Corbett, Thomas Godfrey Polson, second Baron Rowallan 1895-1977, chief scout of the British Commonwealth and Empire, was born in Chelsea 19 December 1895, the second of three children and elder son of Archibald Cameron Corbett and his wife, Alice Mary, (died 1902), daughter of John Polson of Castle Levan, Gourock, director of the firm Brown & Polson. His father, a Scottish business man and landowner, for many years a Liberal MP and a notable benefactor of the city of Glasgow, was created Lord Rowallan in 1911. He was educated at Eton and joined the Ayrshire Yeomanry at the age of eighteen, serving in Gallipoli, Egypt, and Palestine in World War I. After the second battle of Gaza he transferred to the Grenadier Guards, and suffered a severe leg wound on the western front. He was awarded the MC, but was invalided out of the army. His brother was killed in action.
In 1918 he married Gwyn Mervyn (died 1971), eldest daughter of Joseph Bowman Grimond, of St. Andrews, Fife, a Conservative MP from a Dundee jute family. They had five sons (one of whom was killed in action in 1944) and a daughter. On leaving the army he devoted himself to the family estate in Ayrshire and became a successful breeder of pedigree dairy cattle. He campaigned for the eradication of tuberculosis in cattle and was instrumental in the promotion of a government scheme for improvement. In 1929 he became president of the Ayrshire Herd Book and later was president of the Royal Highland Agricultural Society. In 1936 he led a committee involved in the improvement of livestock in the Scottish islands and crofting areas. His interest in cattle was lifelong and in 1963 he played an active part in the campaign to eliminate brucellosis.
The family firm of Brown & Polson also engaged his attention and he became in due course its chairman. He inherited the title of Baron Rowallan on his father's death in 1933. He devoted much time to public service, including the Boy Scouts, and interested himself in hospitals and in the problem of juvenile employment. He also maintained close links with the Territorial Army and in 1939 he was called upon to raise and train a new battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Led by Rowallan, the battalion went to France in April 1940, and saw fierce action before being evacuated in June. In spite of the inevitable problems arising from a shortage of experienced officers and NCOs, the battalion left the French coast better equipped than it had arrived, having collected arms and ammunition abandoned by others.
Thereafter Rowallan's leg wound confined him to home service. He commanded a Young Soldiers battalion where his training methods gained notable success with many of the toughest and least disciplined youngsters. Later, at a pre-OCTU training centre, he showed that many borderline or failed candidates could be brought up to the standard required in officers, and there is no doubt that the methods which he, with others, devised in wartime had immense influence on the training of young people in the post-war era, especially in the Outward Bound schools, the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme, the Boy Scouts, and the cadet forces of the armed services.
He retired from the army in 1944 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and was appointed chief scout of the British Commonwealth in 1945 after the early death of Lord Somers [qv.]. He had become district commissioner for north-west Ayrshire in 1922 and from 1944 was Scottish headquarters commissioner for leader training. As chief scout he devoted himself to reforging the international links broken by the war and to recovery and consolidation at home following the loss of many young leaders. He built on Lord Somers's post-war commission, introducing Air Scouts and replacing Rovers by Senior Scouts. He travelled widely throughout the Commonwealth, being of an apparently iron constitution although his leg wound necessitated a walking-stick. Tall, well-built, and always wearing the kilt, he had a fine presence and he was a resourceful and effective speaker to large audiences of boys, never consulting a note and making good use of anecdote to illustrate the value of scout training. He was, however, more at home in the company of adult leaders than of boys, and he sometimes gave vent to intolerance to youngsters who did not achieve the standard he expected. He had great personal charm and a hearty laugh, though not perhaps a great sense of humour. He took endless trouble to write long letters of thanks and appreciation to all and sundry in his mostly illegible handwriting.
Rowallan remained chief scout until 1959, having seen the movement grow throughout the world and, in the United Kingdom, achieve a membership of nearly 600,000. He was governor of Tasmania from 1959 to 1963. He was appointed KBE in 1951 and KT in 1957, and received honorary degrees from three universities: McGill (1948), Glasgow (1952), and Birmingham (1957).
Rowallan died in the Nuffield Nursing Home, Glasgow, 30 November 1977. He was succeeded in the barony by his eldest son, Arthur Cameron Corbett (born 1919).
Rowallan, Autobiography, 1976
Scout Association archives
Contributor: William Gladstone