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A black and white photograph of Neville Chamberlain.

The story of Neville Chamberlain MP

Neville Chamberlain sometimes remembered as the Prime Minister who fatally failed to stand up to Adolf Hitler, but is this legacy fair?

Explore England and Wales on the eve of war with the 1939 Register

Arthur Neville Chamberlain was born on 18th March 1869 at Southbourne House in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham. Born into a political family, he was the youngest son of Joseph Chamberlain, a Liberal Cabinet minister and Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the half-brother of Austen Chamberlain, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

After receiving his education at Rugby and Mason College, Chamberlain left for the Bahamas at the age of 21 to establish a sisal plantation on Andros Island on behalf of his father

After receiving his education at Rugby and Mason College, Chamberlain left for the Bahamas at the age of 21 to establish a sisal plantation on Andros Island on behalf of his father. The plantation was a failure and he returned to Birmingham six years later where he became a leading manufacturer of metal ship berths.

He was elected as a local councillor in 1911 and became Lord Mayor in 1915. The following year, David Lloyd George appointed him Director General of the Department of National Service, however the pair had a fraught relationship and Chamberlain resigned within the year.

A black-and-white photograph of Neville Chamberlain standing in front of a crowd and lifting his hat to them.
Chamberlain arrives in Munich, 1938

In 1918 he was elected as the Conservative MP for Ladywood but refused to serve under Lloyd George in coalition government. In 1922 he became Postmaster General, was made Minister of Health within months and Chancellor of the Exchequer all in little more than a year. All these remarkable achievements were made within 5 years of him entering Parliament.

His Local Government Act of 1929 reformed the Poor Law, effectively laying the foundations of the welfare state. In 1931 Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald appointed Chamberlain Chancellor in his national government, and Stanley Baldwin retained him in turn.

His Local Government Act of 1929 reformed the Poor Law, effectively laying the foundations of the welfare state.

In May 1937 he succeeded Baldwin as Prime Minister, and was elected Conservative leader. By this stage, Spain was engulfed in a bitter civil war and it was clear that a larger conflict was brewing in Europe. With the appalling losses of the First World War still fresh in the nations memory, Chamberlain was determined not to go down in history as the Prime Minister who led his country into yet another horrifically destructive war without doing everything possible to prevent it. Chamberlain was dedicated to restoring peace at almost any price.

Chamberlain was determined not to go down in history as the Prime Minister who led his country into yet another horrifically destructive war without doing everything possible to prevent it. Chamberlain was dedicated to restoring peace at almost any price.

In 1938 he met with Adolf Hitler in Munich to discuss a peaceful resolution to the Anschluß of Austria and Germany’s border disputes with Czechoslovakia. The result of this meeting was an agreement that Britain and Germany would never again go to war and Chamberlain left feeling reassured. He declared on his return to the UK “I believe it is peace for our time”. However, the success of ‘appeasement’ was short-lived, as Hitler occupied Prague the following year.

A black-and-white photograph of Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler walking out of a grand entrance-way. In the background, other gentlemen in suits converse.
Chamberlain meets Adolf Hitler to negotiate the Munich Agreement, 1938

Chamberlain was still reluctant to lead Britain into yet another European conflict but the invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939 forced his hand and war was declared two days later. He soon came under attack from all political sides after the disastrous first months of war, when the German Blitzkrieg made astonishing gains. Lacking support and confidence, Chamberlain was unable to form a national government and resigned in May 1940 after the failure of the British efforts to liberate Norway.

Bowel cancer struck soon after his resignation, forcing him to leave Winston Churchill’s coalition government. On his death bed he gathered the strength to whisper “approaching dissolution brings relief” before passing away on 9th November 1940 at the age of 71.

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