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Corbin, Horace Hugh (1879–1950)

by Michael Roche

Hugh Corbin, n.d.

Hugh Corbin, n.d.

[Horace] Hugh Corbin was an important, but now little-known figure at the start of forestry education in Australia and New Zealand. He was the main lecturer when forestry was taught for thirteen years in the University of Adelaide, before the Australian Forestry School was established. I had researched his career in New Zealand and the award of a Maxwell Jacobs Grant enabled me to spend the period 6–13 February 2011 in Adelaide in order to source records of his Australian career. While in the city, I was able to examine materials held in the State Library, in the State Records, in the Special Collections Room of the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide, as well as in the University of Adelaide archives. I had been able to make prior arrangements with the University of Adelaide archivist and librarians to see some of these items and can report that I was provided with all the materials sought and given access to excellent working space.

The University archives yielded a considerable amount of material relating to Corbin’s work as Lecturer in Forestry from 1912 to 1925 particularly pertaining to the establishment of the school. A number of scarce pamphlets and other articles by Corbin that argued the case for state forestry were located in the University library and the State Library. They give some sense of the efforts Corbin made to persuade the wider public of the merits of forestry. I was also able to examine a copy of Corbin’s working plan for Kuitpo forest, reputedly the first of its type in Australia.

Finally, State Records yielded an unexpected trove of material that threw light on Corbin’s working relationship with the S.A. Woods and Forests Department in addition to copies of some of his unpublished reports, for example on Kangaroo Island. I was also able to visit the Adelaide Botanical Gardens. At one stage Corbin’s name was put forward in the press for the vacant directorship which it was proposed would be held in conjunction with his university position.

Archival work is unpredictable in its returns, but in this instance there was a rich vein of material not only about Corbin but about his relationship with other prominent figures in Australian forestry pre-world War I to the mid-1920s, about some of the professional challenges he faced, particularly the establishment of an Australian Forestry School. While the Federal perspective for a single school has been canvassed from Lane Poole’s perspective in John Dargavel’s (2009) Zealous Conservator, Corbin’s Forestry department at the University of Adelaide was the only already established university degree forestry course in Australia. He was ultimately on the losing side in this argument that stretched from about 1911 to 1925

Some specific points emerged from the research. Corbin came to Australia because it enabled him to marry and live with his wife, whereas that was not practical while he was in India (shades of Lane Poole who was in Sierra Leone while his wife Ruth was in the UK). Unlike Lane Poole, however, Corbin was not one of the imperial forestry cadres of Nancy and Oxford forestry graduates, his own qualifications including a B.Sc. in natural sciences from London (1904) and a BSc in Agriculture specialising in Forestry from Edinburgh (1906). His career though followed a typical trajectory in terms of completing the forestry practical work for the India Forest Service in German forests and employment in India (albeit principally in agriculture rather than forestry) prior to his arrival in Australia.

He initially wrote to South Australia, and doubtless other places, but the Woods and Forests Department at that point had no vacancies and it was only after N.W. Jolly who had only been appointed on 1st October 1910, left the Department on 20th August 1911 to take up the position of Director of Forestry in Queensland, that Corbin was employed as his replacement as Instructor in Forestry. His appointment dated from 8 September and he arrived from the UK on 14th October 1911 shifting to the University as Lecturer in Forestry in 1912. Thus although the initial work on the forestry syllabus was developed by Jolly, it was left to Corbin to refine the plans and have them approved by the university council.

As a university trained forester, Corbin experienced to some degree the tensions that arose between university qualified foresters and forestry administrators who were experienced public servants but without formal forestry qualifications. Lane Poole reacted stridently; Owen Jones in Victoria was more circumspect, at least while he was part of the Victorian Forestry Commission, while Corbin found himself in a different situation. On the one hand he was frustrated that Walter Gill, long time head of Woods and Forests, did not make more use of his technical advice and it took much time and effort to have the management of the Kuitpo forest wrested away from Woods and Forests and turned over to Corbin and the university. On the other hand Corbin was obliged to defend the Adelaide forestry graduates against Lane Poole’s labelling of all Australian forestry training as inadequate. He also encountered a probably unexpected challenge to the need for university qualified foresters from none other than his predecessor as Instructor in Forestry N.W. Jolly a South Australian former Rhodes Scholar who had completed a forestry diploma at Oxford and worked briefly in Burma before returning to Australia. Yet although the numbers of graduates from Adelaide forestry was low, Corbin did turn out some students who enjoyed a distinguished place in Australian forestry for instance Steven Kessell and T. N. Stoate in Western Australia, and B. Bednall in South Australia.

The question of university forestry education in Australia had been raised at Interstate Forestry conferences as early as 1911. Arguments over funding models meant that the idea languished but it appears that Corbin had some expectations that the established Adelaide school would be in a position to take students from outside South Australia and become a de facto national school.

Simultaneously Corbin was exceedingly busy with much out-of-term time being given over to field camps for his students and consulting work for Woods and Forests. In addition there was the personal frustration of having the university council turn down his request to be promoted to Professor of Forestry. That the University of Adelaide was quick to bestow the title on N.W. Jolly who returned temporarily to head the Australian Forestry School when it was based at Adelaide after Corbin’s department was disestablished and prior to its move to Canberra could have not escaped Corbin’s attention. Doubtless some University of Adelaide administrators would have hoped that they could play a waiting game and make the ‘temporary stay’ of the Australian Forestry School in Adelaide more long term. Corbin might have once harboured hopes of becoming head of any new Australia wide school that might emerge separate from Adelaide, but in the light of his disputes with Lane Poole may have felt his chances of appointment were slight. In any event it helps explain the next stage of his career.

In 1925 he had accepted the position of Professor of Forestry at Auckland University College. He confided to New Zealand Director of Forests L.M. Ellis in 1924 that [he] was ready to leave South Australia because of the battles over the Australian Forestry School. Indeed he had unsuccessfully applied for a position at the Imperial Forestry Institute at Oxford in 1924. Despite his frustrations Corbin did not turn his back on South Australia, after his appointment to Auckland he made arrangements to complete the final examination of his last students from New Zealand and went to some lengths to ensure that Kuitpo forest remained under the management of a university forestry committee. In this latter case he was unsuccessful and management of the forest reverted to the Woods and Forests Department.

Ellis the Canadian Director of Forests in New Zealand, and a Toronto forestry graduate, was asked by Auckland University to help short list the candidates who included some of his own staff. Owen Jones, then having left the Victorian Forestry Commission for the position of Forestry Administrator with New Zealand Perpetual Forests did not finally put his name forward, at least partly because of the College’s restrictive attitude to outside consultancy work. It appears that Ellis favoured his Chief Inspector, Arnold Hansson who had Forestry qualifications from Norway and Yale University and had Canadian experience. This left a paper trail in the files that were picked up in the official history of the University of Auckland and which portrayed Corbin in an unfairly negative light as someone who had been holding back the progress of Australian forestry education and was now likely to do the same in New Zealand.

What Corbin was not to realise was that he was actually moving to a more perilous situation with the huge provincial jealousies inherent in the federal University of New Zealand system with its several constituent colleges. When after long debate no resolution could be reached on a single site for a forestry school, two under resourced forestry schools were created, at Auckland and Canterbury in 1925.

Corbin held the Professorship at Auckland but had no staff (as at Adelaide), while two forestry lecturers (Foweraker and Hutchinson) were appointed at Canterbury but no chair. In 1931 the two departments were consolidated at Canterbury. Corbin expected to be transferred to Christchurch but his position was disestablished and he was forced at 52 years of age to make a new career for himself as a forestry consultant. Fortunately, he had done some consulting work since he arrived in New Zealand, though this was a reluctant concession, with strict conditions imposed by the council of Auckland University College and also attracted criticism from the New Zealand State Forest Service.

Initially he provided advice to bond selling afforestation companies such as New Zealand Perpetual Forests (the forerunner of New Zealand Forest Products). The State Forest Service was concerned about the forest growth rates and financial returns that companies were advertising and that Corbin was apparently endorsing some of these claims. Ultimately he became Technical Director and then a full Director of Timberland in New Zealand Ltd which later as Whakatane Board Mills by 1939 was producing wood pulp from its own plantation forests. Corbin made light of his difficulties in New Zealand when he gave evidence before the Royal Commission on Afforestation in South Australia in 1936, but the years from 1931 to 1934 must have been one of financial uncertainty. His letter head in 1932 lists him as a ‘Consulting Forester, Forest Economist, Agronomist, and Landscape Architect’ suggesting he was prepared to turn his hand to a range of tasks to make ends meet.

Arguably Corbin’s career in University forestry was more successful in Australia than New Zealand, certainly it lasted longer, though ironically the sought-after chair actually spelt an end to his time in forestry education. The question of whether the exhilaration of getting the Adelaide school on its feet and of the possibilities that it might become a school for all Australia needs to be weighed against the later frustrations. He remained known as ‘Professor Corbin’ in New Zealand until his death and long after his connection with the university was severed.

I had some previous knowledge of Corbin’s role in New Zealand as Professor of Forestry and as a director at Whakatane Board Mills and had accepted the local historical interpretation that painted his time in Australia in terms of failure and suggested that he was unsuited to the requirements of forestry education in New Zealand. John Dargavel, then close to finishing his Lane Poole biography contested my comments at an Australian Forest History Society Conference and this triggered my interest in finding out more about Corbin’s Australian forestry career. Although I will need to carefully and critically weigh the evidence that I had collected in Adelaide, the preliminary conclusions point to Corbin comparatively lengthy period as Lecturer in Forestry at Adelaide being in some ways quite productive; to his having made strenuous efforts to make the case for forestry and its financial sense to the public and various industry groups. He also played an important role in terms of bringing together statistical information for early interstate forestry conferences as well as discussing the future of forestry in Australia.

My impression is that the Australian Forestry School at Canberra has received due historical attention, but that this has had the unintended effect of overshadowing the prior existence of forestry at the University of Adelaide and its contribution, a simple metric makes the point; the Australian Forestry School remained for 39 years from 1926 to 1965 but the overlooked Adelaide school preceded it and existed for 13 years from 1912 to 1925.

A question that remains to be explored further is the extent to which Corbin’s Australian experience equipped him for his role in commercial afforestation in New Zealand. Potentially it is significant in that Corbin was able to gain some direct experience of mature Pinus radiata plantations which must have enabled him to sense the real possibilities for company forestry in New Zealand, something the promoters did not really have. His experiments with timber preservation also alerted him to the wider range of end uses for Pinus radiata that were then commonly recognised. Likewise Australia’s early investigations into wood pulping would also have given him added confidence to push ahead with the planning for pulpwood manufacture of Pinus radiata in New Zealand.

Original Publication

  • Forester, vol 54, no 4, December 2011, pp 20-21

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Michael Roche, 'Corbin, Horace Hugh (1879–1950)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/corbin-horace-hugh-18273/text29873, accessed 22 September 2017.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Hugh Corbin, n.d.

Hugh Corbin, n.d.