Obituary: J M Fearn CB, former civil servant

Exemplary civil servant who became Secretary of the Scottish Education Department. Picture: Contributed
Exemplary civil servant who became Secretary of the Scottish Education Department. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 24 June, 1916, in Dundee. Died: 18 October, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 98.

Martin Fearn was born in Dundee on 24 June, 1916 and died in Edinburgh on 18 October, 2014, at the age of 98. His long life linked events of great historical significance, from the First World War, in which his father served in France in the Scots Guards, to the present turmoil in India, a world with which he was intimately acquainted during his life in that country’s civil service.

He was educated at the High School of Dundee and St Andrews University, from which he graduated in 1939 with first- class honours in economics and modern history. He applied for appointment to the three overseas administrative services: the Indian Civil, the Sudan Political and the Colonial, and was accepted by all three.

He chose the Indian Civil Service: an elite corps of about 1,200 officials who were responsible for the administration of the whole of British India; and expressed a preference for the Punjab.

There followed a year’s training at Worcester College, Oxford, where he studied the criminal law of British India and Urdu, the official language of the Punjab. He also became a competent horseman since this was an essential qualification for service in the Punjab.

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, travelling round the Cape of Good Hope to Bombay.

After a year’s initial training in Multan and other stations, he was assigned to Amritsar where much of his time was spent handling criminal cases from rural parts of the district, often with stolen animals tethered outside the court. His steady progress in the Indian Civil Service led to his appointment in 1944 as sub-divisional officer in Kasur, a heavily populated division of the Lahore district.

Here, as senior magistrate, he had to deal with a large volume of criminal work, with authority to impose sentences of up to seven years’ imprisonment, although a sentence of that degree of severity was rare. There was also a considerable amount of court work on revenue issues.

In March 1946 the deputy commissioner for the district of Lahore became ill and died, and Martin, who was then just 29, was called to Lahore to take charge of the entire district, with a population of several millions.

The run-up to partition and independence in 1947 was a time of unremitting tension, and the fear was that the communal strife which had caused many thousands of deaths in Calcutta would reach the Punjab.

Violence did eventually flare up in Lahore and in other towns in the Punjab after partition, but by then Martin had left India at the end of a long tour of duty, which had been protracted by the Second World War.

On his return from India, 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, landing in Normandy after D-Day, and working in field hospitals as the Allied armies advanced on Germany.

Martin himself joined the Home Civil Service as an assistant principal in the Scottish Home Department. Adjustment from the awesome authority of district magistrate, collector and district commissioner of Lahore could not have been easy, but he steadily ascended the ladder of advancement.

He was promoted to Under-Secretary in the Scottish Education Department in 1968.

In 1973, on Sir Norman Graham’s retirement as head of the Scottish Education Department, Martin was appointed to succeed him.

It was not an easy period in Scottish education or indeed in government generally.

There was a major reorganisation of Scottish local authorities in 1975.

There were disagreements with the teaching profession about salaries and status. The school curriculum was under constant scrutiny.

An ambitious school building programme had to compete for funding during a period of severe pressure on the public purse following the oil crisis of 1973 and difficulties over the national balance of payments.

All these problems and many others landed on Martin’s desk, but his steadying influence steered the department through these troublesome times.

He 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, where one of his Indian Civil Service colleagues had become a professor at the Californian Institute of Technology.

Another of his Indian contemporaries became Principal of Aberdeen University. Martin himself never returned to India.

In retirement, he was able to spend more time playing golf, which was his favourite recreation and sport, although as a young man he had played rugby for both St Andrews and Oxford Universities.

Isma died in 2006 after a long illness during which he 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 Fearn did not wear his heart on his sleeve, but he was a perfect gentleman, considerate, courteous and very popular with colleagues, friends and neighbours. He exemplified what was best in the civil service: high ability; unwavering integrity; and complete loyalty to those he served.

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