The Salt King: John Corbett

John Corbett was by far the largest producer of salt in Britain.

John Corbett (1817 – 1901) was born to Joseph Corbett, a Shropshire farmer. Joseph Corbett relocated to Birmingham, where he established a successful canal freight business.

John Corbett left school at the age of ten, and began to drive one of his father’s canal boats. He was eventually promoted to canal boat captain. During this period Corbett observed that salt was one of the major freight goods.

In his spare time, as well as on canal boats, Corbett would read mechanical books, with the aim of becoming an engineer. He served a five year apprenticeship at the Leys Ironworks in Stourbridge from 1840.

John Corbett was taken into partnership by his father in 1846. However, with increased competition from the railways, the firm was sold to the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1849.

John Corbett went to work at the Stoke Prior Salt Works near Droitwich. He began as an engine driver, before working as an outrider, and finally as a cashier. Corbett was learning the salt business at all levels.

Corbett acquired the lease of the Stoke Prior Salt Works in 1852. The works had an annual production of 26,000 tons. Two successive companies had failed to make a success of business. Corbett studied the previous failures and endeavoured to make a success of it.

The Stoke Prior Salt Works produced salt from springwater. Underground springs passed through a salt bed, which gave the water a salt content of 38.4 percent, according to an 1886 study, a higher level than even the Dead Sea.

Corbett used his engineering ability to introduce improved salt refining techniques. Identifying distribution as the most profitable area of the salt industry, he acquired his own canal boats, and later trains, to transport his product. To increase export sales he established agents overseas.

Corbett also hired the best people he could afford, and looked after his employees. He was a model employer, and built a model village for his workers including a school, church and social clubs. Corbett was also a dedicated philanthropist, establishing a 40 bed hospital in Stourbridge, as well as gifting Salters Hall to Droitwich.

Throughout his career, Corbett remained a hands-on proprietor, deeply engaged in the management of his business. He was an incredibly keen businessman, and a hard worker, beginning his working day at 6am, and often sleeping above his work offices.

By character Corbett was a quiet, likeable man. He was thoughtful, intelligent and interested in the arts and travel. Despite his immense wealth he lived a plain life, and drank in moderation.

Corbett was the largest salt manufacturer in Worcestershire by 1879.

Salt was the largest manufacture by tonnage in Britain after coal and iron in 1879. Between one and two million tons were produced each year, and thousands of people were employed in the industry.

Corbett was producing 200,000 to 300,000 tons of salt very year by 1886. The works covered around 30 acres. High quality table salt was the main product, sold under the “Black Horse” brand.

Men were limited to an eight hour day, and women to seven. Corbett paid his workers a premium of around 15 percent against the industry average. In his entire career, Corbett never suffered a strike that lasted 48 hours or more.

According to an industry estimate, John Corbett held nearly 50 percent of the British salt producing industry by 1888 and the Stoke Prior Salt Works was the most valuable enterprise of its kind in Britain.

The Salt Union Ltd was formed in 1888 as a merger of various salt interests across the country, including the Stoke Prior Salt Works, which were acquired at the cost of £660,000. Salt Union had a capital of £3 million and produced two million tons of salt every year.

Corbett became deputy chairman, a managing director, and by far the largest shareholder in the concern.

The Salt Union was immediately accused of attempting to rig the market and raise prices. It was alleged in The Standard that salt prices to the strategically important alkali industry had increased by 80 percent.

As a consequence of the price increase, exports slumped by 20 percent, and many people were put out of work. Corbett initially defended the company, arguing that producers had been operating at an unsustainable loss for a considerable period of time, and that the price adjustment merely reflected a correction of the market.

Corbett was to regret joining the Salt Union. After selling out to the company, he realised that it had entered into a number of imprudent contracts. The company had a lack of focus and direction, and his recommendations for the business were ignored. As a result, Corbett resigned his post as deputy chairman and managing director in 1890.

The Salt Union rapidly lost market share. Its attempt to exploit its monopoly position simply allowed its competitors to undercut it. Furthermore, an improved table salt was introduced by rival Cerebos in 1894.

Corbett died in 1901. His gross estate was valued at £412,972. An obituary in the Daily Telegraph heralded him as the “Salt King”.

The Salt Union was acquired by ICI in 1937. The works closed in 1972 due to cheaper foreign imports.

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