Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rowallan, second Baron (1895–1977)

by Guy Green

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir Thomas Godfrey Polson Corbett, 2nd Baron Rowallan (1895-1977), army officer and governor, was born on 19 December 1895 at Chelsea, London, second of three children of Archibald Cameron Corbett, merchant, politician and benefactor, and his wife Alice Mary, née Polson (d.1902). His father was created Baron Rowallan of Rowallan in 1911. Educated at Eton, 'Billy' joined the Ayrshire Yeomanry at the age of 18 and served at Gallipoli, in Egypt and Palestine, and on the Western Front. On 30 March 1918 near Boyelles, France, he was badly wounded in his left leg when, under 'heavy fire and in full view of the enemy', he dug out wounded soldiers. For his deeds he was awarded the Military Cross. He uncomplainingly endured pain in his leg for the rest of his life.

On 14 August 1918 at the Church of St Andrew, St Andrews, Scotland, Corbett married with Episcopalian forms Gwyn Mervyn Grimond (d.1971). He ran the family estate at Rowallan Castle, Kilmarnock, and developed into an expert dairy-farmer and cattle breeder. In 1933 he succeeded his father as second baron. He was president of the Royal Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland, chairman of Brown & Polson, grain and flour merchants, and a governor (1951-59) of the National Bank of Scotland.

In 1939 Rowallan raised a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. By contriving to have himself examined by an elderly army doctor with impaired eyesight, he was passed as medically fit despite his injured leg. In April 1940 he led his men to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force and in June brought them safely back to England. He was involved in training potential officers until he retired from the army in 1944 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1922 he had joined the Boy Scouts' Association. As chief scout (1945-59) of the British Commonwealth and Empire, he devoted himself to reinvigorating and unifying the movement. Appointed K.B.E. (1951) and K.T. (1957), he was awarded the honorary degree of LL.D. by the universities of McGill, Canada (1948), Glasgow, Scotland (1952), and Birmingham, England (1957).

Although the State conference of the Australian Labor Party had resolved (1958) that the next governor of Tasmania should be an Australian, Rowallan was appointed on 28 May 1959. He arrived in Hobart on 21 October and was sworn in that day. Hard working and conscientious, he travelled to most parts of the State and interested himself in virtually every area of endeavour. His speeches, delivered without notes, were thoughtful, pertinent and personal. He developed a genuine affection for the island and a real appreciation of its physical, cultural and economic assets.

Committed to promoting Tasmania and to protecting its interests, Rowallan became a strong defender of States' rights in general and the sovereignty of Tasmania in particular. Following serious floods in 1960, he requested a message of sympathy from the Queen. The casual way in which the secretary of state for Commonwealth relations and the office of the governor-general responded to his request seemed to him to be further evidence of a general erosion of the State's rights. Rowallan began a campaign to reaffirm Tasmania's sovereignty and its right to deal directly with the Monarch. Backed by the opinion of Chief Justice Sir Stanley Burbury, he engaged in extensive correspondence with the governors-general Viscount Dunrossil and Viscount De L'Isle, the secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, and the Queen's private secretary.

Rowallan found himself caught up in a cause célèbre arising from the dismissal (1956) of Sydney Sparkes Orr as professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania. He withstood representations from church leaders and, as the university's visitor, dismissed a petition supporting Orr from ten members of convocation.

While in Tasmania, Rowallan maintained his interest in dairy-cattle. Granted registration as a Tasmanian breeder, he built up a stud of Jerseys in the paddocks at Government House. He enjoyed photography, golf and sailing, and bought a Derwent-class yacht, Nymph, which he skippered himself and gave to the Sea Scouts. Tall and erect, he had an infectious laugh and was by nature interested in people. Those close to him described him as having 'the eye of a guards sergeant and the heart of a chaplain general'. Like his father, he was teetotal, but was happy to serve liquor at Government House. His popularity was deserved. He received many tributes and honours, including several not usually associated with the office of governor—a railway locomotive was named after him, and he was made an honorary life member (1963) of the Royal Society of Tasmania.

In 1961 Rowallan was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the palate, for which he received treatment in London. His term of office ended on 25 March 1963 and he returned to Scotland. In 1976 he published his autobiography, Rowallan, in Edinburgh. He died on 30 November 1977 at Glasgow and was cremated. His daughter and four of his five sons survived him; his other son, John, a member of the Grenadier Guards, had been killed in action in Europe in 1944.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1971-1980 (Oxford, 1986)
  • R. Davis, Open to Talent (Hob, 1990)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 100, 1957
  • Mercury (Hobart), 29 May, 22 Oct, 30 Oct 1959, 17 May 1960, 13 Oct 1962, 26 Mar 1963
  • Times (London), 1 Dec 1977
  • NS422/17 and TA315 file AC230 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

Guy Green, 'Rowallan, second Baron (1895–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rowallan-second-baron-11571/text20653, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Corbett, Thomas Godfrey Polson
Birth

19 December 1895
London, England

Death

30 November 1977
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland

Cultural Heritage
Occupation