Field Marshal Sir Neville Bowles Chamberlain (January 10, 1820-February 3, 1902), a significant figure in Britain’s wars on the Indian subcontinent, was the only person to have been appointed to the highest rank in the British Army while a member of a Unitarian church.
Neville Bowles Chamberlain was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the second of five sons of Henry Chamberlain, the British consul general in the city, and his second wife, Anna Eugenia. These sons formed a military dynasty. The eldest, William, became an admiral, the third and fourth sons generals in India, and the fifth, Francis, a colonel in the Bombay staff corps. Francis’s son, Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain (1856-1944) also became a colonel in the army in India, where in 1875 he invented what is now the international game of snooker.
Headstrong and with no apparent intellectual ability, Neville was withdrawn soon after he entered the Royal Military Academy in 1833. Undeterred, he obtained through family connections a commission as an ensign in the East India Company’s army and joined the infantry at Lucknow in 1838; his younger brother Crawford was in the same regiment. Army life suited Neville. During the next four years he distinguished himself in the invasion of Afghanistan and was wounded six times. His reckless bravery brought him to the attention of senior officers. Although still suffering from a wound, he took part in the battle of Maharajpur in 1843. In 1845 he was ordered to return to England to recover his health. Promotions quickly followed his return to India in 1846: by 1848, at the outset of the second Anglo-Sikh war, he was a cavalry brigade major. He continued his daring exploits; he seemed oblivious of the dangers of warfare and hand-to-hand fighting.
By 1854 he was a brigadier. At the commencement of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 Chamberlain was appointed adjutant-general of the Bengal army. At Delhi he led his men in a charge at and over a fortified position and was wounded in the shoulder. In 1858 and 1859 he led further actions as commander in Afghanistan. He was wounded again in the arm in fierce fighting against the Wahabi in 1863. He was knighted the same year, and, in 1864, as soon as he was fit to travel, returned to England.
In May 1873 he married Charlotte Curler. They had no children. In 1876 Chamberlain returned to India to take command of the Madras army. He was appointed a full general the following year. He retired from this post in 1881 and lived the rest of his life quietly on his estate at Lordswood near Southampton, England.
Chamberlain was a complicated character. Despite his many military actions he was not proud of the death and destruction he had wrought. After the burning of Istalif in 1842, he reported that he was ‘disgusted with myself, the world, and above all, with my cruel profession.’ A member of the Liberal Party, he held political views different from those of his brothers. Towards the end of his life he opposed British Government war and internment policy in South Africa. A contemporary noted that, although he was a strict disciplinarian and had a strong temper in warlike conditions, he was quiet and had a retiring disposition in private life.
During the ministry of Iden Payne, 1874-1876, Chamberlain began to attend Southampton Unitarian Church. Although he supported the Unitarian church, during his wife’s lifetime he accompanied her to the Church of England. After she died, in 1896, he regularly attended the Unitarian church. He donated £1000 to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and gave another thousand to create a trust fund for the Southampton church. ‘His simple-hearted modesty and intense dislike of anything in the nature of parade prevented his ever coming forward as a personal leader of our cause’, wrote Henry Shaen Solly, minister, 1882-88. ‘We may indeed be proud of having such a man in our household of faith.’
In a letter to Rev J Arthur Pearson in 1898 Chamberlain wrote, ‘the longer I live the more do I hold that the life and works Jesus Christ, as given in the new testament afford no sanction for the doctrine of a trinity. Had such a dogma been indispensable for salvation, can it be conceived that Christ, who said he came to teach God’s law to man, would have failed to reveal this fact to his hearers? It is incredible that he would have failed to dwell upon this fact, and thus have left a legacy to man to unravel which has for nigh two thousand years been the source of so much conflict to mankind.’
In 1900, at the age of eighty, Chamberlain was made a field marshal. Following his death, despite his specific instructions to the contrary, he was given a massive military funeral at Rownhams Parish Church. There were many generals present, and a personal representative of the Kaiser. Within this Anglican church one of the main pews was reserved for Unitarians, a rare happening; it was filled with local and national representatives. The Southampton News and Hampshire Express added, ‘His piety was simple and sincere. He defended his absence from the Established Church on the ground that “he could not worship according to the Anglican faith and then to God with another.” He preferred frankness in this matter as in all others.’
Sir Neville had no family connection with Joseph Chamberlain, also a Unitarian, and resented others attempting to make a connection. They may have met on state occasions, but there is no evidence to prove that they did so. Apart from membership in a Unitarian church, they had little in common.
Chamberlain’s papers, limited to his military and related activity, are located in the British Library, The British National Archives, Cambridge University Library and the Huntington Library. The only known manuscript on his religious views, quoted in the text, is in the Pearson Papers at Dr Williams’s Library, London. Biographies and biographical articles include G W Forrest, Life of Field Marshal Sir Neville Chamberlain (1909); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); and Alan Ruston, ‘The Unitarian Field Marshal’, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1993). There are many obituaries. Among them are: The Times (19, 20 February 1902 and 10 March 1902); Inquirer (22 February 1902); Christian Life (22 February 1902 and 1 March 1902); Burke’s Peerage (1907); Hampshire Advertiser, Hampshire Independent, Southampton News and Hampshire Express (all 22 February 1902); and Southern Unitarian Association Chronicle (January 1937). See also the appendix to ‘Annual Report’, British & Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated (2004).
Article by Alan Ruston
Posted January 12, 2005