Rt Hon Neville Chamberlain

The Rt Hon Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) was the fifth of six British Prime Ministers tailored by Henry Poole & Co. Unlike his predecessors Disraeli, Salisbury, Rosebery and Asquith and his successor Winston Churchill, Chamberlain was not a flamboyant man or a grandstanding politician. Aged forty-nine, he was a late-comer to the House of Commons when he first became an MP in 1918 and Chamberlain waited a further nineteen years before he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister in 1937. It was Chamberlain’s misfortune to negotiate the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938 and return to Britain promising ‘Peace in our time’ only for the Germans to invade Poland in 1939 forcing Britain to declare war.

Chamberlain was born into a political dynasty; his father Joseph serving as a cabinet minister and his half brother Austen a Chancellor of the Exchequer and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Educated at Rugby and Mason College (the future University of Birmingham), twenty-one-year old Chamberlain was shipped out to the Bahamas by his father for six years to manage a plantation that the family had speculated on. The endeavour was a failure and Chamberlain returned to Birmingham where he spent seventeen years as a director of shipping manufacturer Hoskins & Company. He married Anne Cole in 1910 who encouraged Chamberlain to become active in municipal politics. He became Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1915.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who would emerge as Chamberlain’s political Nemesis, invited him to be Director of National Service in 1916 but he resigned in under a year. Having entered Parliament in 1918, Chamberlain was appointed new Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s Chancellor of the Exchequer; a position he held briefly but would return to in 1931 under Ramsay MacDonald. After his resignation as Prime Minister in 1940, Chamberlain reflected on his early career in the Palace of Westminster saying ‘it was the hope of doing something to improve conditions of life for the poorer people that brought me at past middle life into politics’. This he did with the 1929 Poor Law and the Factories Act of 1937.

As Chancellor from 1931 to his appointment as Prime Minister in 1938, Chamberlain demonstrated a patrician disdain for the Labour opposition. Future Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee said ‘he always treated us like dirt’ and Chamberlain had expressed ‘an utter contempt for their lamentable stupidity’. In 1933 he tried to negotiate the cancellation of Britain’ war debt with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who scuppered notion. But the British economy was sufficiently robust in 1934 for Chamberlain to tell the House of Commons ‘We have now finished the story of Bleak House and are sitting down this afternoon to enjoy the first chapter of Great Expectations’.

By 1936 Stanley Baldwin’s government was threatened on two fronts by the rise of Nazi Germany and the Abdication Crisis. In his diaries, Chamberlain judged Mrs Simpson ‘an entirely unscrupulous woman who is not in love with the King (Edward VIII) but is exploiting him for her own purposes. She has already ruined him in money and jewels’. He and Baldwin agreed that the King must abdicate if he married twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. Two weeks after the ex-King’s brother George VI was crowned in 1937, Baldwin resigned and Neville Chamberlain was invited to form a government.

Whether as a consequence of his support for the abdication or not, King George VI remained a staunch supporter of Chamberlain during his tenure as Prime Minister. After the Anschluss when Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, Chamberlain’s government supported appeasement with the Prime Minister saying ‘we should seek by all means in our power to avoid war by analysing the possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will’. Chamberlain lobbied for a last ditch meeting with Hitler in September/October 1938 and returned from the Munich Conference to London in triumph promising peace in our time and telling the nation ‘I recommend you go home and sleep quietly in your beds’.

On the 1st of September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and Prime Minister Chamberlain declared that Britain was at war with Germany. In his statement to the House of Commons, Chamberlain said ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins’. By 1940 Chamberlain was reading his resignation speech to make way for Winston Churchill. In it he urged the British people to fight ‘until this wild beast, which has sprung out of his lair upon us, has been finally disarmed and overthrown’.

Reeling from what he called his ‘reverse of fortune’, Neville Chamberlain was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer and died in November 1940. He was buried in Westminster Abbey as Churchill eulogised ‘we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged’. In a curious footnote found in Henry Poole’s ledgers, Mrs Neville Chamberlain was still being billed £17 annually as late as 1953 (thirteen years after her husband’s death) for ‘preserving a black cloth lined musquash (fur) coat’ made by the firm for the former Prime Minister.

(c) James Sherwood

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