Page 1: Biography
Corpe, William Wescombe
Clerk, station manager, sawmiller, storekeeper, dairy manufacturer
This biography, written by Catherine Birch, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993, and updated in January, 2002.
William Wescombe Corpe (generally known as Wescombe) was born at Stoke St Gregory, Somerset, England, on 29 April 1836, the second child of Ann Wescombe and her husband, Joshua Corpe, a farmer. Following a local education he worked with his brother, Joseph, as a provision merchant at Windsor. Wescombe married Susan Crease at Milverton, Somerset, on 25 June 1858, and accompanied by Susan's brother, Edwin, the couple emigrated to New Zealand on the Robert Small, arriving in October that year. From Wellington they travelled to Nelson where Corpe worked for some years as a writing clerk for the Nelson Brewery. During this time his son Joseph was born. All other children of the marriage were either still-born or died in infancy. In 1877 Kate Challis, a neighbour's daughter, was fostered but not legally adopted.
Corpe had a fine tenor voice and sang on the stage. A severe haemorrhage suffered during a performance left him dangerously ill for some weeks, during which time he underwent a religious conversion. He became, like his parents, a devout Baptist, and no longer happy to work at the brewery took a position as manager of a sheep station at Mahakipawa (Linkwater). During the Wakamarina goldrush he found it very profitable to sell bread and meat to the miners.
About 1868 the family moved to the Carterton district in Wairarapa where Corpe established a flaxmill with his brother-in-law, Edwin Crease. Shortly after, the mill, the family home and a large area of flax were destroyed by fire. Corpe then purchased property at Taratahi (later Clareville) where he ran 300 sheep. In 1872 he built the Taratahi store, lived above it and ran a transport business to and from Wellington with a fleet of horses and waggons. He operated a timber yard adjacent to the store, and by 1878 had established the Union sawmill in Chester Road. This mill provided the timber for the windbreak on the Rimutaka railway.
Corpe, having found no Baptists in the district, had joined the Open Brethren. He built a chapel where each week he read one of C. H. Spurgeon's sermons until he himself learnt to preach. He seldom missed taking evening service and Sunday school at Clareville and later built a chapel and took services at Makino near Feilding.
In July 1881 Corpe sold his sawmill and moved to Makino and with his son Joseph leased a sawmill in Roots Street. The mill's lease was terminated in 1883. Corpe also operated other mills at Fry's Bush, McKays Road, Cheltenham, Raumai and Pohangina from 1881 onwards.
Corpe now became a pioneer of the New Zealand dairy industry; when farmers brought butter to his store in Makino to trade for goods, he reworked and salted it, selling it locally. The market soon expanded to Wellington, and in 1884 he was instrumental in establishing the company which formed the Makino Butter and Cheese Factory, of which he was a director. Although butter and cheese were exported to England and Sydney during this period, the factory was plagued with problems and in 1887 the company was wound up. At that time Corpe was visiting his widowed mother in England and had taken samples of New Zealand cheeses for English buyers. On his return in 1888 Corpe took over the factory on his own account. Later he was one of the first to experiment with storing kegs of butter in the meat freezer of a ship. The butter arrived in perfect condition and the high price it fetched enabled Corpe to pay a bonus to his milk suppliers. In the 1890s he established creameries for milk separation at Halcombe, Stanway, and Kimbolton Road as well as Makino.
At the request of farmers in the Campbelltown (Rongotea) area he began a butter factory there in 1893, but when falling prices in England threatened bankruptcy he was forced to sell to a local co-operative in 1895. Throughout the 1890s Corpe continued managing the Makino factory as well as his sawmills and a dairy farm which he purchased near Feilding. In 1903 he sold the butter factory to Joseph Nathan, and on retirement was presented with an illuminated address which called him 'Father of the Butter Industry' in the district.
Wescombe Corpe was involved in local affairs wherever he lived, being elected to school committees at Mahakipawa, and at Clareville where he was chairman and treasurer. The Clareville school was built on land which he donated. For 12 years he was a member of the Taratahi–Carterton Highway Board.
Susan Corpe died on 24 May 1906. In 1907 Corpe visited England, and on 27 August at Hackney, London, married Florence Ann Ellett, who had previously worked for him at Makino. They returned to New Zealand and their son, Wescombe Joshua, was born at Makino on 10 September 1908. They later moved to Feilding; after four years of ill health Corpe died on 26 March 1923. He was survived by his wife, Florence, and his sons, Joseph and Wescombe.