Hubert Bower Corben
Monumental mason, founder of HB Corben & Sons (mid 1880s to 1958)
The Corben family came from Worth Matravers, Dorset, U.K. where they were stonemasons, a trade that they continued with great success in Melbourne after their arrival in the 1850s. Hubert, born in 1857, established his own monumental mason business in Smith Street Clifton Hill in 1880. HB Corben & Sons became a respected and long-standing business that was an integral part of the Clifton Hill community and also became well-known for war memorials across Victoria.
Two brothers Isaac and Reuben had arrived in Melbourne in 1854 and 1857 respectively. Other members of their extended family followed in later years. Once settled they saw opportunities in the growing city of Melbourne and soon established themselves as highly respected stonemasons and members of the local community. Isaac was a founding member of Wilson, Corben & Co and one of the 12 who pioneered the call for an Eight Hour Day in 1856, as well as a member of The Old Colonists Association, while Reuben’s son Hubert founded HB Corben & Sons.
While Hubert was growing up with his siblings and extended family around Carlton and North Fitzroy, his father Reuben and uncle Isaac were establishing themselves as builders, stonemasons, and stone merchants working with slate, bluestone and marble both in Melbourne and Sydney. Reuben was a member of a government appointed board established to investigate whether stone from the Grampians quarries was of high enough quality to be used on the western front of Parliament House. Meanwhile Wilson, Corben & Co were winning prizes at various exhibitions for their enamelled slate and polished marble mantelpieces and securing Government contracts in Melbourne and Sydney for kerbing, hearth stones and steps and use of enamelled slate. All of this enterprise must have made an impression on Hubert and his brother Joseph when in 1880 they established their Monumental Masons business in Smith Street, Clifton Hill, opposite the Gasworks. It was originally Brown, Corben & Co but the name changed to HB Corben & Sons in the late 1880s.
The closeness of the two brothers extended beyond the workplace. They lived side-by-side in a pair of brick houses built in 1891 in Walker Street Clifton Hill. Here Hubert would remain for some years as his family grew up. Both Hubert and Reuben later moved to nearby North Fitzroy. Eldest surviving son Edwin attended Kings College in North Terrace, Clifton Hill, where he gained many prizes in the late 1890s. The schools of his brothers and sister have yet to be identified.
The family had a strong work ethic and were successful in winning many contracts. Hubert’s sons Edwin, Clifford and Leslie all went into the business. In 1907 Hubert died aged 49 after a short illness but his sons continued the business for many years. Under Hubert’s will, the Monumental Mason works in Smith Street with sheds and showrooms was left to Leslie. Edwin, Clifford, Evelyn and Stanley each received one of Hubert’s four houses in McKean Street, North Fitzroy. In 1924, Edwin, Leslie and Clifford registered a new company called HB Corben & Sons Pty Ltd, that acquired the going concern of HB Corben & Sons.
In the early days, they were mainly concerned with grave monuments, marble and enamelled wood mantelpieces and general masonry work. This changed during the 20th century when HB Corben and Sons became well known for their work on memorials. An early memorial for the Boer War located in Sale, Victoria was erected in 1909. They also won the contract for the Explorers Memorial in Swan Hill in 1914 and the Ross and Keith Smith Memorial in 1922, which commemorates their plane landing in Darwin on 10 December 1919. In the aftermath of World War 1, with the high loss of life from many country towns and suburbs in Australia, local communities raised money for a fitting memorial, a substitute grave where relatives could grieve for the fallen buried in foreign fields. Many of these were ‘Digger statues’, a carved figure of an AIF soldier standing on a pedestal. In late 1915, Corbens employed August Rietman, a stone artisan of German-Swiss heritage, who possessed the skills and artistry to carve statues from blocks of marble .The ‘Digger’ statues manufactured by H.B. Corben & Sons that grace an unknown number of Victorian towns were probably carved by Rietman, who worked at Corbens until 1930.
The Corben war memorials ranged from the Digger figures standing on stepped pedestals to sombre non-figurative cenotaphs, obelisks, granite pillars and columns. Some of the latter can be found at Portarlington 1919, Werribee 1921, Morwell 1921, Moe 1921, Warragul 1922, Williamstown 1925, St Kilda 1925 and North Melbourne 1926. There is a detailed description of the Portarlington Soldiers Memorial in the Geelong Advertiser 19 March 1919 page 5.
The Digger Memorials by H.B. Corben & Sons have not all been identified but those that have can be found in Clunes 1920, Boort 1921, Inglewood, Coleraine, St Arnaud and Bonnie Doon. They were all designed and made between 1919 and 1921. These war memorials cemented the name of HB Corben & Sons as a foremost manufacturer of such memorials and they were highly regarded in the competitive world of monumental masons. The firm had branches and agents right across Victoria which no doubt enabled them to continue to grow and expand their business. There are also war memorials by HB Corben & Sons in other states, notably the War Memorial in Launceston, Tasmania.
During the late 1920s and into the 1930s, Corbens took on the manufacturing of other memorials such as the JM Bennett Memorial in St Kilda 1926-27. J.M. Bennett was one of the mechanics on that epic first flight to Australia by Ross and Keith Smith. Others were a cairn to Sir John Franklin on Arthurs Seat 1929, the Sir John Monash Memorial in Yallourn 1932 (funded by the SEC employees ), the grave of Robert Capron in the Fawkner Cemetery 1936 (an American comedian who gave his life saving a puppy from drowning ) and the Jack Donaldson World Champion Runner Memorial in Stawell 1939. In the latter years the firm went back to its origins and were mainly doing monumental mason work in cemeteries.
HB Corben & Sons were members of and on the executive of the Master Masons Association, appeared before the Tariff Board arguing for reduced tariffs on imported marble, which would increase employment during the Depression, and were often in court suing in order to recover money due to non-payment of work carried out by the firm.
HB Corben & Sons were a well-known, respected and long-standing business that was an integral part of the Clifton Hill community, described favourably by councils and other employers when assessing tenders. As summarised by the Launceston War Memorial Committee: ‘they were people of very high reputation and a firm that carried out big works.’
Reitman in workshop
47 and 45 Walker Street
|Birth Date||Birth Place|
|Spouse Name||Date of Marriage||Children|
|Catherine Annie Wilson||1880||Alfred Hubert (1881-1881), Edwin Reuben (1882 – 1947), Evelyn Clarice (1884 – 1961) Clifford Emanuel (1886 – 1927), Leslie William (1888 – 1947), Stanley Wilson (1890 -1918)|
|Home Street||Home City||Status of Building|
|47 walker Street||Clifton Hill||Extant|
|Work Street||Work City||Status of Building|
|634 Smith Street||Clifton Hill||Demolished|
|Wesleyan Methodist Church, Wellington Street Clifton Hill||Court Brunswick, Ancient Order of Foresters (United Melbourne District)|
|Death Date||Death Place||Cemetery|
|9 July 1907||North Fitzroy||Melbourne General Cemetery|
The Age, The Argus, The Fitzroy City Press, The Australasian, RHSV History News Issue no. 328, February-March 2017 page 9, Gippsland Times, Geelong Advertiser, Daily Telegraph, (Launceston) Monument Australia: http://monumentaustralia.org.au, Heritage Council of Victoria: www.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au, Port Phillip City Council: www.heritage.portphillip.vic.gov.au
Inglis, Sacred places: war memorials in the Australian landscape