Decorated initial I

n many ways the change from Early to Late Victorian England is symbolized in the names of two great cities: Manchester, solid, uniform, pacific, the native home of the economic creed on which aristocratic England had always looked, and educated England at large was coming to look, with some aversion and some contempt: Birmingham, experimental, adventurous, diverse, where old Radicalism might in one decade flower into a lavish Socialism, in another into a pugnacious Imperialism. . . .

In the seventies, Birmingham was best known as the seat, Chamberlain as the director, of an exceptionally vigorous experiment in political organization, and, more beneficially, in municipal order. Between 1831 and 1861 the population of the borough had almost doubled, and within the same years it had become, from one of the healthiest, one of the sickliest of English towns. In 1851 the physical welfare of nearly a quarter of a million people (less than 8,000 had the parliamentary vote) was supervised by one inspector of nuisances and one medical man, whose office, though unpaid, was on the grounds of economy allowed to lapse. In the diseases which come from dirt and pollution the Borough as late as 1873 held the record against all England, a condition of affairs which is partly explained by the opinion strongly held in the Council that sanitary inspectors were unconstitutional, un-English, and a violation of the sanctity of the home: in short, cost more than the ratepayers of Birmingham were willing to spend. Indeed, any one who wishes to understand why the legislation of the forties and fifties was so ineffective, and what the invincible resistance was that frustrated the energy of reformers, will find the answer as clearly written in the proceedings of the Borough Council of Birmingham as in those of any corrupt and languid corporation left over from the reform of 1834.

But it was in Birmingham that John Bright made his appeal to the boroughs to be ‘more expensive’ and his younger colleague’s municipal career was the answer. The purchase of a Gas Company in 1873, the adoption of the Public Health Act in 1874, the summoning of a Municipal Conference in 1875 are not things that show large in history. Yet if we put to ourselves the question—of all the doings of the mid-seventies, which in the long run mattered most? — we might find that our difficulty lay in deciding between the municipal administration of Chamberlain and the industrial legislation of Cross.

Related material


Young, G.M. Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Last modified 13 June 2018