The life, times and legacy of geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

Geoscientist Cover Dec_Jan15_16This article is by Ted Nield on the life, times and legacy of geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, as seen through the eyes of his more famous son.

First published by The Geological Society, in Geoscientist, December 2015.

“…having made the most solemn oaths to me [he] has quite cheerfully broken them all – you can never guess just what a blighter and a mongrel that man is – he even astonishers me – and I thought I knew him pretty thoroughly … there is one thing I regret and that is that I didn’t leave him straight away the first time I longed to – which was three days after my wedding day. He is impossible.”

So wrote Muriel Ӕileen Fermor (née Ambler, 1890-1997) on 1 February 1923 to her mother – convinced that her austere geologist husband Lewis Leigh Fermor (1880-1954) had been cheating on her in far-away Calcutta, where he was then Acting Director of the Geological Survey of India. (He became Director in 1932.) Their desultory marriage – already a separation in all but name – had but another two years to run. They were divorced in May 1925.

The marriage resulted in two children, Vanessa Opal (b. Calcutta, 1911) and Patrick Michael (b. Endsleigh Gardens, St Pancras, 1915). It is perhaps fortunate that ‘Paddy’ was born in England, away from Lewis, else he might also have copped a mineral for a middle name. After the Lusitania was sunk, Ӕileen decided to leave the baby in England rather than risk losing both her children. Thus Paddy was farmed out to friends and grew up hardly knowing his father at all.

For this reason, little of what we know of Lewis comes to us via him – despite the fact that Paddy grew up to be a great (and largely autobiographical) writer. However, his books do contain rare, but often highly touching glimpses of Lewis, illuminating the peculiar upbringing that colonial service often imposed upon the children of its staff.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor at his desk in the Geological Survey of India, Calcutta.  From the Geological Society’s photograph collection.

By the time Paddy was 19, having been sacked from just about every school he was ever sent to and very far from achieving either his father’s ambitions (that he should study at science-strong Rugby, Haileybury or Oundle) or his mother’s (that he should go to Eton and join the ruling class) young Fermor was becoming tired of idling away his adolescence in Metropolitan dissipation. Aware he ought to become a writer but knowing he lacked material, he conceived the romantic idea of taking his meagre allowance and walking, alone, across Europe to Istanbul (or ‘Constantinople’, as he resolutely persisted in calling it), like a mendicant scholar of old.

The idea came to him in a flash, was the making of him, and met with (by today’s standards) shockingly little parental or other opposition. It was to prove the first in a lifetime of adventures, culminating most famously in his wartime work with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, and his kidnap of the island’s commander-in-chief, General Kreipe – described in William Stanley Moss’s book Ill Met by Moonlight (1950) and the Powell & Pressburger film of the same name (1957), in which Paddy was dashingly portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

The epic walk was described in three of the greatest travel books ever written in English (each, as they were published up to five decades later, a truly prodigious act of recall), marking the beginning of Paddy’s remarkable career as traveller, linguist, Hellenophile, polymath, autodidact, author, war hero and all-round national treasure. But when he set out for the Hook of Holland, just before Christmas on 8 December 1933, nobody would have believed that, one day, like his father, he too would become a Knight of the Realm – still less that his fame would completely eclipse that of his worthy forebear.

However, the eclipse is not quite total. The Society, at least, remembers Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, through the gift of a substantial bequest that supports the Fermor Fund and the Fermor Meeting. But who was he, and what did he do?

Lewis Leigh Fermor (his middle name, given in honour of a family friend, was perpetuated through his children – but there is no hyphen) was born in Peckham on 18 September 1880, eldest of six. His father was a bank clerk. Adept at winning scholarships, after an initial 4d/week education at Goodrich Road Board School, Lewis moved to Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell, and the Royal School of Mines, studying metallurgy (with a view to a job in the Royal Mint).

Invited by Professor J W Judd (1840-1916, he became Student Assistant in Geology while working for his BSc. Judd also persuaded him to apply for a vacancy in the Geological Survey of India before graduating. He was appointed in 1902 – the year he joined the Society. He subsequently gained his degree by research, in 1909. Imperial later also bestowed upon him its DSc, for work he would perform in India: most notably a monumental tome on manganese ores.

We cannot be certain, but it is likely that his geological work in India led to his first marriage, because Muriel Ӕileen Ambler was the daughter of a quarrying magnate there. Educated by a series of governesses at the family home in Dulwich, she had returned to India, where the family had built a villa a few miles outside Dharhara, at Bassowni. While her brother Artie entered the family business, Ӕileen and her mother began the search for a husband in Calcutta. Ӕileen, spirited and venturesome, a lover of the theatre, was given to effusions and purple ink and liked to ennoble her Anglo-Irish family tree with glamorous royal connections of dubious accuracy.

She and Lewis met in 1907, probably in connection with the Survey’s work – the Survey had done load-bearing tests on the family’s product – and it was she who began the tradition of unofficially hitching the ‘Leigh’ onto the Fermor, even though it was only Lewis’s middle name. They seem an unlikely match, he so austere and ambitious, she so wild; but Lewis was, by all accounts a very elegant figure on the dance floor and his ambitiousness undoubtedly recommended him to his in-laws – and perhaps to Ӕileen, at least initially.

Colonial service staff received furloughs once every six years, so little Paddy was six when he first met his father. Embarrassed at being unable to impress this remote figure, Paddy camouflaged his youthful slowness, according to his biographer Artemis Cooper, by memorising long passages of literature by heart. Thus began his voracious love of books, and the first flexing of his prodigious memory.

Ӕileen never returned to India after World War 1, and (curiously for one so addicted to travel) Paddy never visited his father there. In 1924, Lewis once again came back to England, travelling with his family to Zweisimmen (near Gstaad). Paddy at that time had no school to go back to (having just been sacked again), so when sister Vanessa departed with her mother for England, Paddy stayed on with his father, who was joining a geological conference in Milan.

This was the first time Paddy and Lewis spent any time together, and sadly they were never to be as close again. Two particular memories turn up in Paddy’s writing about this special week. In the train to Lake Como, Lewis proudly demonstrated a knife he had just bought, by peeling an apple without breaking the skin. This he did – then tossing both peel and knife out of the window. Paddy became helpless with laughter. His annoyed father banished him to another carriage, where Paddy then tried to open the window – by pulling the communication cord.

Arriving in the Dolomites Lewis dressed for the field, where he collected specimens both geological and botanical. Paddy remembers cringing with embarrassment when he saw his father in this bizarre attire – his Norfolk jacket and ‘vast semi-circular cap, I think originally destined for Tibetan travel, like a bisected pumpkin of fur, armed with a peak, and with fur-lined ear-flaps that were joined (when not tied under the chin, which was worse still) by a disturbing bow on the summit.’

Worst of all, there was the geological hammer at his belt, bearing an arrow, marking it as government property. Lewis had joked to Paddy that only members of the civil service and convicts carried such hammers. Far from being amused however, and horrified by the thought that people might think his father a convict, nine year-old Paddy tried (under the guise of adjusting it for comfort) to turn the hammer around so that the arrow could not be seen.

This was to be the last time that father and son were to spend any extended time in one another’s company. As Cooper observes, Paddy was to grow up feeling ill at ease with his father, and the suspicion that he was a disappointment to him. On the other side, his mother was contrastingly jealous of him, seeing him as her, rather than Lewis’s, son (though she too, despite her possessiveness, blew hot and cold, turning clingy one minute and distant and uncaring the next).

Lewis had not been pleased to receive his gadabout son’s London tailoring bills (though he helped to settle them). So it is possible that Paddy’s proposed expedition may have seemed to him like a washing of hands. The hope that his son might become a scientist had died years before. Lewis (no doubt in desperation, because mathematics was one of Paddy’s many weak suits) had even suggested his son might consider a career in accountancy, so at a loss was the family to know what to do with him. At least this mad expedition was a goal, and his son’s own idea. His reply to news of his departure included a birthday gift of five pounds. (This was not the only birthday on which Paddy would have occasion to thank a geologist. On turning 21, two years into his trek, he learned that Sir Henry Hubert Hayden, one of Lewis’s predecessors as Director (1910-21) had bestowed a gift of £300 on him.)

Paddy would arrange for letters to be sent to him poste restante at various points along his projected route. Most important were those containing pound notes, but occasionally he found letters from his mother, often whimsical and amusing, and occasionally, more formal missives from Lewis: ‘full of geological advice’.

At the time when her favoured child was departing for Europe, Ӕileen herself was having a hard time. Divorced eight years, and suffering that diminution in her status, news had come through that Lewis was marrying again – to a certain Frances Mary Case. Within a year, Lewis was knighted, and thus her supplanter became ‘Lady Fermor’. Artemis Cooper speculates that this might have been a severe blow to the social-climbing Ӕileen; though in the days when directors of the British Empire’s geological surveys were habitually knighted, she surely realised what she was giving up – though this may not have made it any easier to bear.

Fermor’s main geological interest was (as reflected in the terms of the Fermor bequest) the rocks of the Archaean. Sir Thomas Holland had asked him to report on the manganese ore deposits of India, little expecting that Fermor (renowned for meticulous attention to detail) would take until 1909 to publish, nor that his report would run to nearly 1300 pages. Not only did this work earn Fermor great renown (and his FRS), it also revealed six new manganese minerals.

The experience gained in this work led to his being placed in charge, in 1911, of a systematic survey of the Archaean rocks of the Central Provinces (Madhya Pradesh), much of which he surveyed personally, at four inches to the mile. War interrupted this work, and Fermor finished his part of it in 1926.

His economic work continued – on copper, coal, iron ore, and mica, which led to an avalanche of publications in the Annual Reviews of the Mineral Production of India between 1921 and 1934. He also worked on the Deccan Traps, and even on meteorites (though his ideas about the origin of chondrules were incorrect – he thought they were formerly garnets). Finally, before retiring to Bristol and then Surrey, he began a memoir entitled ‘An attempt at the correlation of the ancient schistose formations of Peninsular India’. Sadly, this herculean project was destined never to advance beyond the opening general discussion (published 1940) and remained incomplete on his death.

His retirement in 1935, a year after being elected FRS, marked the beginning of a closer association with the Geological Society. He had already won its Bigsby Medal (1921), and he now joined Council (in 1943), and served as Vice President from 1945 to 1947.

When Paddy  learned that his father was dying, in 1954, he paid a final visit to him, in his new home near Woking. This at last was a home with the space to display his collection of early English glassware, as well as the fine Persian rugs he had collected. It was the first proper home that Lewis had ever owned – aptly named ‘Gondwana’ – and here he had hoped to finish his Archaean memoir. These hopes were dashed only a few months after moving in, when his final illness struck.

‘We had only met twice during the last six years and corresponded as little’ Paddy wrote. Hollow cheeked, and a sickly colour, ‘his enormous and luminous eyes, talking very slowly and almost inaudibly… The only consoling thing is that he has no idea he is dying. “Such a bore, being all cooped up when all the flowers are out”’. He died on 24 May. “What a strange business Daddy’s funeral was, a sort of nightmare’ Paddy wrote to Vanessa. ‘I am so glad you were there too – I don’t think I could have taken it if there hadn’t been your eye to catch now and then’.

In 1976, having just been declared clear of cancer himself, Paddy finally decided to visit India. After Christmas in Benares he went to Calcutta and found his way ‘rather timidly’ to the offices of the Survey. To his surprise, he found that ‘They seem to worship Daddy’s memory’. Indeed, Dr S V P Iyengar (1921-2012), Deputy Director General and a former pupil of H H Read and Robert Shackleton, described Lewis as ‘the most imaginative, helpful and constructive [figure, who] …contributed more than anyone else, and all his prophecies and conclusions have been proved right’ – a slight exaggeration, considering the chondrule theory, but understandable. As Cooper observes, such was the bitterness about Lewis that Paddy and his sister had absorbed from their mother, it was ‘strange’ for them to ‘discover him both loved and admired’.

The story of the Fermor bequest began in 1961, and in all took nearly 20 years. Lady Fermor wanted to make over a sum to be held in trust, the income being used to pay her a pension during her lifetime; but this was later shown to be impossible because of the Estate Duty that she would have to pay. Then, in October 1969, a letter from her solicitors arrived at Burlington House announcing her wish to make ‘a substantial bequest’. In March 1979, Lady Fermor presented the Society with a cheque for £1000 to establish the Fermor Lecture, held every three years, the first in October/November 1980. She was (eventually) granted Honorary Fellowship, and invited to attend the Fermor Lectures, which she did – enjoying the luxury of a free night in the ‘Fellows’ Bedroom’.

Lady Fermor died in November 1990, leaving the Society the residue of her estate minus some bequests to others. It is not known if the Society blushed about having made her sleep in the cellar when it found out that this residue amounted to £500,000-£600,000. It was, and remains, the Society’s biggest fund.

Related article:

Paddy’s childhood home: The Weedon Bec route near Northampton

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