Chamberlain Tower


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
University Of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT


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Statutory Address:
University Of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Birmingham (Metropolitan Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Chamberlain Tower, a campanile tower built in around 1909 to designs by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell for the University of Birmingham.

Reasons for Designation

Chamberlain Tower, built in 1909 to designs by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell for the University of Birmingham, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest: * as an integral part of the first university campus scheme in the country, at the University of Birmingham, designed by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell; * although being of a different design to the Great Hall and Quadrant Range, for its material integrity in the use of brick and stone; * as a reflection of the Chamberlains’ taste and their desire for the tower to resemble the C14 Torre del Mangia, Siena; * as a wholly intact building, including the original timber-panelled lift and clock mechanism.

Historic interest: * for its connection to the establishment of the modern University of Birmingham and its founder Joseph Chamberlain.

Group value: * with the contemporary Grade II* Great Hall and Quadrant Range designed by Webb & Bell as part of the specially-designed University of Birmingham campus; * with other listed buildings on the campus, including the Barber Institute, gatehouses and Ashley & Strathcona buildings.


The University of Birmingham had started life in the 1880s as Mason College, with premises in Edmund Street in Birmingham from which it functioned as a college of science. It later became Mason University College and received its charter in 1900 with politician, statesman and former mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain appointed as the first Chancellor.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) was a champion of Birmingham and lead figure in educational reform, and founder of the city's new university. He was an influential politician, although he never became prime minister. The strength of his associations with and contributions to Birmingham was critical to the naming of the tower. Chamberlain was sent to the city at 18 by his father in 1854 to help look after a new investment in the wood screw industry, developing the accounting side of the business and improving working conditions. In 1869 he turned to elementary education and was a co-founder of the National Education League. This led him into politics, but it was only after becoming mayor of Birmingham in 1873 that he entered the House of Commons in 1876 (when his term as mayor ended). In 1877 Chamberlain established the National Federation of Liberal Associations and years of political intervention and re-election followed, including his resignation from the Liberals in 1886. He was a Liberal Unionist from then on, and in 1895 with the formation of a joint Liberal Unionist and Conservative government, became Colonial Secretary. His former anti-imperialism changed course and he strove to expand the British Empire in Africa, the Americas and Asia. As Colonial Secretary, in 1896 he was marginally involved in the Jameson Raid in South Africa, but his desire for more British control over the country contributed in 1899 to the Second Boer War. After Britain’s victory in 1902 he visited South Africa to try and build a better relationship. Shortly after this, Chamberlain made an alliance between France and Britain - ‘entente cordiale’ - which ended years of fighting between the two countries. It was against this late-C19 background that Chamberlain also became the founder of the new University of Birmingham.

Chamberlain's early ideas for the growth of the university were focused on academic output, with architectural matters secondary, as he told the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, ‘What we want to begin with is brains and not architecture’. However, Carnegie was to donate the sum of £50,000 to the new university and thought differently. His gift was conditional on the erection of new buildings befitting the status of the new university.

A new site for the university was found in Edgbaston, on 25 acres of land given by Lord Calthorpe in 1900, and the architects Aston Webb and Ingress Bell were selected to design the new campus. Their plan for the university arranged the main buildings in a D-shaped arrangement, with a central great hall on axis with the main entrance to the campus approximately 400m to the north, and with teaching blocks radiating from the centre in a semi-circular plan. This plan had been informed by a study tour of various American universities such as Cornell, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, and Birmingham was to be the first British university to be formally planned in this way.

A central tower had always formed part of the plan for the university, but the detail had not been planned at the earlier stages of the university's development. Early plans had shown the architectural style of the tower to be more similar to the other university buildings, but the detail for the proposal came after a visit to Italy by the Chamberlains. Having toured the country, Mrs Chamberlain wrote, ‘we greatly admired the campaniles of the churches [in Italy], and it occurred to [Chamberlain] that it would be interesting to have a tower in the new buildings of the University of Birmingham...on the whole we decided that one modelled on that at Siena would be the most appropriate, though it is not a replica’. The tower at Siena is the Torre del Mangia, a medieval tower of 1325 - 1344 which stands adjacent to the Palazzo Publico (town hall), and on which the design of the Chamberlain Tower is based. The new tower was described in the Birmingham Daily Post as ‘the intellectual beacon of the Midlands’.


Chamberlain Tower, a campanile tower built in around 1909 to designs by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell for the University of Birmingham, based on the Torre del Mangia at Siena.

MATERIALS: the tower is built of red Accrington brick with Darley Dale stone for the dressings and parts of the upper stages, with a lead roof. The base is solid concrete.

PLAN: the tower itself is square on plan; it stands at the centre of the downward stroke of the D plan of the original university campus, and is aligned on the main north-south axis from the northern entrance gates to the Great Hall.

EXTERIOR: the tower rises from the ground to a height of approximately 100 metres; its lowest stage is faced in rusticated ashlar stone and contains an arched passage which passes underneath the tower on axis with the main entrance to the Great Hall to the south and the university entrance gates to the north. Within the archway are doors which give access to the tower; one directly into the lift and, on the other side, to the stair access. On the exterior face, beneath the cornice which surmounts this lowest stage of the tower, is an inscription which reads, 'THIS TOWER COMMEMORATES THE FOUNDING/ OF THE UNIVERSITY THROUGH THE INITIATIVE/ AND ACTIVE ENCOURAGEMENT OF ITS FIRST CHANCELLOR/ SIR JOSEPH CHAMBERLAIN'. The inscription continues around all four sides of the tower. Above this there are alternating bands of stone and brick, before the main stage of the tower rises its full height in brick.

Each face of the tower has three recessed arches which rise the full height of the main section, and which contain pairs of windows at intervals as the tower rises. Above these is a band of stone below the clock faces on each side of the tower.

Above the clocks the design continues much in the manner of the Torre del Mangia, with monumental stone corbels on each face supporting stone parapets above and the upper stages of the tower. The corbels here have round arched heads. The uppermost stage of the tower is again in brick with large arched openings denoting the bell chamber within, with a smaller section of stone corbelling above which then supports the pyramidal roof.

INTERIOR: almost the full height of the interior of the tower is a single open space, with wooden stairs and platforms which rise the height of the building and are supported on steel beams. The original lift survives with its panelled interior, and continues to provide access to the highest levels of the tower.

The eighth floor houses the clock, and the clock faces can be accessed for maintenance through hatches in the walls. The clock faces themselves are 5.2m in diameter. The original clock mechanism, by Joyce of Whitchurch, also survives. The tenth floor gives access to the parapet walk, and the bells are housed in the bell chamber at the eleventh floor.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
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Books and journals
Foster, A, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Birmingham, (2005), 240-245
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Joseph (Joe) Chamberlain, accessed 22/06/2020 from
'The Architectural Career of Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), Ian R. Dungavell, PhD Thesis, University of London 1999


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 11 Aug 2000
Reference: IOE01/02460/10
Rights: Copyright IoE Dr John Davis. Source Historic England Archive
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