By Nichola Court, Archivist
The theme for 2021’s International Men’s Day is ‘building better relations between men and women’ and few men embodied this mantra more than the barrister and one-time Liberal MP for East Grinstead, Charles Corbett. Today’s blog explores the life and work of this now little-known campaigner and politician.
Born in 1853, Charles was educated at Marlborough College and New College, Oxford. He subsequently practiced as a barrister, having been called to the Bar of the Middle Temple in 1877. Charles appears to have come from a liberal background and in 1881 he married Marie Gray, whose parents were keen supporters of the Liberal Party; Marie would become an advocate for liberal feminism and a well-known activist and campaigner for women’s rights, amongst many other things. Both Charles and Marie were politically minded and were outspoken supporters of women’s suffrage; their daughters, Margery (born 1882) and Cicely (born 1885), would both go on to become prominent campaigners for women’s suffrage.
The Corbetts moved to Woodgate, a large estate on the outskirts of Danehill village, near East Grinstead, around 1882 (Charles’ father had bought the property some years earlier). In 1893, Charles was elected Magistrate and in 1895, he stood for Parliamentary election as the Liberal Party’s candidate, the East Grinstead seat having been newly revived in 1885 after being abolished in 1832. Charles – noted to be ‘thoroughly business-like and a shrewd and able man… a true friend and leader of the Liberal Council and of Liberalism in [East Grinstead]’ – was confirmed as the Liberal candidate at a party meeting in East Grinstead at the end of April 1895 to ‘a warm reception’. The hot topic of the day appears to have been ‘the agricultural question’, but a report of the meeting in the Croydon Observer of 3 May 1895, notes that ‘Mr Corbett declared himself in favour of putting women on an equality with men and of manhood suffrage’, to applause from the assembled audience.
Charles was defeated at the election by the Conservative candidate but stood again at the 1900 election.
Charles’ election pledges are laid out in full in the Mid Sussex Times (9 October 1900), alongside an advertisement for a ‘Monster meeting’ to support his candidature, to be held at the Institute, Burgess Hill (where ‘liberal songs will be sung’) on October 9th. Amongst other things, Charles pledges to campaign for compensation ‘for every workman for all accidents’ (‘not, as at present, some workmen for some accidents’); education which is fully state-paid and state controlled (ending the reliance on rates and charity); a system of proportional representation – ‘one man, one vote’; poor law reform, which would see the aged and ‘deserving poor’ given relief in their own homes, without needing to be judged a pauper; and ‘although a firm believer in vaccination’, an end to compulsory vaccination, since ‘the Vaccination Laws cannot be enforced… and ‘we should get more persons vaccinated without compulsion than with it’ – a perhaps unexpectedly apposite discussion for our own times. The last of Charles’ pledges relates to women’s suffrage, and Charles states his view succinctly, but forthrightly:
I am most emphatically in favour of giving every qualified woman the Parliamentary Franchise. The maximum [sic] of no taxation without representation applies to women as well as men.
Charles was again defeated at the 1900 election but, undaunted, stood again in 1906, where he was returned as (Liberal) MP for East Grinstead, with a fairly slim majority of 262 votes, as part of a wider Liberal landslide. His election to Parliament appears to have proven inspirational to his daughter, Margery; having taken part in his various election campaigns, ‘she would sit up late at night in their London home until her father came back from the House[s of Parliament] and listen with rapt attention while he told her of the great debates on the burning issues of the day’ [Dr Michael Ashby – Margery’s son – writing in the Danehill Parish Historical Society’s booklet, Woodgate, published July 2010]; of course, it would be some years before women were allowed to take part in those great debates themselves .
Charles stood again at the January 1910 election but suffered his heaviest defeat yet, losing to a Conservative majority of 2,903. He remains the only non-Conservative MP ever to have represented East Grinstead, with the seat abolished again in 1983. In April 1910, Charles confirmed his intention not to stand for election again, partly due to poor health and the stresses of the campaign trail; instead, he turned his attention to women’s health. This appears to have been a family concern and in October 1910, Marie Corbett wrote to The Common Cause – the journal of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – expressing her deep displeasure at the lack of women involved with hospital management or on the medical staff at hospitals. She considered it ‘monstrous’ that a hospital with female nursing staff or which treated women and children ‘should be managed without the help of women’, arguing that this perpetuated ‘the notion that women are only fit to work under the guidance of men’.
In 1920, the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, on Windlesham Road, Brighton, was opened; given his wife’s views on the matter, it is perhaps not surprising that Charles became Vice Chairman of this new hospital, ‘officered by women doctors’ and founded ‘to meet the great and growing demand on the part of women for medical and surgical treatment by members of their own sex’ [New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, Report for year ending 1929]. Furthermore, Charles was one of three (male) members of the Board of Management, who built and fully equipped a sun parlour for three patients in 1929, in addition to other gifts (not always financial) bestowed upon the Hospital – for example, £112 to replace the boiler; Charles and his brother, Herbert, also fully equipped the hospital’s X Ray room. In addition to serving as Vice President, Charles was also Chairman of the Hospital’s Finance Committee and acted as Treasurer. Following Marie’s death in 1932, Charles decorated and equipped a new ward at the hospital, in honour of his wife.
Charles was also a President of the Danehill and Horsted Keynes Nursing Society, founded in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, the Society was helping to fund a district nurse whose duties included midwifery and general nursing, the supervision of the local Infant Welfare Centre – including holding a meeting every week where babies could be weighed and mothers given advice – health visiting children under school age, attending schools at the request of the Medical Officer, and following up medical cases at home where required. This was a key role in securing and improving the health of the district, and was supported wholeheartedly by both Charles and Marie, who also acted as President – a role Charles would hold from at least 1923 until his own death in November 1935.
An obituary for Charles in the Mid Sussex Times of 26 November 1935 calls him a ‘philanthropist… a fine old English gentleman and honoured by all who knew him’. Whilst that may be true, it perhaps skims over his contribution to improving the life, health and social status of women, both locally and nationally. As a Liberal politician, he wholeheartedly and vocally supported women’s suffrage in an area where support for the cause was distinctly lacking; indeed, such was the antipathy towards women’s suffrage, in 1909 the East Grinstead Observer published a series of nine lengthy articles – helpfully entitled ‘Against Women’s Suffrage’ by article number three – arguing against giving women the vote. Nonetheless, Charles continued to speak and write in support of women’s suffrage and, in 1910, a branch of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was founded in the town. This was followed by the East Grinstead Women’s Suffrage Society in 1911, founded by Marie Corbett herself, whose object was ‘to obtain the Parliamentary franchise for women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men’.
Charles and Marie would also raise two deeply political daughters; both women actively campaigned on their father’s behalf and went on to found the Younger Suffragists movement in 1909, while Charles was a serving MP, and both would stand (unsuccessfully) for Parliament at various points in their lives, under their married names of Margery Corbett Ashby and Cecily Corbett Fisher. In addition, Margery and Cecily were heavily involved in campaigning for women’s rights, liberalism, and feminism throughout their lives, both domestically and internationally, following the example set by their parents but on an even larger scale; Margery’s work would see her made a Dame of the British Empire in 1967. As a husband, father, politician, philanthropist and as a man, Charles Corbett worked throughout his own life to improve the lives of his fellow humans – most especially women – and it is fitting to remember his efforts to ‘build better relations between men and women’ on this International Men’s Day.
Further information about the Corbetts and their life at Woodgate (now Cumnor House School), Danehill, can be found on the Danehill Parish Historical Society’s website (https://www.danehillhistory.org/).
The Mapping Women’s Suffrage website features information about Marie Corbett and Dame Margery Corbett Ashby (https://www.mappingwomenssuffrage.org.uk/).
Dame Margery Corbett Ashby’s archives are held at The Women’s Library, London School of Economics (https://archives.lse.ac.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=7MCA&pos=11).