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Martin, Sir John Miller (1904–1991), civil servant, was born on 15 October 1904 at 5 Park Place, Dundee, the elder son of the Revd John Martin (1860–1927), United Free Church of Scotland minister, and his second wife, Edith Godwin, née Miller (1866–1945), only child of an Edinburgh solicitor. The family lived from 1906 in Callandar, Perthshire, then, following the father's early retirement, in 1910 in Cannes and from 1911 in Edinburgh. Martin attended the Edinburgh Academy (1911–23) with its ‘old-fashioned classical curriculum’ (1973 broadcast); he ‘worked admirably’, won prizes and was a sergeant in the Officer Training Corps and in 1922–3 dux and an ephor (prefect). He was a classical scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1923–7), a small, close, and largely apolitical community. He rowed, golfed, spoke at the Oxford Union, participated in Liberal politics, and was president of the junior common room, the Sundial Society, and the Pelican Essay Club. Like most Oxford undergraduates, in the general strike he supported the government, fearing ‘red revolution’. He worked on trams in Hull, and never regretted it. He gained a first in moderations but a third in greats, a ‘stunning shock’. However, in the August 1927 civil service examination he came first on the Indian list and second on the home list.

Rejecting the Indian Civil Service because he saw little future for British officials in India, in 1927 Martin entered the Dominions Office. In 1928 he transferred to the Colonial Office and worked in the Far Eastern department. From 1931 to 1934 he was seconded to the Malayan civil service, which he enjoyed, and which confirmed his belief in the British colonial empire. From 1936 to 1937 he was secretary of the royal commission on Palestine (the Peel commission). It heard evidence in Palestine and later London, where it questioned Lloyd George and Churchill; this was Martin's first meeting with Churchill. Martin's performance was officially praised.

In 1939 Martin offered to serve in the London Scottish, but was retained by the Colonial Office; ‘congenial work and not too heavy’ (Martin, 3). From May 1940 to late June 1945 he served in the prime minister's private office, joining the ‘secret circle’ of those close to Churchill. Martin suspected he owed his appointment as a private secretary to Brendan Bracken, and was initially ‘astonished and aghast’ (ibid.). Reportedly at Bracken's suggestion, in May 1941 he was promoted principal private secretary. He admired Churchill, ‘my master’, but found working for him, with the heavy workload and long hours, difficult and exhausting. Martin's role was neither to advise nor draft speeches nor, usually, minutes, but to organize and co-ordinate, run the private office, select for Churchill only what was necessary, draft letters, and accompany Churchill, including to overseas conferences. The private office enabled Churchill to function as war leader. Martin ran it efficiently and harmoniously, to the satisfaction of Churchill and of his own civil service colleagues. John Colville wrote that he was ‘first class’, with ‘a shy and retiring disposition combined with a ready wit, a delectable sense of humour’ (Jackson, A Scottish Life, 107). Elizabeth Nel, a secretary, recollected that he was ‘very human and pleasant with all of the staff’ (ibid., 109). He later wrote that working with Churchill, though not easy, was ‘tremendous fun’ (Martin, 196). On 1 May 1943 Martin married, at St Mary's University Church, Oxford, Rosalind Julia (Rozie) Ross (1913–2005), an Oxford graduate, personal secretary at the War Office, and third daughter of Sir (William) David Ross, philosopher, provost of Oriel College, and vice-chancellor of Oxford University; they had one son, David.

In July 1945 Martin returned to the Colonial Office, where as an assistant under-secretary of state he was in charge of the Middle East and Mediterranean departments. He was involved in the difficult negotiations on Palestine and, though friendly with Chaim Weizmann and other Zionists, considered the final United Nations decision unfair to the Palestinians. From autumn 1949 he was colonial adviser to the British UN delegation, largely defending British trusteeship against hostile foreign criticism. He was disgusted by the hypocrisy, futility, and corruption at the UN.

Promoted deputy secretary in 1956, Martin was involved in the planning, negotiation, visits, and conferences of post-war decolonization, of Cyprus, Malaysia, Nyasaland, Kenya, Nigeria, the West Indies, and other territories. Though not foreseeing the tragedies of post-colonial Africa, he recognized some problems. He was aware of Nigerian corruption, and the inexperience of some African leaders. While in public the ever-tactful civil servant, in private he had reservations. He believed that ‘the old Colonial rule was one of the best British gifts to the world’, and disliked having to participate in its dismemberment. He believed the process went too fast but, with the pressures on Britain, was ‘inevitable and, given the circumstances, right’ (Jackson, A Scottish Life, 218). Privately he disapproved of the 1956 Suez operation. He was high commissioner in Malta (1965–7), a post he enjoyed, then retired. He had been appointed CVO (1943), CB (1945), KCMG (1952), and knight of the venerable order of Saint John of Jerusalem (1966).

In retirement, from 1967 Martin lived at Watlington, Oxfordshire. A devout Christian and kirk elder, he continued his New Testament studies. He was secretary of the Corpus Association, and an honorary fellow of Corpus. He broadcast some reminiscences, speaking ‘establishment’ English with no trace of a Scottish accent. At Lady Churchill's ‘express wish’ he and others responded to Lord Moran's controversial Winston Churchill: the Struggle for Survival (1966) with Action this Day: Working with Churchill (1968), praising Churchill and rejecting Moran's ‘disparagement’. Martin also helped Martin Gilbert and other historians working on Churchill and the war. Gilbert found him shy, diffident, and modest, and enjoyed the Martins' ‘friendly, cultured and wise company’ (Gilbert, In Search of Churchill, 182). In 1991 Martin published extracts from his wartime diaries and letters in Downing Street: the War Years. He died of cancer on Easter Sunday, 31 March 1991, at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, survived by his wife and son. His funeral was at St Leonard's, Watlington, on 8 April, and the same day he was cremated at Oxford crematorium. A memorial service was held at St Columba's, Pont Street, London, on 25 June.

Roger T. Stearn


J. Martin, Downing Street: the war years (1991) · M. Jackson, A Scottish life: Sir John Martin, Churchill and empire (1999) · M. Jackson, ‘Edinburgh: no better place to live’, draft typescript, Edinburgh Academy · The Times (3 April 1991) · The Independent (9 April 1991) · Pelican Record, 37/2 (1991) · D. Archard, B. Harrison, and T. Heath, ‘Corpus in the 1926 strike’, Pelican, 2/1 (1972) · P. A. Hunt, Corpus Christi College biographical register, ed. N. A. Flanagan (1988) · [T. Henderson and P. F. Hamilton-Grierson], eds., The Edinburgh Academy register (1914) · The Edinburgh Academy list, 1888–1964 (1965) · E. Nel, Mr Churchill's secretary (1958) · Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: the struggle for survival, 1940–1965 (1966) · J. Wheeler-Bennett, ed., Action this day: working with Churchill (1968) · M. Soames, Clementine Churchill (1979) · J. Colville, The Churchillians (1981) · M. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 6: Finest hour, 1939–1941 (1983) · J. Darwin, Britain and decolonisation (1988) · M. Gilbert, In search of Churchill: a historian's journey (1994) · R. Blake and W. R. Louis, eds., Churchill (1993) · WWW · Burke, Peerage · private information (2012) [D. R. Martin, son; J. Robertson, Edinburgh Academy; J. Reid and H. Fisher, Corpus Christi College, Oxford] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


priv. coll. |  CAC, Churchill MSS · Nuffield College, Oxford, Lord Cherwell MSS




BBC archive · Bodl. RH, tape of interview on colonial service


group portrait, photograph, 1943 (with wife), repro. in Martin, Downing Street · Bassano, photographs, 1946, NPG, London · Elliot & Fry, photograph, 1946, NPG, London · group portrait, photograph, 1966 (with wife), repro. in Jackson, A Scottish life · photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£180,083: probate, 5 Dec 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales