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John Corbett the Salt Tycoon

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2019

Andy Tidy

Andy Tidy profiles a West Midlands canal-carrier who became one of the most successful industrialists in the land

John Corbett was a poorly educated son of a Black Country canal-carrier, who, during the 19th century, rose through his own efforts to become both one of the region’s wealthiest industrialists and a great philanthropist of his day, retaining canal connections throughout his working life.

Humble beginnings

John’s family roots were in Shropshire farming but in 1816 his father Joseph moved to Brierley Hill in the booming Black Country in search of a better life. He soon established himself as Joseph Corbett, licensed canal carrier, successfully operating from a boatyard at Black Delph with cargoes trading between the Midlands, London and Manchester.

Joseph soon met Hannah Cole, whom he married on 13th April 1817 and their first son, John, was born two months later on 12th June. John’s time in formal education was brief as by the age of 11 he had left school to assist his father in the canal-carrying business, thus helping to support his four brothers and sister. By the age of 14 he found himself responsible for narrowboats on the Birminghamto-London run. It is during this period that young John developed an understanding of the salt trade, one of the three major commodities carried by water in the area.

John’s formal education may have been brief, but he was still literate enough to follow the latest engineering advances of the age. His research led him to conclude that the future lay in steam transport and, at the relatively old age of 23, he apprenticed himself for six years to William Lester, the chief engineer at Hunt & Brown, an iron manufacturer based at Wordsley, Stourbridge.

Once his apprenticeship was completed, in 1845 John started working as an agent for the British Alkali Company at Stoke Works and started purchasing his own boats. Around this time he entered into business with his father Joseph Senior and brother Joseph Junior. His father had been operating from the Delph near Stourbridge and had been involved in carrying up to London by 1841, and obtained an account with the Oxford Canal Company to pass his boats on credit that year. Their business came to be based at Crescent Wharf, Birmingham, and ran until December 1848, when John took it over.

The salt industry

At the time, the two largest salt makers at Stoke Works were the British Alkali Co and the Imperial Salt & Alkali Co. The former was a consortium business that was struggling to exploit a massive brine reserve under Stoke Prior, about 15 miles south of Birmingham. In spite of huge amounts of investment from the local Quaker community, British Alkali suffered from freshwater diluting its brine wells to the point that its operation had become uneconomic.

Salt has been extracted from the brine spring that runs beneath the Droitwich area since long before the Roman occupation. With over 30% salt concentration, this is ten times higher than the sea and even saltier than the waters of the Dead Sea. This was seen as an amazing potential resource, but its profitable extraction had eluded a succession of entrepreneurs.

The underground brine stream had made Droitwich a prosperous town, with many small businesses tapping the saline aquifer that surfaced in Vines Park. However, making money out of a scaled-up operation using deep brine wells upstream at Stoke Prior had resulted in a series of bankruptcies. Because the salt is carried in water as brine, the challenge was always extracting it economically. Existing technology involved a process little changed from Roman times, with open pans of brine boiled over wood and later coal fires – a resource-hungry method, with around 1 ton of coal consumed for every 2 tons of salt produced. It was the need to carry coal and salt that led to the construction of the Droitwich Barge and Droitwich Junction canals, but the discovery of the brine at Stoke Prior, with its enhanced communication links, caused production to shift a few miles north.

Carrying

As an agent for British Alkali, John took advantage and became its proprietor, leasing part of the works in 1852. Using the engineering experience he gained at Hunt & Brown, he secured and improved the brine wells by lining them with iron to arrest contamination by water and increase salinity to make them more profitable.

His own small fleet of boats was used to carry salt to the London market but he relied heavily on the Grand Junction Canal Company’s own carrying department to take the bulk. However GJCC's increasing losses became too much to bear and the company withdrew from this traffic at the end of 1854. Corbett saw no other option than to expand his own fleet, and in 1855 undertook a rapid increase in boat acquisitions to protect himself from the threat of increasing railway rates (so as not to rely solely on rail transport).

<p>A portrait of John Corbett during his latter years.</p>

A portrait of John Corbett during his latter years.

<p>John Corbett as a young man.</p>

John Corbett as a young man.

<p>An etching showing the extent of activity at Stoke Works, Worcestershire.</p>

An etching showing the extent of activity at Stoke Works, Worcestershire.

<p>An aerial view of Stoke Works.</p>

An aerial view of Stoke Works.

<p>George Farrin

George Farrin's boatyard at Stoke Works.

<p>Narrowboats at Stoke Wharf.</p>

Narrowboats at Stoke Wharf.

<p>Brine evaporation at Stoke Works.</p>

Brine evaporation at Stoke Works.

He quickly arranged new toll credit accounts in his own name with canal companies, with a reduced toll on condition he carried a minimum of 12,000 tons of salt per annum to earn his rebate. He must have convinced the canal companies that they might lose the Worcestershire salt trade if they didn’t assist him. At the time the salt trade in London was said to be between 25,000 and 27,000 tons, and Corbett’s London agents, Weston & Westall, dominated about 50% of that. Corbett was a partner in the firm of Weston & Westall at one point and he required some 40 boats to maintain the trade. To build more craft would demand a large financial outlay by him, so it was important the canal companies shared the cost with toll reductions or lose out to the railway.

To make it more economical, his boats backloaded with silver sand from Linslade and chalk from Harefield, both used in glassmaking by Chance Brothers at Smethwick.

In order to increase his own fleet, Corbett built a boatyard at Stoke Works, which was up and running by December 1855, and employed boat-builder Samuel Shellard to run the operation. From then on a steady stream of new boats was launched into the fleet. Shellard was replaced in 1877 by boat-builder George Farrin, assisted by his brother Charles Joseph Farrin, both of whom had previously worked at Braunston.Corbett also used rail transport and constructed a railway wagon workshop at Stoke Works to build and maintain his own fleet of wagons. In keeping with many large industrial concerns of the 19th century, Corbett attended to a lot of his transport and material needs in-house. He had a brick works and tile works, together with a foundry to make the iron linings to his brine pits, plus wagon and van parts, and an iron works for making salt pans and reservoirs. All these needed constant repairs to counter the direct, rapid and corrosive effects of the salt, and also the pollutants released into the atmosphere from the works.

The railway was an important factor, not only in distributing the finished product to towns, cities and ports inaccessable by canal, but also in bringing coal to the works. Salt pans were heated using slack coal, the cheapest type of fuel available and really only used in salt works, brick works and blast furnaces. Many collieries would dump it on their pit banks until it took up too much space and then it was simply set alight. At one time he had a great deal of his slack coal from the South Staffordshire coalfield brought in by boat, but as the pits became worked out, the remainder increased in price. This, combined with higher tolls, meant slack had to be drawn further afield and brought in by rail. It appears little coal was brought into the salt works in and around Droitwich by boat after the railways were built.

John Corbett took over the lease of the Imperial Salt & Alkali works in 1858 and also bought out the British Alkali Co the same year. The Imperial Company’s works was bought by him in 1867 and some boats from both those companies’own fleets passed into Corbett’s hands. With both works now under his ownership, he started to build up his salt empire and make his fortune.

Most of his boats were employed in the London trade with a small minority heading north to supply his customers engaged in alkali manufacturing in the West Midlands. His boats also went down the Severn to his warehouse in Gloucester, which was formally owned by British Alkali, and was situated next to Hempstead Bridge on the Gloucester & Berkeley Ship Canal. Added to this were a number of independent boatmen contractors with their own or hired narrowboats plying for business, and also bargemen owning Severn trows or Wich barges, working for both John Corbett and his main rival in Worcestershire, the Droitwich Salt Company.

When the Canal Boats Act came into force in 1879, Corbett had 51 cabin boats registered in his name, although some appear to have been hired, plus 500 railway wagons.

During the 1870s Corbett was already experiencing severe railway competition. He had a family attachment to canal transport but also wanted to keep it as a check against the railway companies and suspected they might raise their carriage rates if he disposed of his boats. He had more than 30 craft taking salt to London and returning with sand and chalk. The salt traffic by water down the River Severn also suffered from competition, plus there was the added problem of there not being sufficient boats and men to do the work. When in short supply he was forced to use GWR, but preferred water transport.

Droitwich sea port

By 1888 John Corbett controlled 50% of the nation’s salt production and his Stoke Prior Works was the most profitable salt production facility in the country. But at this time competition from larger foreign salt manufacturers was intensifying and, after two years of persuasion, he agreed to sell his concern to Salt Union, a conglomerate which then owned 85% of the nation’s salt production capacity (NB Spring 2017). By this time, Corbett was well into his 70s and, with neither of his sons interested in joining the business, this probably made sense. He went on to become the largest shareholder of Salt Union Ltd and was paid £600,000 (£54m at today’s rates) for the huge Stoke Works. As well as being the main shareholder, he was also deputy chairman and managing director.

Sadly, Salt Union almost immediately misused its monopolistic position and significantly raised its prices, opening the door to other lowercost foreign competitors. This strategy sat poorly with the astute businessman so in 1890 he resigned and focussed his considerable efforts elsewhere.

From a canal enthusiast’s perspective, the sale of the Stoke Works to Salt Union brought a halt to Corbett’s plans to turn Droitwich into a major sea port. This was no mere pipe dream as he had already bought thousands of acres of land either side of Wyche Cut (Droitwich Barge Canal) between Droitwich and Hawford on the River Severn. He was willing to finance the ship canal and if it had been built, Droitwich would have been capable of accommodating vessels carrying as much as 500 tons.This proposal revived an earlier 1664 idea devised by Andrew Yarranton who also sought to make the Salwarp navigable to Droitwich. This plan got as far as the construction of five of six locks before being abandoned, and navigation to the town had to wait another century until the Barge Canal came into being.

Salt to spa

The switch of salt production to Stoke Prior rang the death knell for the nearby Droitwich salt industry, which was also suffering from freshwater dilution in its brine wells. Ever the philanthropist, Corbett diversified his brine interests and, almost single handedly, reinvented the town. What had become a filthy industrial settlement was reborn as a top spa resort, putting the ‘Spa’ into Droitwich.

While a sitting MP and with Stoke Works ticking over, he bought the Raven Hotel in 1879 (still standing but abandoned) followed by the Castle Hotel, which were both extensively refurbished and extended. He then built the vast Worcestershire Brine Baths Hotel in 1881 to house the huge number of visitors arriving to use the renovated Royal Brine Baths and the brand-new St Andrews Brine Baths. Healso invested in a range of other new civic facilities, transforming Droitwich into the region’s premier spa resort, rivalling Bath and Harrogate.

Enduring canal connections

Throughout his life, John Corbett never strayed far from his canal-carrying roots. As well as owning a large fleet of narrowboats based at his Stoke Works, he was also a director of many local canal companies including the Grand Junction Canal Company, the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal Company and the Sharpness Docks Company, and he was also a commissioner for the River Severn as well as a director of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal Company which ran right through his vast salt works at Stoke Prior.

John Corbett died in 1901 aged 84 at his Worcestershire home, with an estate valued at £413k (£50m today), having given away a large proportion of his self-made wealth to various charitable causes. He achieved success against the odds in almost everything he set his mind to.

Acknowledgement

Additional material gratefully supplied by Chris M. Jones.

<p>The Main Bath at Droitwich.</p>

The Main Bath at Droitwich.

<p>The Royal Brine Baths, Droitwich.</p>

The Royal Brine Baths, Droitwich.

<p>John helped Droitwich reinvent itself as a spa town.</p>

John helped Droitwich reinvent itself as a spa town.