Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts have been found in the area surrounding Corby and human remains dating to the Bronze Age were found in 1970 at Cowthick.The first evidence of permanent settlement comes from the 8th century when Danish invaders arrived and the settlement became known as “Kori’s by” – Kori’s settlement. The settlement was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Corbei”. Corby’s emblem, the raven, derives from an alternative meaning of this word. These Danish roots were recognised in the naming of the most southern of the town’s housing estates, Danesholme, around which one of the Danish settlements was located.
Corby was granted the right to hold two annual fairs and a market by Henry III in 1226. In 1568 Corby was granted a charter by Elizabeth I that exempted local landowners from tolls (the fee paid by travellers to use the long distance public roads), dues (an early form of income tax) and gave all men the right to refuse to serve in the local militia. A popular legend is that the Queen was hunting in Rockingham Forest when she (dependent on the legend) either fell from her horse or became trapped in a bog whilst riding. Upon being rescued by villagers from Corby she granted the charter in gratitude for her rescue. Another popular explanation is that it was granted as a favour to her alleged lover Sir Christopher Hatton.
The Corby Pole Fair is an event that has taken place every 20 years since 1862 in celebration of the charter. The next pole fair is to be held in 2022.
From rural village to industrial town
The local area has been worked for iron ore since Roman times. An ironstone industry developed in the 19th century with the coming of the railways and the discovery of extensive ironstone beds. By 1910 an ironstone works had been established. In 1931 Corby was a small village with a population of around 1,500. It grew rapidly into a reasonably sized industrial town, when the owners of the ironstone works, the steel firm Stewarts & Lloyds, decided to build a large integrated ironstone and steel works on the site. The start of construction in 1934 drew workers from all over the country including many workers from the depressed West of Scotland and Irish labourers. The first steel was produced in October 1935 and for decades afterwards the steel works dominated the town. By 1939 the population had grown to around 12,000, at which time Corby was thought to be the largest “village” in the country, but it was at that point that Corby was re-designated an urban district (see the Local Government section below).
The 1940s and 1950s
During World War II the Corby steelworks were expected to be a target for German bombers but in the event there were only a few bombs dropped by solitary planes and there were no casualties. This may be because the whole area was blanketed in huge dense black, low lying clouds created artificially by the intentional burning of oil and latex to hide the glowing Bessemer converter furnaces at the steelworks from German bomber crews. The only known remaining scars from German attacks can be found in the form of bullet holes visible on the front fascia of the old post office in Corby village (now known as Maddison’s Bar and Storm nightclub). Nobody really knows the exact circumstances under which the attack occurred, but a local apocryphal tale tells of a lone pilot making his way back to Germany after a successful raid on Coventry who spotted some lights so decided to finish off his already depleted stock of bullets. Sadly, the authenticity of this romanticised tale can neither be verified or denied, but it is certainly the most popular theory among locals. The Corby steelworks made a notable contribution to the war effort by manufacturing the steel tubes used in Operation Pluto (Pipe Line Under the Ocean) to supply fuel to Allied forces on the European continent.
By 1950 the population of the town stood at 18,000. In that year Corby was designated a new town and the town underwent its second wave of expansion, mainly from Scotland, which resulted in a car-friendly layout with many areas of open space and woodland.
The decline of the steel industry
In 1967 the British steel industry was nationalised and the Stewarts & Lloyds steel tube works at Corby became part of British Steel. In 1973 the government approved a strategy of consolidating steel making in five main areas – South Wales, Sheffield, Scunthorpe, Teesside and Scotland – most of which are coastal sites with access to economic supplies of iron rich imported ores. Thus in 1975 the government agreed a programme that would lead to the phasing-out of steel making in Corby. In November 1979 the end of iron and steel making in Corby was formally announced. By the end of 1981 over 5,000 jobs had been lost from British Steel in Corby, and further cuts took the total loss to 11,000 jobs, leading to an unemployment rate of over 30%. Steel tube making continued, however, initially being supplied with steel by rail from Teesside and later from South Wales.
New industry was subsequently attracted to the town and by 1991 unemployment had returned to the national average. The recovery of Corby was explained in 1990 by John Redwood, then a junior minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, as being a result of the establishment of an Enterprise Zone, the promotion of Corby by the government, the work of private investors and the skills of the work force. Others believe the town’s recovery was significantly assisted by its central location and substantial grants from the EU.