Tag Archives: Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor’s Diary: Life in Colonial India

Map showing the area of India in which Fermor travelled during his first two field work seasons. [George Philip FRGS (ed.), Philips’ Record Atlas, London: The London Geographical Institute, 1934.]

Map showing the area of India in which Lewis Leigh Fermor travelled during his first two field work seasons. [George Philip FRGS (ed.), Philips’ Record Atlas, London: The London Geographical Institute, 1934.]

For those researching Paddy’s life, the Geological Society archives hold letters, papers and diaries of his eminent geologist father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, and his experiences in India.

An introduction to the online element of his papers may be found here, and I quote …

The name Fermor may today be best known within the Society in association with the Fermor Fund, the bequest made by Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor’s second wife after her death to support research into her late husband’s areas of interest, or the Fermor Meeting. Outside geological circles it is more likely to be connected to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lewis Leigh’s celebrated travel writer son. Patrick could be said to have had adventure in his blood, with his father Lewis heading off to India at the age of 22, and being sent off on his first six month field work expedition less than a week later.

After applying for a job with the Geological Survey of India, Lewis Leigh Fermor (1880-1954) departed for Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1902. In 1909, after discovering six manganese minerals, his key report on the manganese deposits of the country was published. During WW1 he assisted the Railway Board and the Indian Munitions Board, for which he received an OBE in 1919. He led the surveying of the Archaean rocks of Madhya Pradesh both before and after the First World War. Although he officially became director of the Survey in 1932, he had previously acted as such for several years in the 1920s and from 1930 onwards. He retired from the Survey in 1935, but continued to live in India until 1939 as a consulting geologist, before returning to Britain.

The Society’s Archives hold a small number of notebooks and diaries formerly belonging to Fermor, in addition to personal papers such as his first Indian employment contract and a letter notifying him of a scholarship. His diaries are particularly interesting for the intriguing insight they give the reader into the life of both an early twentieth century geologist, and an English civil servant in British India.

Extracts from the diaries may be found online here.

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

Economic Times of India: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s next room relationship to India

Patrick Leigh Fermor

One of the most original of Paddy’s obituaries, with a real Indian perspective. It discusses his relationship with his parents and India, where Paddy’s father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was director of the Geological Survey of India.

by Vikram Doctor

First published in Economic Times of India, 28 June 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor , who passed away recently at 96, was the most incomparable of travel writers. Yet his reputation rested on relatively few books, which hardly seemed to cover the geographical range that might have been expected of a writer of his reputation and lifespan.

Fermor’s first published book, The Traveller’s Tree, about a Caribbean trip, got an unexpected endorsement from Ian Fleming , in Live and Let Die, James Bond’s Caribbean caper, as one of the great travel books. He wrote two books, Mani and Roumeli, set in Greece, where he was to live most of his life. There was a short book on an Andean trip, another short one on monastic life and a single novel, based on that Caribbean trip.

And then there were the two books that he was most celebrated for, based on his decision in 1932, aged just 18, to walk across Europe from the coast of Holland to Constantinople, as he romantically still referred to Istanbul. The first, A Time of Gifts, took him to the Hungarian border, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water, across Eastern Europe to the edge of the Islamic world. Fermor did make it to Istanbul, but never finished his proposed trilogy.

But this was it really – no North America, no Africa, no Middle East, no Far East, no India. Of all these omissions, India stands out because it was the one that might most likely have happened. Fermor had, as he put it in A Time of Gifts, a “voices-in-the-next-room relationship to India” thanks to his father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor , a geologist who devoted his life to India, becoming director of the Geological Survey of India, president of the Indian Science Congress and of the Asiatic Society of Bengal .

His obituary, written by another distinguished geologist, M.S. Krishnan, credits him with pioneering the scientific study of geology in India, and in particular with identifying the manganese ore deposits of central India, the coal deposits of Bokaro, the chromite and copper deposits of Singhbum and the iron ore deposits of Goa and Ratnagiri. (Coincidentally, Sir Lewis is not the only Indian geologist with a famous writer in his family. John Auden , the older brother of poet W.H. Auden, also worked as a geologist in India and there is a pass called Auden’s Col in Garhwal named after him).

As Fermor acknowledged, he could easily have become like Kipling, with a glorious Indian childhood, then exile back to a lonely, dreary life in England. It didn’t happen that way because he was never taken to India at all. Perhaps jokingly Fermor wrote that after he was born, his mother and sister left him back in England to ensure that in case their ship sank, someone in the family would survive. He was left with a family on a farm, where he had such a glorious childhood that he never really took to conventional family life when his mother came back.

Her return was also a separation from his father, and this must have been the other reason why, unlike the children of other Empire families, Fermor never made it to India. His father only came ‘home’ on furloughs every three years. Fermor did recall, in A Time of Gifts, a trip with his father to the Italian Alps: “Laden with his field glasses and his butterfly net, I would get my breath while he was tapping at the quartz and the hornblende on the foothills of Mount Rosa with his hammer and clicking open a pocket lens to inspect the fossils and insects of the Monte della Crocea¦ What a change, I thought, from those elephants and the jungles full of monkeys and tigers which I imagined, not wholly wrongly, to be his usual means of transport and habitat.”

This holiday apart though, Fermor’s father hardly features in his work. He made sure that a letter to his father was only sent after he set off on his trip across Europe, with the hope that he would accept his son’s fait accompli and send the occasional infusions of money to help it along. “I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a yeara¦ there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”

Fermor doesn’t record Sir Lewis’ reaction. He was, for all that he wrote of his own journeys, not an autobiographical writer. While one gets a vivid sense of his personality, as reflected through both the high spirit and sensitivity of his writing, actual personal details are sparse. The few given in A Time of Gifts are only to set the context of the journey, and Fermor never wrote about perhaps the most amazing episode of his later life – of how during World War II, while living and fighting with the partisan resistance to the Germans in Crete, he organised the kidnap of the German general in charge of the island.

This almost impossibly dashing episode was made into a film, Ill Met By Moonlight, yet Fermor himself only referred to it once, in a footnote. There was clearly much more in his life he could have written about – his three-year relationship with a Romanian princess and his participation in a Greek cavalry charge, both after he finished his trip to Istanbul – but he didn’t, and no one else dared tread on such a superb writer’s turf while he was alive. A biography will now presumably come soon, and some version of the last book in his trilogy – both much anticipated.

A biography might explain more about his relationship with his father and India, but at least one link could be made. Fermor’s exuberant style often runs the risk of becoming too lush and self-indulgent, yet it is saved, each time, by detailed description and a focus on facts. Perhaps it was this love of observation, a precision that grounds the poetry and puts the object observed, rather than the observer, in focus that he picked up from his scientist father? His father used facts to build theories about the forces that formed the Deccan, and his son used facts too, gleaned from conversations with everyone from innkeepers to aristocrats, to build his picture of a Europe both ancient, yet soon to vanish forever.

Fermor doesn’t labour the point though, and it is one reason why he is such an attractive writer. You know the fate, between Nazis and Communists, that would come to the Jewish woodcutters and Hungarian counts that he meets, but these tragic ends don’t have to define their lives, and it is their happier vitality that he enshrines. Perhaps it was best that he never came to India where the rigid hierarchies of Raj life would have constrained him in a way that he never had to be, walking across Europe, voyaging through Caribbean or Greek islands, living and writing of a life that we can only envy and enjoy through his books.

Fermor’s work is studded with passages of stunning writing, but many are too long or need too much explanation of context to give in short. This passage though, from A Time of Gifts, marks one of the few times he took the train on his trip (for an off-route visit to Prague) and, quite casually, it paints a vivid image of a train in motion: “A goods train at another platform indicated the sudden accessibility of Warsaw.

PRAHA – BRNO – BRESLAU – LODZ – WARSZAVA. The words were stencilled across the trucks; the momentary vision of a sledded Polack jingled across my mind’s eye. When the train began to move, the word BRNO slid away in the opposite direction then BRNO! BRNO! BRNO! The dense syllable flashed past the window at decreasing intervals and we fell asleep and plunged on through the Moravian dark and into Bohemia.”

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

Sir Lewis is Paddy’s father. A couple of pictures from the Geological Society website.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

This delicately embroidered “chain of office” was once the property of the Director of the Indian Geological Survey, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor (pictured). It was presented to the Society by Richard Bateman, former Executive Secretary, to whom it had passed through Lady Fermor’s executor, the late Prof. Bob Savage, on her death.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor wikipedia page.

Related article:

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor obituary from Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Science