John Henry Chamberlain

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For other people named John Chamberlain, see John Chamberlain (disambiguation).
John Henry Chamberlain
John Henry Chamberlain.jpg
Born (1831-06-21)21 June 1831
Leicester, England
Died 22 October 1883(1883-10-22) (aged 52)
Birmingham, England
Occupation Architect
Practice Martin & Chamberlain
Buildings Birmingham School of Art
Highbury Hall
Projects Birmingham board schools
Corporation Street

John Henry Chamberlain (21 June 1831 – 22 October 1883), generally known professionally as J. H. Chamberlain, was a nineteenth-century architect based in Birmingham, England.

Working predominantly in the Victorian Gothic style, he was one of the earliest and foremost practical exponents of the ideas of architectural theorist John Ruskin, who selected Chamberlain as one of the trustees of his Guild of St George. Chamberlain's later work was increasingly influenced by the early Arts and Crafts movement.

The majority of Chamberlain's buildings were located in and around Birmingham, where he was a major figure in civic life and an influential friend of many of the Liberal elite who dominated the city under Mayor Joseph Chamberlain (to whom he was unrelated).


Chamberlain's first building within Birmingham – Shenstone House of 1855 – was the first High Victorian building within the town.

Chamberlain was born in Leicester on 21 June 1831, son of a Baptist minister,[1] and received his architectural training with a local practice. After further experience in London and a period travelling in Italy he moved to Birmingham in 1853. He designed two buildings for John Eld, the business partner of his uncle. The first of these to be completed, Eld's house at 12 Ampton Road, Edgbaston (1855) survives to this day and already shows many of the features that would characterise much of Chamberlain's later work: a gothic structure in polychromatic brick with finely crafted decoration inspired by natural and organic forms. The shop at 28–29 Union Street for Eld & Chamberlain has been demolished.[1]

In the late 1850s, he entered into a partnership with William Harris. This was short-lived, but the two men remained friends, and, in later years, Harris would marry Chamberlain's widow.[2][3]

Although Chamberlain continued to build in both Leicester and Birmingham (where he built the Edgbaston Waterworks whose tower would inspire the young J. R. R. Tolkien) his career failed to take off, and in 1864 he considered moving to New Zealand after being offered a commission to design Christchurch Cathedral.

Instead he went into partnership with William Martin who was already established as the city's public works architect, with Chamberlain taking the lead in design matters and Martin seeing to the more practical side of running an architectural practice.[4]

Chamberlain's belief in the value of individual craftsmanship and patterns inspired by nature (characteristic of the arts and crafts movement) together with his sense of urbanism and the civilising potential of cities (that was much less typical of a movement which generally abhorred the industrial revolution and viewed large cities as dehumanising) chimed perfectly with the progressive non-conformist ideology of Birmingham's ruling liberals, who sought to transform industrial Birmingham into a cultural centre to rival the great European capitals.[citation needed]

J. H. Chamberlain's rebuilt Central Library of 1882, demolished in 1974.

Together with Martin's contacts and business acumen this saw the partnership win a string of commissions to design civic structures throughout Birmingham, including libraries, hospitals, public utilities, major projects such as the cutting of Corporation Street and culminating in 1871 with a commission to design no fewer than 41 board schools in response to the Elementary Education Act 1870. Among the most important buildings were the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in Paradise Street, and the Free Libraries in Edmund Street.[4]

Chamberlain became the unofficial domestic architect to Birmingham's civic leaders, designing a string of prestigious houses in upmarket districts of South Birmingham including Highbury Hall – the home of Joseph Chamberlain himself, and now the official residence of Birmingham's Lord Mayor.

In January 1867, he was appointed to the council of the Birmingham and Midland Institute.[4]

Chamberlain died suddenly on 22 October 1883, shortly after completing the designs for what is generally considered his finest building – the Birmingham School of Art, which was completed after his death by William Martin and his son Frederick Martin.

He is buried in Key Hill Cemetery in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

Personal life[edit]

Chamberlain married Anna Mary Abrahams, daughter of Rev. George Abrahams, in 1859.[5] After his death, she married in 1888 his former professional partner, William Harris.[3]

Significant works[edit]

Highbury Hall, Moseley, commissioned by Joseph Chamberlain


  1. ^ a b Thornton, Roy (2006). Victorian Buildings of Birmingham. Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7509-3857-9. 
  2. ^ Holyoak 2009, p. 160
  3. ^ a b Anon. (April 1911). "The late Mr William Harris, J.P.". Edgbastonia. 31 (359): 61–70 (62–3, 70). 
  4. ^ a b c Boase 1887.
  5. ^ Boase and Brooks 2004.
  6. ^ Hickman, Douglas (1970). Birmingham. London: Studio Vista. p. 43. ISBN 0289798000.