Obituary: Dr Joan Macintosh CBE, diplomat and author

Born: 23 November, 1919, in Gloucestershire. Died: 28 May, 2014, in Exeter, aged 94

Dr Joan Macintosh CBE: Diplomat and author who became the first chair of the Scottish Consumer Council
Dr Joan Macintosh CBE: Diplomat and author who became the first chair of the Scottish Consumer Council

Long before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, Joan Macintosh was blazing a trail for her sex, rattling the glass ceiling that protected the male-dominated British establishment.

A contemporary of Donald Maclean, the spy who supervised her propaganda work in America during the Second World War, she achieved the distinction of being the most senior of the first handful of women to join the British diplomatic service.

Her role took her to New Delhi as First Secretary in the High Commission but within a few years her illustrious career was cut short – thanks to a whirlwind romance and Foreign Office rules – when she was forced to resign after marrying a Scottish banker.

Already an accomplished thriller writer, she went on to turn her hand to educational books, raise a family and fulfil myriad roles in public life, including as first chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council, architect of the Insurance Ombudsman’s office and a member of the Royal Commission into Legal Services in Scotland.

In retirement she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, honoured by three universities north of the Border and, although an adopted Scot, remained passionately committed to Scottish life.

Born in Gloucestershire and christened Edith Joan Burbidge, one of her earliest memories was of being sent to boarding school at the age of three, along with her older brother Jack, when her parents moved to New York. The family was reunited two years later and she grew up in upper New York State where she attended Rye Country Day School which, 60 years later, would honour her with its annual distinguished alumni award.

Returning to England, she went up to Oxford to read modern history and joined the BBC after graduating in 1941. By virtue of having been educated in America, she was soon transferred to the Ministry of Information in Washington where her role was to create propaganda to encourage America to join the fight against Hitler.

There she rented an apartment in Dupont Circle, now a trend-setting area of the capital, and owned a sleek Delage car, complete with exterior dickie seat. She remembered her supervisor Donald Maclean, who along with Guy Burgess was part of a KGB spy ring, with great affection. The same could not be said of her memories of Burgess who had occasionally visited Maclean in Washington.

When she returned to London she kept in touch with Maclean, staying with his mother whilst part of the UK delegation attending the first European Economic Community and Nato conferences. And she recalled hearing the commotion when Maclean arrived home, without warning and in the middle of the night, shortly before defecting to Russia in 1951.

Between the late 1940s and early 50s she wrote three detective novels under the pen name Joan Cockin – Curiosity Killed the Cat, Villainy at Vespers and Deadly Ernest – which all featured an Inspector Cam and were published by Hodder & Stoughton.

She also sat, and was the second woman to pass, the diplomatic service admission exams, being posted to New Delhi. Having retained a great love of all things American from her youth, she adored everything about India but was soon to be introduced to Scotland which would also become a passion.

She met her future husband Ian in Delhi in 1952 and they married in Old Delhi’s St Andrews Church just weeks later. But the wedding marked the premature end of her career: Foreign Office red tape barred women from remaining in the diplomatic service if they married a non-diplomat.

However, a different but enormously productive life awaited, both as a mother and powerful advocate for others.

She became involved in charitable ventures and co-founded, in 1952, the Delhi Commonwealth Women’s Association which is still in existence today providing social services for the area’s poor and needy.

She also began writing educational books – amassing a bibliography of well over 40 publications – and produced four children, all born in India.

In one particularly memorable incident she saved two of the youngsters from a pair of cobras, which she blasted with a shotgun from 30 yards, after spotting the snakes near the unwitting tots as they lazed in the sun in the garden.

When her husband retired they returned to Scotland where she began volunteering in Glasgow’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB), later becoming the CAB’s regional co-ordinator for Scotland, which in turn opened up other opportunities.

She and her friend Sheila Duffy became involved in a popular Citizen’s Advice programme on the fledgling Radio Clyde and in 1975 she was appointed as the first chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council. The following year she became vice chair of the National Consumer Council, a post she held until 1984, and was made a CBE in 1978.

Meanwhile she was appointed to the Royal Commission into Legal Services in Scotland from 1975-1980 and to a Scottish Law Commission initiative reporting on reparation by the offender to the victim in 1977.

She was also approached by the insurance industry and asked to establish the Insurance Ombudsman’s office and she went on to serve as the first chairman of its council from 1981 to 1985.

She was vice-president of the National Confederation of Consumer Groups from 1982 to 1997 and sat on the Scottish Constitutional Commission in 1984. In addition, she was chairman of the Scottish Child Law Centre, a member of Victim Support Scotland’s council and, for much of the 1990s, was Lay Observer for Scotland, today’s equivalent of the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, reviewing the way the Law Society dealt with complaints against solicitors in Scotland.

An honorary graduate of the universities of Dundee, Stirling and Strathclyde, she lived for many years in Auchterarder, where she co-founded the local history group, wrote on local history, served on the community council and published three books on ancient Auchterarder.

An unpretentious woman at heart, she never made mention of her numerous and remarkable achievements, save to note, with classic understatement, that they had made her happy and she had not wasted her life.

Predeceased by her husband and their son Gillies, who died of polio in India, she is survived by their children Lindsay, Kate and Duncan.