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.