _Birmingham Daily
Press_ appeared. Its first issues were, I believe, marked "specimen"
copies, which would seem to show that the new penny paper was really
published in anticipation of the passing of the Act.
Anyway, the _Birmingham Daily Press_ appeared in the year mentioned, and
considering that it was altogether a new venture, and that much had to
be learned by experience, it was a highly creditable production. It soon
made its mark, too, and became popular and largely read. And no wonder.
It supplied a real want. Its contents were readable and useful, and its
pages contained smart and attractive articles and papers that excited
notice and were much appreciated. Mr. George Dawson was connected with
the paper. Mr. William Harris was editor, or co-editor, of it, and on
its staff and among its contributors were some sharp and able writers.
With all these merits and recommendations it will be asked, why did not
the _Birmingham Daily Press_ succeed? Well, I do not think I can quite
answer the question. I can only say that judging by what I have observed
and heard literary excellence, good reporting, and able editing will not
make a paper commercially successful. If a newspaper is to succeed in
paying its way and making a profit, its business management must be in
experienced and competent hands. A daily newspaper is apt to be a deadly
drain if its expenditure exceeds its receipts--as the daily loss has to
be multiplied by six every week--and this tells up large in the course
of a year.
There can be no question that the _Birmingham Daily Press_ had a fine
start, and a splendid chance. But the chance was not turned to the best
account, and the promising start ended in a lamentable finish. This,
too, in spite of the fact that the paper became really well established.
Indeed, Mr. (now Sir John) Jaffray was heard to say that for a long;
time the _Birmingham Daily Post_, which was started some two years or
more after the _Birmingham Daily Press_, could make no impression, so
firm a footing had the latter paper obtained in the town. But Messrs.
Feeney and Jaffray had put their hands to the plough; they pegged away
with the _Birmingham Daily Post_ till it did make an impression, and the
proprietors being able and experienced in the matter of newspaper
business management, they stood very firm when they did begin to feel
their feet. They drove the town--not from pillar to post, but from
_Daily Press_ to _Daily Post_. They established their position, and that
position they have gone on improving unto this day.