Obituary: Martin Polden, OBE

Celebrity and property lawyer whose 'road to Swindon' conversion led him to promote environmental issues


The pioneering go-to drugs lawyer of the 1960s, Martin Polden was an early volunteer at law centres developing civil rights law.

He had a diverse clientele, among the fashion, music, entertainment and arts scene in the “swinging London” of the 1960s.

In 1968, he was called by George Harrison, whom he also later represented, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were charged with drug offences.

Martin’s children recall a family tea with George Harrison and Pattie Boyd (George’s then wife) at his Esher, Surrey home, with George making a return visit to their North West London home.

Martin would not forget George playing him My Sweet Lord in his kitchen soon after he had composed it, a bizarre card game of Happy Families with Phil Spector and Allen Klein, and Hare Krishna members chanting in his office waiting room.

Other clients included Lionel Bart, Ron Moody and Peter Wyngarde, and from the world of fashion, Ossie Clark, Tommy Nutter and Simon Boyle.

Like many professionals he became frustrated when clients did not take his advice. A favourite client once told him: “I hear what you are saying, Martin, but remember, you are sitting in my Rolls Royce!”

Martin Alan Podeshva was born in Clapton, East London, the only child of Ralph and Debbie Podeshva. His father, who changed the family name to Polden, was a skilled tailor and his mother, a typist and legal secretary.

With his parents he was evacuated to High Wycombe during the war, where he attended the Royal Grammar School. He talked of his excitement when Sir Winston Churchill spoke in High Wycombe during the 1945 General Election campaign.

Yet, straight after that he went off to campaign for the Labour Party.
Martin studied law at LSE and qualified in 1953. In 1958 he set up as Polden & Co before forming Polden Bishop & Gale with Rinda Bishop and Sidney Gale, which in turn merged to become Rubinstein Callingham Polden & Gale.

He met his wife Margaret (Margie) Fry at the Ben Uri Drama Group. They married on 29th January 1956 in London’s New West End Synagogue. Rabbi Louis Jacobs officiated. Margie, a leader in obstetric physiotherapy, an author and broadcaster, died unexpectedly in 1998, aged only 67.

Martin worked with Release, the legal advice charity for those charged with drugs possession, and became active in human rights issues, including the aftermath of the 1968 civil unrest. In the next decade he became more involved in corporate law.

But in the mid-1980s, he experienced a “conversion on the road to Swindon”. Clients had applied for planning consent for a development that conflicted with local interests.

Martin came to regret the permission granted for the development, particularly after meeting the environmentalist Diana Schumacher, who pointed out the imbalance of resources and legal assistance between developers, large corporations and local authorities, compared with communities faced with environmentally detrimental developments.

In 1992 he and Diana co-founded the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), with Martin the first chair, Diana the vice-chair and Professor David Hall, Professor of Biology at King’s College, London, a key founder member.

He was proud that King Charles became its president. ELF inaugurated a network of pro bono lawyers and environmental experts to assist communities confronted with planning and environmental issues.

ELF worked with several universities, including Imperial College, to protect the UK’s rivers and waterways from industrial and agricultural effluence as well as sewage: a crisis he anticipated long before it became headline news.

He also spearheaded Young ELF, to enthuse children and teenagers as well as newly qualified professionals.

The charity celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

With Simon Jackson, Martin co-wrote The Environment and the Law: A Practical Guide (Longman, 1994), based on the Four Aristotelian Elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. It referenced the warnings of early environmentalist, reflecting modern complexities. In 2006 he was awarded an OBE for Services to Environmental Law.

Martin developed connections with EcoPeace, an organisation comprising Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian representatives, aimed at co-operation over water and other shared vital natural resources. He helped organise one of its first international meetings in London in 1995.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director of EcoPeace, has described Martin as “a wonderful, inspirational person committed to high justice, compassion and sustainability values”.

Martin was a member of the Parliamentary Environment Group and various environmental bodies.

He advised both the Liberal Democrats on the law relating to immigration and nationality, and Labour Shadow Ministers of the Environment on law reform. He was also a prison visitor at Wormwood Scrubs.

Tributes to Martin describe him as a gentleman of the old school who spent much of his life supporting the underdog with his skills and generosity.

Martin Polden valued his membership of Brondesbury Park Synagogue and the friendship and support of Rabbi Baruch Levin and his family.

He is survived by his four children, Daniel, Ruth, Esther and Sarah, nine grandchildren and great-grandson.

Martin Polden : born June 23, 1928.
Died April 5, 2023

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