The death of Peter Corby may not resonate with anyone under the age of 40.
But in the pantheon of British inventors, he must surely figure as a giant worthy of mention in the same distinguished breath as Sir James Dyson, of bagless vacuum cleaner fame, or Percy Shaw, who came up with the reflective stud (‘cat’s eye’) for lighting roads at night.
Corby, inventor of the Corby Trouser Press, died this month aged 97 but his invention lives on, despite its abiding association with a certain type of hotel where ‘tea and coffee-making facilities’ amount to a plastic kettle, indifferent teabags and sachets of instant coffee and powdered milk.
Go on, laugh if you must — just as Steve Coogan did in an episode of I’m Alan Partridge called ‘Basic Alan’.
Remember that one, when he dismantled an electric Corby Trouser Press in his Cambridgeshire budget hotel room near the A11, as a means of ironing out his boredom?
But the truth is that Peter Corby was an unsung sartorial hero, in a British tradition that did not take itself too seriously as it played on gender stereotypes in the 1960s which might be frowned upon today.
‘Even in our liberated times, few husbands know how to press trousers properly,’ ran one newspaper ad, ‘which is why you should buy him a Corby electrically heated press… so easy to operate that men manage at first try.’
The trouser press’s inventor, Peter Corby (pictured), who died aged 97, was inspired to develop his product’s electrical heating pad after a chance meeting with a Concorde aeronautical engineer
I am the proud owner of not one Corby Trouser Press but two, just as my late father was.
His nightly ritual involved placing his trousers carefully between the two upright heated pads, pressing down the chrome levers and turning the switch to its maximum of 45 minutes, upon which a little red light flashed, before brushing his teeth and clambering into bed.
While the trouser press has attracted a good deal of sneering among the chattering classes over the years, sales remain buoyant (you are looking at around £120 for the standard Corby 3300 model, £170 for the Corby 7700, which comes in a maple finish; or £230 for the Executive Plus, complete with built-in mirror).
Why? Because the trouser press does exactly what is asked of it. If you want to rid your trousers of creases, the Corby will deliver.
The pricier models even come with an attached hanger for your jacket and a tray at the top for whatever might be in your trouser pockets — loose change, keys or a face mask.
Invented in the 1960s, it was a device which became an aspirational product for the British middle classes. The Corby electric trouser press – still a common feature of hotel bedrooms up and down the country – banished ‘baggy knees’ and gave its users a sense of warm satisfaction
Peter Corby owed a lot of his fame to his father, John, who in 1930 began selling what were called ‘valet stands’ (on which to hang a suit) from his home in Windsor, and whose first customer was the venerable gentleman’s outfitter Austin Reed, which had its flagship store in London’s Regent Street.
The valet stands were useful — but something more was needed to get rid of stubborn wrinkles in trousers, especially the area at the back of the knee where creases have a tendency to gather in unsightly abundance.
It was a chance meeting between Peter, an RAF flight engineer, and an aeronautical engineer working on Concorde that was the inspiration for the trouser press.
The latter had worked out how to prevent the supersonic plane’s iconic drooping nose cone freezing at high altitude.
Episode of Alan Partridge in which he dismantles an electric Corby Trouser Press in his Cambridgeshire budget hotel room near the A11
In the early 1960s, Peter applied a similar technology, using two electrically heated (up to 60c) pads with the aim of ‘pressing a pair of trousers more quickly and producing a better appearance of the trousers than known presses’ and patented the idea. (Somewhat belatedly, the ads promised they were ‘perfect for women’s slacks, too’.)
He then negotiated a huge number of leasing arrangements with hotel chains, which would advertise their rooms as coming ‘with a trouser press’ in the same way that some establishments today bang on about their wondrous espresso machines.
This seemed to work well, in an era when thousands of salesmen travelled the length and breadth of the country and, after many hours of driving, needed to be well turned-out the next day to meet customers.
In 1977, Peter sold the firm to the Mary Quant holding company Thomas Jourdan plc and it has been passed on a few times in the intervening years.
It is currently owned by the Fired Up Corporation Ltd, based in Huddersfield, and has been rebranded Corby of Windsor.
This advert in the Daily Mail invited would-be buyers to ‘return handsome dividends’. It added: ‘Today’s man looks 100 per cent. Never crumpled. He owns a Corby trouser press’
The presses are made almost entirely in Britain — although there is one factory in China — and, despite their standing joke status, are exported to more than 60 countries.
‘For those who value both their appearance and their time, a Corby Trouser Press really is a man’s best friend,’ claimed a magazine advertisement in 2002.
Not the most original of slogans, perhaps, but I can vouch for their reliability and would even say they have acquired ‘retro chic’ status, along with the Teasmade and the hostess trolley.
Pop your trousers in for just 20 minutes and they will look as if they have been returned from a high-end dry cleaners.
Many of our elected representatives certainly know their value — and there was some unexpected publicity for the Corby press during the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, when Chris Huhne, who three years later resigned from the coalition Cabinet after being charged with perverting the course of justice over a speeding case, was among several MPs to have claimed £119 for a Corby Trouser Press.
Huhne later agreed to repay the money to ‘avoid controversy’ and admitted that the claim was ‘a bit Alan Partridge’.
Many years earlier, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band had included a satirical track called Trouser Press on their 1968 album The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse.
Indeed, trouser presses were regarded as so uncool that in the 1980s a trendy, alternative music magazine was named after them.
Peter Corby and his invention can easily be mocked.
Less so his distinguished career in the RAF, where he joined 78 Squadron towards the end of the war and flew in a Halifax bomber.
Later, after a period of teaching at Transport Command, he returned to flying duties in the Lincoln bomber with 15 Squadron.
This festive advert for the Corby trouser press referenced The Twelve Days of Christmas song
He was a keen sailor, making several Atlantic crossings in the 1970s, drawing on his RAF navigation skills. At that time, he was a wealthy man and became a name at Lloyd’s before losing much of what he had gained during the insurance crisis of the early 1990s.
Many inventors have a touch of the eccentric about them and Peter was no different.
After retiring to the Isle of Wight, he continued indulging his love of experimental gadgets, including a train set that lowered from the garage roof with the help of an electric motor, various tie-press machines, and a dumbwaiter that ascended from the kitchen to the first floor at the flick of a switch.
But his name will forever be associated with the trouser press and, yes, hotels still provide them — although I notice that nowadays they tend to be stored in a wardrobe or attached to the back of a cupboard door.
Such reticence is entirely misplaced. The Corby Trouser Press is a timely reminder of the importance of being pressed as well as dressed.
And while the crumpled look may have done our current Prime Minister no harm, there are still those of us who like a proper crease at the front of our trousers — and are happy to be laughed at for achieving it.