John Corbett 'Salt King' 1817-1901
John Corbett was born at Brierley Hill in the Black Country in 1817 and baptised at St. Michael’s Church, Brierley Hill on June 29th 1817. He left school aged 11 to work for his father’s canal boat business.
In 1840 John Corbett became an apprentice to an engineering company in Stourbridge but later returned to his father’s company as a partner.
During the 1850’s the Droitwich salt industry was in serious trouble. Many of the companies were in financial difficulties due to fresh water contaminating the brine, lowering its strength and reducing profits. There was also immense competition from other English as well as foreign salt manufacturers.
Around this time, the Corbett’s sold their canal business which allowed John, with his half of the profits, to widen his business horizons.
Corbett saw ways of improving both brine extraction and processing methods. In 1854 he purchased 6 acres of land at Stoke Prior, near Bromsgrove, on which he built his salt works that were to incorporate his new production methods. Corbett’s Stoke Prior salt works were the largest in Europe and caused the decline of the salt making industry in Droitwich Spa.
Corbett took certain steps towards improving the working environment. The atmosphere in the salt works was hot and steamy, often resulting in complete nudity. Working hours were very long and the workers raised families in slums. Corbett’s goal was to rid his workers of the appalling conditions, bringing cleanliness, good housing, elementary education and a happy atmosphere for his workers. Corbett built new houses to replace the workers’ old slums, a large school, dispensary and working men’s’ club. A chaplain and medical attendant were employed to look after the workers’ spiritual and physical needs.
In 1855 Corbett travelled to Paris in search of new trade. While there he met Anna O’Meara who was to become his wife a year later. Their first home was Stoke Grange – now Avoncroft College.
1868 saw Corbett’s first attempt at politics when he unsuccessfully attempted to unseat John Pakington of Westwood Park, MP for Droitwich. However, political success came in the General Election of 1874 when Liberal Corbett beat the Conservative Pakington to become MP for Droitwich.
John Corbett – 787 (Liberal)
Sir John Pakington – 401 (Conservative)
Corbett decided to build a house that would equal, if not better, Pakington’s magnificent Westwood Park. He purchased the manor at Impney and commissioned French architect Auguste Tronquois to design his grand home. The Chateau Impney cost £200,000 to build in 1875. It was lavishly appointed, containing many fine works of art. Corbett’s marriage was not a happy one, husband and wife had little in common and disagreements were frequent. This eventually led to the couple separating in 1884. The immense change in Corbett’s lifestyle led to a breakdown in employer/employee relations at the Stoke Work. Strikes broke out, quality and productivity of the Works fell. Corbett’s political career was disappointing. If he made any contribution to legislation at all, it was behind the scenes rather than in the House of Commons Chamber itself. His record of public speaking was almost non-existent. His marriage, industry and political career in difficulties, Corbett turned his attention to Droitwich. His prime objective was to release. The town from its former grim industrial image and turn it into a fashionable Spa resort.
Corbett purchased the Raven Hotel in 1879, and, after extensive renovations opened in 1887.
He purchased the “Royal Brine Baths” and a nearby hotel to form one purpose-built spa complex. Brine bathers flocked to Droitwich and so Corbett built the impressive “Worcestershire Brine Baths Hotel” in 1881. Droitwich was fast becoming a holiday town. Corbett rebuilt the railway station and opened another hotel called the “Elephant and Castle” known today as “The Castle.”
The town’s second brine bath complex, the St. Andrew’s Brine Baths, opened in 1887 and was located in the centre of the town, close to the Raven and the Worcestershire hotels.
John Corbett was also a great Victorian benefactor, building Salters Hall (now the Public Library), Almshouses in Wychbold and the Corbett Hospital in Stourbridge.
By 1888 the Stoke Works’ output was 200,000 tons of salt per year. Railway sidings were laid down within the site that allowed two way traffic, coal coming in and salt going out. Corbett built 50 narrow boats and 400 railway wagons that carried both his name and product.
In 1892 John was 75 years old and becoming increasingly infirm. He requested his brother Thomas, a doctor, to come and live in Droitwich to act as his personal physician and companion. Thomas agreed and moved to Droitwich in 1893.
As a major shareholder and director of one of the Midland companies, Corbett pushed his ideas on renovating the Droitwich Railway. Work began in 1898. A year later the station was completed with 12 statues of Roman gods and emperors. Waiting and refreshment rooms were available for the passengers whilst they awaited the horse-drawn cabs to take them to the various Corbett-owned hotels in Droitwich. For the less wealthy it was pony-drawn bath chairs.
Corbett devoted much of his expanding wealth to purchasing more land in Droitwich and it is estimated that at the time of his death, nearly half of the town belonged either wholly or partly to him.
Although Corbett had been failing in health for some time, his death came suddenly, at 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Monday April 22nd 1901. The cause was cerebral haemorrhage.
From Tuesday April 23rd, when the local newspapers carried the news of the Salt King’s death, until after the funeral on the following Saturday, all flags were flown at half-mast on churches and public buildings throughout the Droitwich area.
John Corbett was buried at St. Michael’s Church, Stoke Prior and when Thomas died in 1906, he too was buried at St. Michael’s Church next to his brother.