22 January 2013

The Opportunities of Industry: Corbett's Temperance Hotel and Joseph Corbett

Corbett's Temperance Hotel in about the 1870s, it had opened in 1842.
The building dated from about 1750. The street leading down is Hill Street.

In October 1842 Joseph Corbett (1791-1868) opened his boarding and coffee house on Paradise Street.* This was a fine part of town, just opposite the newly opened Town Hall, so presumptions could easily be made that Joseph was a middle class man in business and always had been, but this could not be further from the truth. Joseph was about 50 years old when he, and his wife, started up the hotel on Paradise Street, and Joseph had taken all the opportunities that the industrial town of Birmingham offered, working his way up from poverty.

Joseph wrote about the ‘frightful poverty’, the ‘cold and hunger, and the innumerable sufferings’ of his childhood.* His father had been a drunk, so his mother had financially supported her family of eleven children by working long hours in the manufactories, and ‘one and all of [the children were] forced out to work so young that [their] feeble earnings would produce only 1 [shilling] a week’.* The young Joseph had been sent out as an errand boy at the button makers Hammond, Turner & Sons** where his parents worked when he was about seven years old, and had worked at that same company as a button burnisher (polisher) until he left to start up the hotel.* Joseph had some attributes that would have aided his rise through society, mainly his ability to read and write exceptionally well (his father could write, but not his mother), and a marriage to Ann Willington who seems to have come from a lower middle-class family, and who would have had some good connections.* His writing ability was found unusual; Hammond, Turner & Sons** was approached by the Commission on Child Labour in 1840 and Joseph produced a 1,500 word document describing his own experiences and thoughts on the matter of child labour, and with a sense of surprise the commission noted that ‘[t]his most creditable statement, the product of a Birmingham mechanic, is inserted without a single alteration of any kind’. The word ‘mechanic’ is used at the time to describe members of the working classes, and the commission felt the need to note that the excellent quality of Joseph’s statement was all his own work.

By 1840 Joseph was earning a good wage, between 30 and 35 shillings a week, but to be able to open a boarding house two years later he must have still been frugal with his wages. He didn’t agree with wives with children working the ten hour days in the manufactories, so it is unlikely that his wife had worked in their early marriage, but she did run a business making and selling straw bonnets from the late 1830s, which would have helped their financial position. Neither did Joseph drink; he became a member of the Birmingham Temperance Society and District Union (BTSDU) which had been initiated in 1830, and by 1843 he was sitting on the committee with some of Birmingham's most notable inhabitants. So it seems that by sheer hard work, being employed by a fair employer, by having the ability to read and write better than most in his situation, by marrying well for his position and by being careful with wages, Joseph managed to work his way out of the poverty that he was born into.

Joseph never turned away from his roots though, and also, never seems to have been allowed to. In the year he died, 1868, John Alfred Langford called him ‘an ornament to his class’, and the reason that Langford felt moved to write a long obituary about Joseph Corbett in his new book was because of all the good work that he had done in Birmingham from the early 1830s.* Joseph had become good friends with Thomas Attwood (whose statue is in Centenary Square), and was one of only two working class members of the Birmingham Political Union fighting for, among other things, universal suffrage;* Joseph himself received the vote for the first time in 1838, a right that he had personally battled for.* He fought against slavery, corresponding with the well known anti-slavery campaigner Joseph Sturge, and also worked as a guardian and overseer of the poor from about 1842, working for better conditions for the poor and to improve the conduct of the overseers.* His own experiences had ‘kept alive a deep anxiety for the emancipation of thousands of families in this great town (Birmingham) and neighbourhood, who [were] in a similar state of horrible misery’.* As well as this he was chairman of a committee in 1846 which was attempting to end the imprisonment of debtors, as, even though the Birmingham Court of Requests*** had been closed two years previously, other courts had jurisdiction in Birmingham; he wished to stop the ‘injustice, oppression and cruelty inflicted upon the Working and Humbler Classes of Society’ by these courts.*

Although some of Joseph’s opinions on women may seem a little distasteful today, mainly the idea that women with children should always look after them at home, and that the education of women in household duties was neglected, we must take them in context of the times. There were no childcare facilities, so children had to be looked after at home by someone, and it was not socially conceivable that a man could perform that role. Also, men’s wages were usually higher. Joseph formed these opinions through his own personal experience; his own mother, so Joseph described, had ‘worked in a manufactory from a very early age’.
'She was clever and industrious, and [...] was regarded as an excellent match for a working man. She was married early [and] became the mother of eleven children: I am the eldest. [...] She had children apace. As she recovered from her lying-in, so she went to work, the babe being brought to her at stated times to receive nourishment. As the family increased, so everything like comfort disappeared altogether. The power to make a home cheerful and comfortable was never given to her. [...] She made many efforts to obstain [sic] from shop work; but her pecuniary necessities forced her back into the shop. [...] I have known her, after the close of a hard day's work, sit up nearly all night for several nights together washing and mending clothes’.*

Joseph’s involvement in the temperance movement can also be attributed to his childhood, he makes it very clear that his father was a drunkard and spent his time at the tavern rather than looking after his family.* The temperance movement had come from America and advocated moderation and abstinence from alcohol, and promoted the opening of alternative venues for socialising and relaxation other than public houses, such as Joseph Corbett’s own coffee house. The opening of temperance hotels followed in a similar vein, allowing travellers the option of places to stay that did not include a ready supply of strong liquor. But Joseph, unlike others, did not just want the closing down of the ale-houses, he wanted other leisure pursuits to replace drinking, such as ‘gymnastic exercises, quoits, cricket, &c,; public gardens, walks, baths, reading rooms, &c’.* Joseph’s temperance hotel was one of only around half a dozen in Birmingham, so was an important aspect of the Birmingham temperance scene. Corbett’s Temperance Hotel, then, was just another part of Joseph’s attempt to do some good, and once he had it, he also used the building in other beneficial ways, as many charitable institutions held their meetings at Corbett’s Hotel (see below).*

With all this charitable work, much of the running of the hotel was probably left in the hands of Joseph’s wife, Ann. He may have had strong opinions about the role of women in the upbringing of young children, but Ann, and the couple's daughter and several of the couple’s granddaughters worked in a number of strong roles throughout their lives. The couple’s granddaughter had helped them in the hotel since the age of about sixteen, and continued running it after Ann’s retirement even though she herself was married and had a young child. Other granddaughters were musicians or worked in their own right, and were recorded on the census as such, which was unusual for the time. This suggests that Joseph was possibly an open minded man of his time.

With all that Joseph Corbett achieved in his lifetime it seems strange that he is not remembered, but his position in society would be the likely cause of that. Despite all the work he did, his lack of large amounts of disposable income (there is nothing quite like putting a hundred pounds towards the building of a school that will get your name on a plaque), and his impoverished roots would not have advocated him to be immortalised, like Thomas Attwood, Joseph Sturge or the Cadbury’s, all of which Joseph had connections with. He is, I suppose, a bit of a 'working class hero', working quietly in the background to do what he thought was right and to improve the lives of the poor, of which he knew all too well what they endured. Hopefully this post gives him a little of the recogition that he deserves.    

I would really appreciate any more information on Joseph Corbett or other interesting Brummies.
* References on request
** To find out more about the button makers Hammond, Turner & Sons visit: http://hammond-turner.com/
*** I have written a number of posts on the conditions of the Court of Requests, see them here.
The image is courtesey of Birmingham Library and Archive Services.

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