Chris Upton discovers how one man built up a massive 19th century salt industry and ploughed a lot of his wealth back into the community.
The Bible says that when Lot disobeyed instructions and turned back to watch the destruction of Sodom he was turned into a pillar of salt.
For one West Midlands man such a fate would have seemed less a punishment and more of an accolade.
For John Corbett, salt was not simply one of the essentials of life, but the key to one of the greatest fortunes imaginable.
The people of Droitwich, Corbett’s adopted home, have much cause to be grateful to the man they called “the King of Salt”.
Rarely can a town ever have been so dependant upon one man and one industry for creating it. For a place whose previous largest trade had been in the treatment of the insane, it was a transformation devoutly to be wished.
John Corbett was born in 1817 in Brierley Hill. His father, Joseph, owned a boat-yard, and ran a fleet of barges, carrying goods around the West Midlands.
It was probably through his association with the canals that John Corbett came across the products of the British Alkali Company, which produced salt, soap and other chemicals from its works at Stoke Prior, just to the north-east of Droitwich.
Droitwich had been recognised as a place to find salt from as far back as Roman times, and its Latin name – Salinae – testifies to the importance of the supply to the Roman province. But it was the discovery of huge salt deposits below Stoke Prior in the 1820s that led to a great explosion of interest, and the creation of a number of new companies. The abolition of the Salt Tax in 1825 made the prospects look even rosier. By the middle of the 19th century Britain was exporting around one million tons of the stuff each year.
But salt production was a highly competitive, and very expensive, industry. Turning the Droitwich brine into salt involved boiling the liquid down in great open pans, and it took a ton of coal to produce just two tons of salt. Many smaller firms went under in their efforts to keep prices down and production up. Such a one was British Alkali, and in 1857 John Corbett snapped up the ailing company, its eight-acre site and plant, for just £33,000. Within just a few years, by increasing investment and refining the methods of salt production, Corbett turned the Stoke Works into the most successful salt company in the kingdom, producing around 200,000 tons of salt a year.
If we were to concentrate solely on John Corbett’s business, this would almost be the end of the story. When he died in 1901 the King of Salt was worth a cool half a million.
But there was always more to John Corbett than that. He was one of that generation of Victorian businessmen – much like George Cadbury and Titus Salt – who saw social improvement as just as worthy a cause as wealth creation. Corbett was, within only a few years of his success at Stoke, a signed-up member of the Age of Philanthropy.
Corbett’s own workers were among the first to benefit, with higher wages and purpose-built factory housing, together with a school, lecture-room, club and dispensary. The streets around the Stoke Works were a little Bournville, but with a saltier taste.
Then there were the benefactions to churches: to Corbett’s native parish at Brierley Hill, to the local churches at Dodderhill and Stoke Prior, to the restoration of the medieval churches at Shrewsbury and Ludlow, and even towards the building of Truro Cathedral. (The father of Truro’s first bishop had once worked as a manager at the Stoke Works.)
Corbett’s money also served to transform health care in the region. Over at Stourbridge he converted an old Georgian house into what became the Corbett Hospital, and likewise established a cottage hospital at Bromsgrove. As for Droitwich itself, John Corbett stamped his impression on it forever. In 1881 the Salters Hall was opened, entirely paid for by the Salt King. The hall was to become the centrepiece of a new town of culture and leisure, to rival the spa towns of Cheltenham and Leamington.
The presence of spa water had long been exploited in Droitwich, with a number of brine baths and salty watering-holes, but none had been successful enough to transform the fortunes (or the appearance) of the town. With characteristic energy, Corbett set out to exploit the leisure end of the salt business.
First he purchased and expanded two of the town’s hotels – The Raven and The Castle – and then built a third by the name of the Worcestershire Brine Baths Hotel, to offer up-market bathing and health cures.
Then, in 1882, Corbett purchased the old saline public baths and renovated them too.
With all the facilities now in place, it remained to improve the transport links, and, using his weight as a director of the Midland Railway, Corbett transformed the little halt at Droitwich into a grand railway station, where statues of the Roman gods welcomed visitors on every platform, and horse-drawn carriages took them to one or other of Corbett’s many hotels.
And thus Droitwich was re-born – from something of a salty back-water to a fully-fledged spa resort. The change came just in time, for by the end of John Corbett’s life the UK salt industry was in decline, and within 20 years all production at the Stoke Works would cease.
But even all of this does not complete John Corbett’s considerable impact upon North Worcestershire. There is one more abiding legacy, as extraordinary as any.
For that you will have to wait till next week.