Early life and political career (1869–1918)
Childhood and businessman
Chamberlain was born on 18 March 1869 in a house called Southbourne in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham. He was the only son of the second marriage of Joseph Chamberlain, who later became Mayor of Birmingham and a Cabinet minister. His mother was Florence Kenrick, cousin to William Kenrick MP; she died when he was a small boy. Joseph Chamberlain had had another son, Austen Chamberlain, by his first marriage. Neville Chamberlain was educated at Rugby School. Joseph Chamberlain then sent Neville to Mason College (taking external exams of the University of London). Neville Chamberlain had little interest in his studies there, and in 1889 his father apprenticed him to a firm of accountants. Within six months he became a salaried employee.
In an effort to recoup diminished family fortunes, Joseph Chamberlain sent his younger son to establish a sisal plantation on Andros Island in the Bahamas. Neville Chamberlain spent six years there but the plantation was a failure, and Joseph Chamberlain lost £50,000.[a]
On his return to England, Neville Chamberlain entered business, purchasing (with assistance from his family) Hoskins & Company, a manufacturer of metal ship berths. Chamberlain served as managing director of Hoskins for 17 years during which time the company prospered. He also involved himself in civic activities in Birmingham. In 1906, as Governor of Birmingham's General Hospital, and along with "no more than fifteen" other dignitaries, Chamberlain became a founding member of the national United Hospitals Committee of the British Medical Association.
At forty, Chamberlain was expecting to remain a bachelor, but in 1910 he fell in love with Anne Cole, a recent connection by marriage, and married her the following year. They met through his Aunt Lilian, the Canadian-born widow of Joseph Chamberlain's brother Herbert, who in 1907 had married Anne Cole's uncle Alfred Clayton Cole, a director of the Bank of England.
She encouraged and supported his entry into local politics and was to be his constant companion, helper, and trusted colleague, fully sharing his interests in housing and other political and social activities after his election as an MP. The couple had a son and a daughter.
Entry into politics
Chamberlain initially showed little interest in politics, though his father and half-brother were in Parliament. During the "Khaki election" of 1900 he made speeches in support of Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists. The Liberal Unionists were allied with the Conservatives and later merged with them under the name "Unionist Party", which in 1925 became known as the "Conservative and Unionist Party". In 1911, Neville Chamberlain successfully stood as a Liberal Unionist for Birmingham City Council for the All Saints' Ward, located within his father's parliamentary constituency.
Chamberlain was made chairman of the Town Planning Committee. Under his direction, Birmingham soon adopted one of the first town planning schemes in Britain. The start of the First World War in 1914 prevented implementation of his plans. In 1915, Chamberlain became Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Apart from his father Joseph, five of Chamberlain's uncles had also attained the chief Birmingham civic dignity: they were Joseph's brother Richard Chamberlain, William and George Kenrick, Charles Beale, who had been four times Lord Mayor and Sir Thomas Martineau. As a Lord Mayor in wartime, Chamberlain had a huge burden of work and he insisted that his councillors and officials work equally hard. He halved the Lord Mayor's expense allowance and cut back on the number of civic functions expected of the incumbent. In 1915, Chamberlain was appointed a member of the Central Control Board on liquor traffic.
In December 1916, Prime Minister David Lloyd George offered Chamberlain the new position of Director of National Service, with responsibility for co-ordinating conscription and ensuring that essential war industries were able to function with sufficient workforces. His tenure was marked by conflict with Lloyd George; in August 1917, having received little support from the Prime Minister, Chamberlain resigned. The relationship between Chamberlain and Lloyd George would, thereafter, be one of mutual hatred.
Chamberlain decided to stand for the House of Commons, and was adopted as Unionist candidate for Birmingham Ladywood. After the war ended, a general election was called almost immediately. The campaign in this constituency was notable because his Liberal Party opponent was Mrs Margery Corbett Ashby, one of the seventeen women candidates who stood for Parliament at the first election at which women were eligible to do so. Chamberlain reacted to this intervention by being one of the few male candidates to specifically target women voters deploying his wife, issuing a special leaflet headed "A word to the Ladies" and holding two meetings in the afternoon. Chamberlain was elected with almost 70% of the vote and a majority of 6,833. He was 49 years old, which remains to date the greatest age at which any future Prime Minister has first been elected to the Commons.