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.