John Corbett (1817-1901)
The Salt King
John Corbett was
born at Delph, Brierley Hill, Staffordshire on 12 June
1817. He was the eldest child, in the family of 6 sons and
one daughter, of Joseph and Hannah (Cole) Corbett. John,
the eldest; Mary Anne born 1819, who married Thomas
Milward in 1837 (7 children); Joseph born 1822, hotel
keeper, who married Jane McDougall about 1843 and
probably had 13 or 14 children and emigrated to Australia
in 1858; William born 1824, died in infancy, Henry born
1826, tobacconist and coal merchant, married and had 5
children; David born 1830, one child and Thomas born 1833
and died unmarried in 1906 and was buried in the grave
next to his elder brother, John.
Joseph, the father, is said to
have originated (born:
1797) in Ludlow, Shropshire where he was a farmer, however the 1851
Census gives Kingswinford as his birthplace.. (Nothing
has been discovered about his parentage at that place and
time.) He and Hannah married at Halesowen, Worcestershire
on 13 April 1817.
On migrating to Staffordshire
he became a carrier of goods and merchandise by canal
boat and owned land in both Shropshire and Worcestershire.
John attended Mr Gurney's school at Brierley Hill as a
child and from the age of ten helped on his father's
boats until he was 23. At the age of 14 he skippered a
barge to London.
He devoted much of his leisure
time to unaided study of mechanical problems. At age 23,
in 1840 he was apprenticed for 5 years to W Lester, chief
engineer of Hunt & Brown of the Leys ironworks, Stourbridge.
Six years later he reluctantly
abandoned his career of engineer to become his father's
partner and a prosperous business under the name Corbett
& Son was carried on. A large fleet of boats was
maintained between the Staffordshire district and London,
Liverpool and Manchester and other commercial centres.
The business was sold in 1852
when the railways started to threaten canal traffic. The
Industrial Revolution had made salt a vital mineral for
various chemical processes and brine water was plentiful
in Worcestershire and close to the canals.
John then bought the Stoke
Prior Salt works near Droitwich. (The Romans called
Droitwich 'Salinae' as its natural brine springs were
already known. The radioactive springs which rise from
beneath the town are said to be 10 times saltier than
ordinary sea-water and even saltier that the Dead Sea.)
This was an unpromising venture.
Salt had been discovered here in 1828 and vast sums of
money had been spent in the sinking of brine pits and the
erection of salt works. The depth of the brine springs
and the inflow of fresh water from neighbouring springs
made production costly. Six owners in turn became
bankrupt and even when the property was divided between
two rival companies there was no better result.
John bought the salt works at
Stoke Prior in 1852 from both companies which were on
opposite banks of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.
Within a few years he
transformed the enterprise. He lined new brine pits with
cast-iron cylinders to prevent the inflow of fresh water.
These were sunk to a depth of 1000 feet. By installing a
system of pipes he was able to double the intensity of
the heat and the steam and produced a whiter, more finely
grained salt than was obtainable elsewhere.
He supervised the buying of
fifty canal boats, the cutting of tributaries from the
canal to where the salt was stored, the building of a
railway to carry coal to and from the places which could
not be reached by water. He had built a foundry, a wagon
factory, fittings shops, saw mills and a brickyard. Seven
depots were established in London.
In twenty five years he
converted an annual output of 26,000 tons of salt to 200,000
tons and built up a near perfect system of salt
manufacture. He built model houses for his work people as
well as gardens, schools, lecture rooms, a club house and
He married, April 1856, Anna
Eliza O'Meara, who had been born in France, daughter of
John O'Meara of Tipperary.
He abolished female labour at
the works in 1859, an act which is commemorated by a
window in Stoke Prior church from money raised by public
In 1861 he was living at Rigby
Hall, Stoke Prior along with his wife, 3 daughters, Mary
Eliza (1858-1951), Anna Camille (1859-1927) who married
Captain William Bertie Roberts and Kathleen (or Katherine)
Hannah Matilda (1861-1927), who married Charles Nisbett
Thrustan, mother in law, Eliza O'Mara, his wife's nephew,
John Dubois and 6 servants. He and Anna added two sons
Walter John (1867-1904), who remained unmarried and Roger
John (1863-1942) who lived in New Zealand for a number of
years and another daughter Clare (1876-1965) who married
Edmund Corbet to their family.
In 1868 he unsuccessfuly
contested the Droitwich parliamentary seat against the
Conservative candidate Sir John Pakington. He and
Pakington became rivals and it was partly due to this
rivalry and his desire to upstage Pakington that in about
1870 he bought from Lord Somers the large estate of
Impney near Droitwich and from Athelstan Corbett (unrelated)
the Manor of Ynas-Maen-Gwyn near Towyn, Wales and he
contributed to Towyns development by the erection of an
esplanade and sea wall. Ironically many years later one
of John's grandchildren married a Pakington.
On Impney he erected over a
period of ten years Chateau Impney, a French style
chateau built in the Francis I style with a Versailles
style garden, for his wife. It was regarded as one of the
finest houses in Worcestershire. The chateaux is now a
hotel. Sadly, his wife left him soon after its completion.
However the parliamentary
defeat of 1868 was reversed in 1874 when he was elected.
In 1880 he retained the seat and on the merging of the
old borough in the Mid-Worcestershire division he was
He was never prominent in
debate in the Commons however he showed an interest in
local taxation, alterations to the law on land tenure and
was an advocate of women's suffrage.
He opposed home rule (for
Ireland) and joined the liberal unionists in 1886 and was
returned with a large majority in 1886. In 1889 he sold
the salt works to the Salt Union. He retired as M.P. upon
dissolution of Parliament in 1892.John was the supporter
of many philanthropic institutions in the Midlands. In
1892 he bought 'The Hill' estate at Amblecote, which had
stood empty and dilapidated for some years, along with
its 30 acres of grounds for £6500 and after adding a
further £5000 to restore and convert the buildings, he
presented both to a board of trustees for the funding of
the Corbett Hospital to cater for the local poor people
of Stourbridge, Brierley Hill, Kingswinford, Wordsley,
Brockmoor, Quarry Bank, Amblecote, Delph, Wollaston,
Upperswinford, Pedmore, Hagley, Lye Watse, Lye and
Wollescote. It was opened on 31 July 1893. The Salters
Hall, capable of holding 1500 was presented to Droitwich.
He contributed to the funds of Birmingham University, of
which he was a governor and of Bromsgrove Cottage
Taking the waters was
fashionable at that time and he helped develop Droitwich
as a health resort and in 1889 erected the St Andrews
Brine Baths (which have twice been rebuilt in this
century). He restored the Raven Hotel, then a 16 century
house, built the Worcester Hotel and established other
luxurious hotels. To Brierley Hill he presented a church
clock and memorial windows to his parents.
He died on 22 April 1901 and
was buried at Impney. During his life he had become
director of several banks, a J.P., the deputy Lieutenant
of Merionethshire as well as a Liberal M.P.
There are several researchers connected to this
Bibliography: Who Was Who 1897-1911, Dictionary of
National Biography 1901-1911, Black Country Bugle,
(See also 'John
Corbett, Pillar of Salt 1817-1901' by Barbara Midlemass
and Joe Hunt.)