The Corbett One Name Study

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 a dispensary.

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 subscription.

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 returned unopposed.

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 Hospital.

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 family. 

Bibliography: Who Was Who 1897-1911, Dictionary of National Biography 1901-1911, Black Country Bugle, Various Censuses
(See also 'John Corbett, Pillar of Salt 1817-1901' by Barbara Midlemass and Joe Hunt.)