Obituary: Martin Corke
Friday 04 February 1994
DYNASTIES in business, as in politics, develop traditions that steadily influence the people involved, and their neighbouring communities. One such dynasty moulded the career of Martin Corke, who died of cancer two weeks ago in a beautifully emparked hospital built for the Health Authority he served for 38 years - 11 of them as chairman.
The business he served, as director and managing director, was the Greene King brewery in Bury St Edmunds, the ancient capital of West Suffolk: in his time it emerged as one of the dozen biggest breweries in Britain.
Not the least interesting aspect of the dynasty (the Greenes and the Kings merged their adjoining brewhouses in 1887) is the way descendants of the two families have contributed to the arts and to sport as well as to business and local government. Graham Greene the novelist and Sir Hugh Carleton Greene the Director-General of the BBC were great-nephews of the first chairman of Greene King; Christopher Isherwood was a great-grandson. Martin Corke was a grandson of the first managing director, Edward Lake, whose mother, Mary Greene, was the first chairman's sister.
Corke was born at Murree, the northern hill station of the Punjab, where his father commanded the 16 Punjab Regiment. With spectacular views of the mountains of Kashmir, and one of the most stimulating climates in the world, it was the perfect playground for a boy who took to riding and hunting as eagerly as most of us take to cycling. He was sent home to school at Radley, where he became captain of cricket; but already the family brewery at Bury was in his mind.
At 15 he is easily recognisible in the official photograph of 'the first mash in the New Brewhouse, January 1939', with Major Lake (managing director) in the middle and his nephew Martin beside the chemist and the head brewer.
That year, the Second World War began and Martin joined his parents in India. He taught Classics, briefly, before joining his father's regiment. But, in 1944, he went down with tuberculosis and was invalided out of the Army. It must have seemed the worst setback of his career.
Fortunately, there was the brewery. His grandfather and his uncle had been so much at the heart of Bury life for half a century that in the 1930s and 1940s, it was affectionately known as the Lake District. It was not just their business acumen that benefited Bury. The grandfather was Master of the Suffolk Hunt from 1871 till 1875, when a visitor to the brewery was surprised by 'the music of 50 couples of foxhounds'. At the time of the merger, the head of the King clan was Master. One sees what congenial conditions awaited Corke in the brewery.
Six of his grandfather's sons fought in the First World War and all returned safely, as did two of the Greenes: his grandfather created as a War Memorial one of the best sports grounds in East Anglia, supervised by an England and Essex professional cricketer. It became the ground of the county club that Corke played for from 1946; moulding it with care and skill as captain from 1954 to 1964, and scoring over 3,000 runs. (He also managed to play hockey for Cambridge, both City and County teams.)
He and the younger directors of the brewery managed to fend off some dangerous takeover manoeuvres, and he had notable success as Marketing Director. He had the necessary perseverance, and instinct for business, that served him so well in his work for the Health Authorities and led to his chairmanship of them, in the years 1982-93. He was a magistrate from 1961; Chairman of the St Edmundsbury Bench from 1982 to 1985. At the national level, he was Chairman, from 1986 to 1990, of the Council for the Professions Supplementary to Medicine, which included the paramedics.
In 1946 he married Jean Armour, daughter of the sporting artist GD Armour, and her passion for the fine arts encouraged his own feelings. I once came upon him in the Rijksmuseum, but one might equally easily have found him in the Louvre or the Prado or the Fitzwilliam. Jean and he took the lead in rescuing Bury's little Theatre Royal, delightfully designed in 1819 by the architect William Wilkins. For the rest of his life he campaigned tirelessly for it. Within weeks of his death, he made up a party for a new opera based on Zola's Therese Raquin: 'We mustn't miss a world premiere in the Theatre Royal,' he said. It was a perverse composition, but we enjoyed the singing.
I first met him nearly 30 years ago, coming into the house after a successful cricket match: in youthfulness and vigour he always seemed a good five years younger than me, and I was astonished, last year, to find he was exactly a month younger. After his last extensive cancer surgery, the thought of riding revived him. He strapped himself together, mounted and cantered away happi1y thinking, perhaps, of those distant ridges in Kashmir.
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