Charles Henry Corbett, the son of Charles Joseph Corbett (1823-1882), a successful property developer in London, was born in 1853. Charles was educated at Marlborough and Oxford University, where he took a degree in history. Charles married Marie Gray in 1880 and after his father's death in 1882, the couple moved to an 840-acre estate at Woodgate in the village of Danehill in Sussex.
The couple believed they had a responsibility to help the less fortunate members of the community and for many years the couple provided free legal advice for people living in the area. Charles and Marie Corbett were both active members of the Liberal Party. Corbett was the unsuccessful Liberal candidate in East Grinstead in the 1895 and 1900 general elections.
For many years Charles and Marie Corbett and their two daughters, Margery Corbett Ashby and Cicely Corbett-Fisher, made public speeches on the subject of women's rights in East Grinstead High Street. East Grinstead was a safe Conservative seat and the crowds were usually very hostile. A survey carried out in 1911 suggested that less than 20% of the women in East Grinstead supported women having the vote in parliamentary elections.
In her autobiography, Margery Corbett described how the people of East Grinstead reacted to her parents support of women's rights: "My parents were Liberals… at that period as much hated and distrusted by the gentry as Communists are today, and regarded as traitors to their class. In consequence they boycotted them… I suspect this boycott threw my energetic mother even more fervently into good works amongst the villagers, where, in the days before the welfare state, poverty was widespread."
Charles Corbett became much more popular when he led the campaign in East Grinstead against the 1902 Education Act. Only a minority of the people living in East Grinstead were Anglicans. A survey at the beginning of the century showed that 450 of the 800 children in the town had Nonconformist parents. The local School Board represented the different religious views of the people living in the town. A headmaster, William Hosken, was appointed who, according to one School Board member, agreed that the government "should look after the ordinary school education - reading, writing and arithmetic - and leave the religious teaching to the various religious bodies."
As a result of the 1902 Education Act, East Grinstead School was run by the Education Committee of the County Council based in Lewes. Five of the six members of the committee were Anglicans and the chairman, Robert Whitehead, a leading member of the Conservative Party in East Grinstead, had a reputation as someone who was hostile to Nonconformity.
On 24th May, 1904, John Clifford the leader of National Passive Resistance Committee was invited to speak in the town. As a result a large number of Nonconformists in East Grinstead refused to pay their education rates. Their property was seized by the courts but one man, Edward Steer, who transferred all his wealth over to his wife, was imprisoned.
In East Grinstead the 1902 Education Act was the main issue in the 1906 General Election. Corbett, who promised the electorate that a Liberal Government would repeal the act, won a seat that had always been under the control of the Conservative Party. All told, 181 Nonconformists (173 Liberal and 8 Labour) were elected to the House of Commons in 1906.
In the House of Commons Corbett was one of the few politicians who was willing to argue for women's suffrage. He also did what he could to persuade the Liberal Government to repeal the 1902 Education Act. His campaign was unsuccessful and was a major factor in his defeat in the 1910 General Election.
In March 1913 Charles Corbett joined with Rev. G. Riddell and the Rev. Rupert Strong to form an East Grinstead branch of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage. He remained active in the organisation until it was disbanded on the outbreak of the First World War.
Charles Corbett died in 1935.
(1) Margery Corbett Ashby wrote about her parents in the 1970s. Her account was included in her Memoirs published after her death in 1997.
No one can have had a happier childhood than myself, brought up, with a younger brother and sister, in a large, old-fashioned, country house. In my youth I shared every advantage with my brother equally - from love and affection to the best possible education and opportunities, and the critical but unstinted encouragement which to the young is like sunshine to a plant.
We were educated at home. Lessons were divided. Mother took scripture and music… My father taught us history, geography, mathematics and Latin. From the age of four I read everything I could lay my hands on. I remember lying on the floor reading contemporary accounts of the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War in my grandfather's library, where there was a complete set of Illustrated London News. He had bookshelves to the ceiling… In my father's library the big bookcases also went up to the ceiling.
My parents were Liberals… at that period as much hated and distrusted by the gentry as Communists are today, and regarded as traitors to their class. In consequence they boycotted them… I suspect this boycott threw my energetic mother even more fervently into good works amongst the villagers, where, in the days before the welfare state, poverty was widespread.
(2) Charles Corbett, speaking at an open-air meeting in the High Street, East Grinstead (19th September, 1903)
The Education Act had fallen very heavily on East Grinstead. We had a very efficient School Board in the town which was elected. This Board of Management has been taken away and replaced by a committee. Two-thirds of this committee are men who were certainly not elected by reason of their educational knowledge. People want to return to School Boards and have the appointment of teachers in their own hands. I do not think the state should teach religion at all. It would be better if the teaching of religion was left to the State Church and the Nonconformist churches.
(3) East Grinstead Observer (22nd August, 1903)
The Liberals in the East Grinstead Division at Danehill, the residence of Charles Corbett, on Wednesday, and fortunately the weather turned out fine for the occasion. Between 300 and 400 people people were present, a party of nearly a hundred coming down from East Grinstead by brakes and cycles. Charles Corbett was received with enthusiastic applause, said: "It was quite certain that no Liberal Government that was worthy of its name would remain in office if it could not alter or get rid of this Education Act. The present Act was one of the clumsiest and most unworkable that a Government had ever brought in. Education was a national concern and should be managed by the Government and paid for out of taxes. He believed religious education should be by all means be taught in school, but each denomination should be at liberty to enter a school and teach its own form of religion."
(4) Margery Corbett described the 1906 General Election campaign in her book Memoirs (1996)
Political tyranny was accepted as a fact of life, and you voted as your landlord or employer did. As voting papers have to have a number, it was assumed that someone could find out how you voted. Farmers would take their men to the polls in carts decorated with Tory colours, and canvassers would give pictures of the Tory candidate for tenant cottage windows.
East Grinstead was considered a safe Conservative seat in the 1906 election. The family supported my father to an amazing extent. Working actively for him were his wife, myself and my brother Adrian. By day the family were taken in the dogcart and dumped in one or two villages in which meetings were to be held that evening. Adrian and I would call at every house in the village, leaving a little leaflet. If no local man dared to take the chair. Adrian or I would do so, or a friend from London. The meetings were crowded, but very irresponsive, because the leading Conservative landlord would sit in the front row to intimidate his tenants.
On election day we all visited as many of the polling stations as possible. It was very cold that evening when we drove the eight miles to East Grinstead. Father was sitting peacefully with a pipe in the back room when the returning officers declared, "Corbett in". I almost fell down the stairs calling to Daddy, "You're in! You're in!", to be received by a very cross voice saying "Nonsense, child!".
The defeated candidate's waggonette, decorated in anticipation of an assured success, was taken home as quietly as possible, but the Conservative party was never caught napping again, and the growth of Labour divided the progressive vote, so East Grinstead has never had another Liberal or any Labour MP.
(5) The East Grinstead Observer was owned an edited by Wallace Hills, the Conservative Party agent. Hills was shocked by the 1906 General Election result (Corbett: 4,794; E.M. Crookshank: 4,531). In his editorial on 3rd February, 1906, he tried to explain what had happened.
Mr. Corbett won his victory solely because his party pitched on a popular cry and because insufficient time had been given to the people to fully comprehend the meaning of the proposals of the Conservative Party. The electors have been temporarily swept away by the popular cry for change and when they settle down again and can fully comprehend the misrepresentations which have for once masked them they will return to their old allegiances, to the cause which means, unity of the empire, freedom under our flag, safety at home and prosperity all round.