Obituary: Dr Joan Martin

02 March 2018

Miss Joy Puritz writes:

DR JOAN MARTIN, who has died aged 102, was appointed an MBE in 1985, largely owing to her contribution to the Girl Guide movement and her work teaching disabled children to swim: she had set up the Kensington Emperors Swimming Club for disabled children in 1955.

Joan Martin was born in West Norwood, south London, on 25 November 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Henry Martin, and Violet Pratt, a nurse. Her happiest school days were at a Methodist girls’ boarding school, Hunmanby Hall, in North Yorkshire, where she became a Girl Guide.

She was very impressed by the religious tenor of the school; their chaplain, the Revd Fred Pratt Green, became a prolific writer of hymns; the first he wrote was the school hymn. The school symbol was the flame of an oil lamp, lit from the fire and then burning constantly throughout the term on the mantel­piece. On the last day of every term, the lamp ceremony was held: from the oil lamp, the chaplain lit a taper and passed it to the headmistress, who passed it on to the staff and the girls. Each said the words: “May the spirit of this flame dwell in you, and kindle other hearts.” The flame symbolised enthusiasm for learning, sacrifice, purification, devotion to God. To Joan it was also a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Completing her schooling in London in preparation for medical studies at the Royal Free Hospital, Joan helped to run a Guide company: the 1st Paddington. From the age of 16, she took underprivileged girls on camping week­ends. One afternoon, Joan was con­ducting a “Guides’ Own”, the ecumenical ser­vice held at camps with­out clergy. All were sitting around the spent camp fire of the evening before. Joan was just reflecting out loud on the Holy Ghost, often symbolised by fire, when the “dead” camp fire violently burst into flame. Joan felt that this was the nearest thing to a miracle she had ever experienced.


Joan’s most traumatic experience of the war was on 3 March 1943 when she was on casualty duty at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for chil­dren in east London. On that night, 173 people were crushed to death trying to enter the shelter in Bethnal Green tube station; among them were 62 children, whose corpses ar­rived in a relentless stream, with the occasional survivor. Having been instructed not to breathe a word about what had happened, Joan never even told her parents, and, sporadically, had nightmares for the rest of her life.

During the war, Joan married an Australian naval officer, Claude Henry Brooks, but rarely saw him. After a few years, they were divorced, and Joan kept her marriage a secret until her biography was published in 2011.

Joan became Guide Training Adviser for England. She spent most of 1963 preparing the Girl Guide movements in Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland for those countries’ independence. While there, Joan always tried to go to church on a Sunday, although she could not understand the language, and she never came across a communion service.

There seemed to her to be no set religion anywhere: the people had witch doctors and believed in their devils, but there was no real creed; so they accepted Christianity quite happily, adapting it to their own culture. Here, all the Christian denominations had their own Guide companies. Joan explained that the Guides and Scouts in England, however, were one movement, irrespective of religion. On hearing this, a listener cried: “So you’re all heathen!” The others seemed to agree.

She was fascinated by the way in which the Bible stories were acted out for congregations, as when she visited a mission in Botswana. The story was that of Jesus’s healing a paralysed man who had to be lowered through a roof: a man was tied to a flimsy-looking wooden stretcher, and was then precariously carried up a tree, before being lowered for healing.

During her time in Africa, Joan became a good friend of Seretse Khama (who later became the first President of Botswana) and his British wife, Ruth, whose love story was featured in the film A United Kingdom. What was not shown in the film was that, besides being married in a register office, the couple also wished to be married in church. On arriving at St Mary Abbots, Kensington, the Bishop of Kensington, Henry Montgomery Campbell, who had been told by the Government not to allow the ceremony, slammed the church door in their faces in a dramatic gesture. This incident was hushed up, and, eventually, the couple were secretly married up the road at St George’s, Campden Hill.

Joan had a strong religious belief. In her last decades, she was a committed Anglican. Quite early on, she had become fascinated by the buildings, liturgy and rituals of the Anglican Church. She was also a great supporter of ecumenism. She went on seven pilgrimages in 15 years. She had a particular love for the peaceful island of Iona, staying there twice, drinking in knowledge of the Celtic saints. Her favourite places in Israel were the Sea of Galilee and Mount Tabor, which had probably changed little since the time of Jesus. In Oberammergau, she was much impressed by the collective effort of the local community to produce such a moving passion play.

Joan did much for her local church, St Mary Abbots, Kensington: visiting the sick and lonely, serving refreshments, working in the vicarage garden, hosting a book group, knitting miniature teddy bears that flew off the stall at the church bazaar. In May 2007, the Order of St Mellitus was conferred on her by the Bishop of Kensington for her contribution to the Christian life of London.

With close friends at her bedside, she died at home in Kensington on 15 January, after a short illness.

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