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Issue 39 - Ronnie Corbett

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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Ronnie Corbett

Comedian Ronnie Corbett loves Scotland and has stayed close to his Scottish roots

It should come as no great surprise to learn that Ronnie Corbett, now a muchloved British institution, should be toying with the idea of presenting a new television series about malt whisky.

Although his career has taken him across the world he has always stayed close to his Scottish roots, living with his wife in an idyllic setting there, donning tartan trousers whenever he gets the opportunity, and spending many hours on the country’s better golf courses. Now a sprightly 77, he divides his time between semi-retirement in Scotland and selected and periodic work.

As is generally known, Ronnie Corbett was born in Edinburgh on 4th December 1930. His father, William Corbett, was originally a baker and married Annie Main in 1926, also in Edinburgh. Ronnie was the oldest of their three children.

The family lived in the Marchmont area of the city, a pleasant suburb of middle-class tenement blocks, now much favoured by students at the nearby university.

Young Ronnie seems to have developed an interest in the theatre at a relatively early age and was involved in amateur dramatics as a teenager, and after completing his National Service, he headed off to London to try his luck in showbusiness.

Father William Corbett was also Edinburgh born and lived there all his life (1898 to 1974). He died on Prestonfield golf course at the age of 75, a fate dreamed of by many a fanatical golfer. William’s parents, Walter and Isabella Allan, raised a family of four children in Edinburgh until Isabella’s death after childbirth in 1902. Walter remarried, but it is in the previous generation that a hint of irregularity is uncovered.

Walter was the son of a coal merchant named William Corbett, and Isabella Cuthbert. His 1873 birth certificate states that his parents had been married in Dumfries in March 1862, but no trace of such a marriage exists in Scotland. This couple had several children, and on two birth certificates their marriage was said to have taken place in Springfield, England in 1861. The English records are similarly silent on this account.

Isabella’s first child had been born illegitimate in Perth in 1858 and she subsequently raised a successful paternity action against David Cowan, an Inverkeithing mason in the Sheriff Court of Dunfermline. Two years later, her first Corbett son was born in Perth, and whatever the true nature of her relationship with William, they had moved to his hometown of Edinburgh by 1865.

Further mystery surrounds William. Born in Edinburgh around 1832 before registration became compulsory in Scotland, he was not found in the 1841 census under any variant of Corbett (spelling was highly erratic at that time) and the first sighting of him was in 1851. He was then listed in the quaintly named ‘Victoria Lodgings for the Working and Humble Classes.’ When he married he gave his parents as William Corbett and Jessie Balfour, but they were not traced together in any census although a Janet Corbit (Jessie was a recognised diminutive form of Janet) was living in a close off the Cowgate in 1861 with a 13 year old son, John. She was then still a married woman but by 1871 was widowed and listed in West Port as a ‘hawker of caps.’ Dying in West Port in 1877, Jessie’s late husband was described as a farm labourer and she was the daughter of Mitchell Balfour and Jane (probably Ann) Urquhart.

The elusive husband was not seen in any death record. Apoignant note was struck in a sad little 1806 entry in the South Leith records which spoke of the burial of John, the stillborn son of ‘Michall [sic] Balfour, Labourer from foot of Leith Wynd,’ reflecting the appalling deathrate of babes and young children in that era.

The name Balfour resonates in the family to this day, being the middle name of Ronald Balfour Corbett.

On the distaff side, Ronnie Corbett’s mother was born in London. Her father was a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police. In due course the family returned to their native country and settled in Edinburgh.

Ronnie Corbett has always been proud of his Scottish roots and his varied ancestry has no doubt helped feed his wonderful anecdotal story-telling and his sense of the absurd.