John Corbett - his family life and how he built his industrial empire
John Corbett was born to Joseph and Hannah Corbett at The Delph, Brierley Hill in the Black Country in June, 1817. He was christened at St Michael’s Church, Brierley Hill on the 29th June, 1817. The eldest of six children, five sons and one daughter, John was educated at a school in Brierley Hill, run by Mr Geary but left when he was 11 years of age to work for his father’s canal boat business.
Having always had an interest in engineering, at the age of 23 in 1840 he apprenticed himself for six years to Hunt and Brown of the Leys Ironworks, Brockmoor, near Stourbridge. At the end of his apprenticeship John became a partner in the family business, adopting the trading title of Joseph Corbett and Son. He was not keen to return to working on the canal boats and about 1845 became involved with The British Alkali Company and Imperial Salt & Alkali Company, both based at Stoke Prior, where he found employment on a part-time basis.
Brine had been discovered at Stoke Prior in 1825, the same year as the dreaded Salt Tax was abolished. Both companies were in financial difficulties due to fresh water entering the deep wells and diluting the strength of the brine. As a result the quality of the goods they produced was reduced and profits slumped. Many investors suddenly found that they were getting no return on their money. There was also immense competition from other salt manufacturers, both English and foreign. Experts were called in to try to solve the problem, but after a long period, and at great expense could find no possible solution to the problems with the brine wells. In 1851 the Imperial Salt Company’s works was put up for sale, followed in 1852 by British Alkali’s works. The headline in one London financial paper read “shun the wells of Stoke as you would shun sin”.
By 1852 the canal boat system was beginning to be superseded by the railways, and so the decision was made to sell the Corbett family business. By February 1854 Corbett had invested his share of the profits by buying six acres of land which had formerly belonged to the British Alkali Company. John’s task now began where the experts had left off. He had little use for experts. “Those who failed before me were the only advisers I ever had” he reminisced many years later. With his own engineering knowledge, and the help of a handful of men he knew he could trust, he set about relining the wells at Stoke Prior, and then successfully re-sealed them. He improved methods of manufacture and marketing, and over the next few years completed the purchase of British Alkali Company and leased Imperial Salt Company property in 1858, later purchasing it for £25,000. Corbett decided to produce only salt at Stoke Prior, in three grades from coarse to fine. Gradually the old works were taken down and replaced by new buildings. Eventually his Salt Works were to become the largest in Europe. At the end of the first year 26,000 tons of salt had been manufactured, gradually increasing to over 200,000 tons per year.
John Corbett soon gained a reputation as a Model Employer, and was first to do away with female labour. He dismissed all female staff from the Salt Works in 1860, at the same time building a new village with houses for his workers, raising the wages of the male employees, and then increasing them by a further 15%. A chaplain and medical attendant were employed to look after the workers spiritual and medical needs. At Christmas time he gave food and coal.
In 1855 he travelled to Paris on business and whilst there met Hannah Eliza O’Meara, the daughter of the Irish Ambassador to France who was to become his wife a year later. Their first home was at Rigby Hall in Bromsgrove, and later they moved to Stoke Grange, now Avoncroft College. In 1868 he stood for election as Liberal MP for the mid-division or Droitwich Division of Worcestershire where he attempted to unseat John Pakington of Westwood Park, Conservative MP He was soundly beaten but in 1874 was successful at the General Election when he did beat John Pakington by 787 votes to 401. He remained as Liberal MP for the next 17 years before standing down because of failing health.
By 1868 John and Anna had a family of five, Roger, Walter, Mary, Kathleen and Camille. They needed a larger house, one with three basic requirements. Firstly that it should be close to the Salt Works at Stoke Prior, secondly that it should be built on ground that was not likely to subside due to brine extraction, and thirdly that it should have some associations which would enhance his social standing. The Manor at Impney for sale with 69 acres of land, proved to be the ideal spot. It was bought by the Corbetts, taken down and replaced by a Chateau in the style of Louis X111. The Architect was Auguste Tronquois from Paris. In 1872 Corbett bought a further 312 acres of the Impney Estate, along with the Manorial Rights – Lord of the Manor of Impney, the first of five such titles that he would in time acquire. Building of Impney Hall began in 1873 and was completed in 1875. The original cost agreed was £12,000 but ultimately amounted to £21,000 a fact which did not please him, especially as the salt industry was going through a very difficult period. From December 1873 to December 1874 the Corbetts were living at Perdiswell Hall near Worcester, and took up residence at Impney Hall in 1875. The following year their youngest daughter Clare was born.
John Corbett spent much of his time travelling and promoting his business interests. On many occasions Anna accompanied him to Europe, leaving the younger children in the care of Governesses, their nurse, or her friend Mrs Aldham, wife of the Rev. H. Aldham of Stoke Prior Vicarage.
Next page – John Corbett and the Welsh connection