Joseph Chamberlain was born in London to a successful shoemaker. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to the shoemaking business, and at 18 was sent to Birmingham to join his uncle's screwmaking business, Nettlefolds (later part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds), in which his father had invested. There were strong radical and liberal traditions among shoemakers, in his adopted home city of Birmingham, while the Unitarian church of which he was a member had a tradition of social action. It was not surprising that he became involved in Liberal politics. In 1867 he founded the Birmingham Education League (later the National Education League) and campaigned for free public education independent of the Church of England. He also turned the Birmingham Liberal Federation into an election-winning caucus.
In 1873 he became mayor of Birmingham, in which capacity he promoted many civic improvements, leaving the city "parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved". He was elected as one of the city's MPs in 1876, and swiftly rose through the parliamentary ranks, becoming President of the Board of Trade in the government of William Ewart Gladstone in 1880.
In the run-up to the 1885 general election a series of articles was published in the Fortnightly Review, written by some of Chamberlain's associates under his close direction. Chamberlain wrote the preface for the collected volume, called the Radical Programme. It called for land reform, more direct taxation, free public education, the disestablishment of the Church, universal male suffrage, and more protection for trade unions. This became the basis of the "unauthorised programme" which Chamberlain put forward during the election campaign.
The Liberals won the election, but fell just short of an overall majority against the Conservatives and the Irish Nationalists led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Gladstone offered the Irish a Home Rule deal, which Chamberlain opposed as a matter of principle; he believed that Ireland had no more right to independence than London did. He resigned from the Liberal government and helped to found the Liberal Unionist party along with Lord Hartington (later the 8th Duke of Devonshire) and other members of the Whig faction. Unlike the Whigs he did not immediately enter the Unionist government, even though he already had kindred spirits in the Conservative Party such as Lord Randolph Churchill. He probably hoped that Gladstone would soon retire, allowing him to return to the Liberal party as leader, but Gladstone remained as leader much longer than he expected, foiling this ambition and pushing him towards the Conservatives.
In 1895 he became Colonial Secretary in the Conservative and Unionist government of Lord Salisbury. He showed himself to be a keen imperialist, and as a key proponent of the Boer War he became a leading figure in the "khaki election" of 1900. In 1903 he resigned to lead a campaign for Tariff Reform, supporting a protectionist system of "Imperial Preference" in which tariffs would be levied against imports from outside the British Empire. The divided Unionists were trounced in the 1905 general election, and Chamberlain was the favourite to take over as their leader. However, in July 1906 he suffered a seriously debilitating stroke and never took an active part in politics again. He died on July 3 1914.
Winston Churchill called him "a splendid piebald: first black, then white; or in political terms, first fiery red, then true blue". This has been the conventional view of Chamberlain's politics - that he moved rightwards across the political spectrum from the left of the Liberal party to the right of the Conservatives. An alternative view is that he was always a radical in home affairs and an imperialist in foreign affairs, and even that these views were not in great conflict with each other - in both he rejected "laissez-faire capitalism". Even after leaving the Liberals he was a proponent of Workmen's Compensation and old-age pensions.
Joseph Chamberlain was married three times. His first wife Harriet Kenrick died soon after giving birth to their second child Austen. He married Harriet's cousin Florence Kenrick in 1868; she bore him four children, one of whom was Neville, and died in childbirth in 1875. In 1888 he married an American, Mary Endicott. Austen and Neville both became senior Conservative politicians.
He helped to found the University of Birmingham and was its first Chancellor. His papers can be found in the Library there, and the University's clock tower is known as "Old Joe" after him. He is also commemorated by Chamberlain Square in central Birmingham. A large iron clock errected in his honour stands in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, near the cemetery in which he is buried. His Birmingham home, Highbury Hall, is now a civic conference venue and venue for civil marriages, and is open to the public occasionally.