Obituary: John Martin Fearn, 98

Martin Fearn
Martin Fearn
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Martin Fearn, a former senior civil servant, has died, aged 98.

John Martin Fearn was born in Dundee on June 24, 1916 and educated at the High School of Dundee and St Andrews University.

Graduating in 1939 with first-class honours in economics and modern history, he applied to the three overseas administrative services – the Indian Civil Service, the Sudan Political Service and the Colonial Service.

He was accepted by all three and chose the Indian Civil Service, an elite corps of about 1200 officials responsible for the administration of the whole of British India.

He sailed for India in September 1940, but 36 hours out of Gourock, the SS City of Simla, on which he was a passenger, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. He survived the sinking of the ship and a month later sailed for India again.

In 1946, the deputy commissioner for Lahore district died, and Martin – at the age of just 29 – found himself put in charge of the entire area with a population of several millions. He left India ahead of independence in 1947 and came back to the UK.

On his return, he married Isobel Mary Begbie, known as Isma, who had been at school with him in Dundee and also at St Andrews University. She qualified as a doctor, and during the Second World War served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Martin joined the Home Civil Service as an assistant principal in the Scottish Home Department.

One former colleague recalled that his “shaggy eyebrows and quizzical expression gave him a strong resemblance to the actor Alastair Sim”.

Martin was promoted to Under-Secretary in the Scottish Education Department in 1968 and became head of the department five years later. It was not an easy period in Scottish education or in government generally.

There was a major reorganisation of Scottish local authorities in 1975. There were disagreements with the teaching profession over salaries and status and the school curriculum was under constant scrutiny.

And an ambitious school building programme had to compete for funding during a period of severe pressure on the public purse.

Martin retired from the civil service in June 1976, and he and Isma began to enjoy overseas travel. They visited many European countries, as well as the USA. He was also able to spend more time playing golf.

Isma died in 2006 after a long illness, during which Martin looked after her devotedly. Martin was proud of his daughter Alison’s career as an eye surgeon and always looked forward to her visits to Edinburgh from her home in Dorset with her husband Robert, an English lawyer.

Martin died on October 18 in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and his funeral was held at Mortonhall last week.