Alternative views of the Chamberlain family

This week’s MBS blog comes from The University of Birmingham’s Archivist, Dr Helen Fisher. She shares some of the rich material from Chamberlain papers held within the University’s Cadbury Research Library. Helen will be writing about other finds in the archives on Wednesday.

Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher

July 1914 marks the centenary of the death of Joseph Chamberlain. Events planned by the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections over the next few months include exhibitions and the creation of new resource guides to the Chamberlain family archive collections. Research for these projects revealed both the expected and unexpected images of Chamberlain. We can see Chamberlain the young businessman and politician, and as the statesman in later life, gazing authoritatively to the camera through his monocle. We also see Chamberlain as the University of Birmingham’s first Chancellor in ceremonial robes, reinforcing his power and importance.

Yet the archives contain other photographs of Chamberlain which are relatively unknown. These are informal images taken by his third wife, Mary. Mary seems to have been a keen amateur photographer, gathering photos together in Kodak albums. Many of them depict scenes of family life at Highbury, Chamberlain’s residence in Birmingham. The photographs included here are part of a larger series and show Chamberlain with his granddaughter, Hilda Mary, child of his youngest daughter, Ethel.

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Hilda Mary was born in 1901, and her mother died in 1905. As a child she spent long periods of time at Highbury, where she was looked after by her aunts, Ida, Hilda and Beatrice, and also spent time with her uncles, Austen and Neville. Joseph Chamberlain is seen here as a fond grandfather, and Hilda Mary is clearly happy in his company. Mary Chamberlain presumably never intended these photographs for public dissemination, but perhaps wanted to capture members of the family relaxing at home, and to depict Joseph Chamberlain as an affectionate grandfather, in contrast to his public image.

These photographs suggest possible ways to use the Chamberlain archives to explore family relationships, particularly the substantial correspondence between the Chamberlain siblings. This material has been studied to chart the development of both Austen and Neville Chamberlain’s political careers but has not been widely investigated to study the lives of their sisters. Letters span the period from the early 1890s when the sisters were living in Birmingham and London, to the 1930s when Ida and Hilda were based in rural Hampshire and involved in local government work and voluntary social welfare initiatives in both health and education.

As well as documenting aspects of the sisters’ work, the letters express their views on contemporary political, economic and social issues, and discuss their social engagements and cultural lives. They also allow information about their friendship networks and their role within the wider Chamberlain and Kenrick families to emerge, including their relationship with their niece Hilda Mary.

A recent addition to the archives adds to the potential research use of the collections in this area. It consists of a set of picture postcards sent to Hilda Mary during the 1900s, annotated with personal messages from her ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa’ and from her aunts and uncles. Many of the postcards contain early tourist views of locations as diverse as Tenerife, Croatia, and Egypt. Taken together with the travel diaries of Neville, Ida, and Hilda Chamberlain they form useful sources for the study of the travel experiences of members of a wealthy middle class family in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are just a few examples of the kinds of material in the Chamberlain family archives; their research potential extends well beyond political history.





3 thoughts on “Alternative views of the Chamberlain family

  1. Not a comment really but an enquiry regarding the household arrangements at Highbury . Family legend has it that my great grandfather , George Whitehouse was Joseph Chamberlain’ coachman. I would like very much to verify this legend but I don’t really know where to undertake research. Can you assist ? Many thanks and apologies if this is not an appropriate area to make such an request.

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