Just over 60 years
ago, Corby was an unobtrusive stone-built village with a population of only
1,500 - and a main street of cottages and shops, intermingled with several
old-fashioned pubs. Rising above this peaceful setting was the beautiful
old church of St. John the Baptist which was soon to witness the most startling
transformation in its history - the emergence of Corby as the boom town
of the 30's and a symbol of the age of steel. Very few of its inhabitants
would have envisaged the vast changes which were soon to take place, but
in order to appreciate its impact on the surrounding countryside, we must
first look at its earlier history.
Corby, or Corbei as
it was known in ancient times, has a long ancestry but very little history
compared with its illustrious neighbours at Deene Park, Kirby Hall and Rockingham
Castle. nevertheless, one of the earliest human relics ever to be unearthed
in Northamptonshire, was found in the parish - a skeleton together with
a knife or dagger, which both dated to the Bronze Age. The skeleton was
subsequently re-interred in the local churchyard, and the weapon taken to
the museum at Northampton. The name of the village dates back to the 8th
century when a group of Danish invaders, with their leader, Kori, settled
there. It thus became known as 'Kori's by' - Kori's settlement. The Viking
settlers also established a unique tradition, which would survive the years
as part of a later custom, the 'Pole Fair', during which 'riding the stang'
would take place.
The area around Corby
has always been rich in iron-ore which was excavated and worked before the
coming of the Romans, who it is believed, from various finds, had an ironworks
there during their occupation of the country. These rich deposits were to
be continually used throughout history. Royal furnaces, or 'ferraria' as
they were known, were also set up at nearby Geddington and Gretton from
the time of Edward the Confessor's reign to that of Henry III, and the Doomsday
Book names the 'Manor of Corbei' as an iron producing centre.
The extent of the ironstone
deposits in the Corby area became apparent with the coming of the railways
in the 19th century when further excavations revealed large ironstone beds.
Corby had its own ironstone works in 1910, the plant being taken over by
Stewarts and Lloyds in 1920, but it was not until 1933 that construction
began to tap the vast reserves under the surface of the surrounding countryside
to produce steel, and to manufacture tubes for the world's markets.
The large integrated
works soon began to take shape as hundreds of labourers poured into the
district to join the construction gangs, with Corby taking on the appearance
of a Gold Rush shanty town, rather than a sleepy old English Village. Workers
came from all over Britain, and early in 1934 the first contingent of Scottish
folk arrived to form a large proportion of the new population. During those
eventful days, men had walked from all corners of the country to obtain
work, the local public houses being unable to cope with the supply and demand
for beer. It was quite a common sight to see Irish labourers washing themselves
in the brook after sleeping rough all night under hedges or in old barns.
The first of the new
streets to be completed was Bessemer Grove, and about the same time the
rebuilt blast furnace was officially lit by Miss Elspeth MacDiarmid, youngest
daughter of the company's chairman. Neville chamberlain, the Prime Minister,
was taken on a tour of the plant in October of the same year, when it was
nearly completed, and in October 1935 , the first steel was tapped from
the Bessemer converters. Eventually, the social life of the town began to
settle down with new housing and sufficient facilities being provided for
the growing population.
During World War II,
the skills of Corby workers made a significant contribution to the invasion
of Europe, by developing the pipeline under the ocean (PLUTO), a cross-channel
link, carrying essential fuel to the Allied forces, as they advanced.
Despite the devastating
closure of the iron and steel making departments in the 1980's the town
rallied successfully, with the arrival of large companies like RS Components,
Oxford University Press and Avon Cosmetics, providing many greatly-needed
opportunities for employment. In 1982, Corby celebrated another Pole Fair.
This ancient custom is held every twenty years, and transforms the original
village area of the town into a colourful spectacle, with a carnival, fair,
barbeque, bonfire, tug of war, celebration ball, shows, games and displays.
Central to the occasion is the reading of the Royal Charter at the specially-placed
toll gate positions. People failing to pay the toll for entry are carried
off to the stocks - the men on a pole, the women in chairs.
Corby's Royal Charter
was granted in 1568 by Elizabeth 1 and is believed to have been granted
in return for personal services to Sir Christopher Hatton, her favourite
courtier. Another tradition gives the reason as a token of gratitude by
the Queen after her rescue by Corby men after she had fallen from her horse
in Rockingham Forest. She is said to have commanded all local authorities
in the country to exempt 'the men and tenants of the manor of Corbei' from
tolls and dues. Prior to the charter, Corby had been granted permission
to hold two fairs a year by Henry III in 1226, but these had long disappeared,
though customs were retained in the Pole Fair.