For Mrs. Brown it was just another day at work. A midwife by profession, she was used to answering the knock at the door to find a breathless young man, trying really hard not to look flustered, enquiring whether she could come quickly to assist. For John Joseph Noble it wasn't an entirely unfamiliar situation either, having made the journey to Mrs. Brown's house six times before, though he was slightly more flustered this evening than normal; a cold spell had laid a fine mist of snow on the Port Glasgow pavement and he'd just ‘fallen on his arse’ on his way to get the midwife. And so it was, with the short lived nickname of his ‘little snowdrop’ that Barbara Noble, who I know better as Mum, arrived in the world on Sunday the 24th of February, 1935.
Barbara, soon known to all as Babs, joined siblings George, Margaret, Thomas, John, and Francis May (and the memory of lost baby John) in a one bedroom tenement flat in Mary Street above Ella Scott’s Sweet Shop – a stone’s throw from the Clyde shipyards and close enough to see, hear and smell the relentless activity at the iron foundry next door. Whilst obviously not remembering midwife Mrs. Brown from her first meeting, Babs does still remember a clip round the ear for being caught hiding behind a curtain singing ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ during a later visit, perhaps in connection with the subsequent arrival of brothers James or Durward. It's a mischievousness that remains with her a lifetime later.
Her father John Joseph Noble had come to Scotland in search of work in the early 1900s from his birthplace in the county that was then known as Cumberland, leaving behind a family situation which leaves questions even to this day (he was born John Joseph Brown but took the name Noble some time after his mother Margaret Brown married Robert Noble – even his youngest half-brother either couldn't or wouldn’t remember the exact circumstances). A farm labourer, he had heard talk of jobs on the railway in Scotland with the then Caledonian Railway and despite some scepticsm from siblings successfully ascended to the job of every young boys dream, that of engine driver. His career choice led to a life choice soon after, when he noticed a young lady regularly leaning on the sandstone sill of a tenement window next to a signal stop near Ladyburn Engine Shed. It wasn't long before John Joseph Noble and Barbara Mahaffey Murray became an item, and they married in September 1919.
Barbara Mahaffey Murray, listed as a weaver on her marriage certificate, was the product of the son of a local family and the daughter of Irish immigrants who had arrived in Scotland in the 1840s after the famine and set up home in Ayrshire. Barbara’s mother Mary had died some time before at the relatively early age of 50 years, meaning that Barbara’s sister Agnes had taken on much of the load of looking after the family whilst Barbara had gone out to work at the age of 14 – so it is perhaps no surprise that the newlyweds John Joseph Noble and Barbara Mahaffey Murray set up home in Mary Street, just around the corner from the Murray family.
Babs’ memories of her Mary Street birthplace are limited, but her recollections of ‘Wash Day’, the allocated day of the week that the Noble family got to use the communal Mary Street laundry ‘facilities’, give us some idea of the conditions in which all of the families lived. On the allotted day the family would gather their washing (and their own firewood) and head down to the big concrete boiler to light the fire, fill the boiler, and then start the process of washing seven days-worth of clothes. The whites went in first, while the water was still boiling, followed by the dark clothes, then at the end by John Joseph’s dirty railway overalls; Even today Babs marvels at how her mother managed to keep all of the clothes clean and the children presentable given the rudimentary facilities and the proximity of the iron foundry. It’s a scene that most children today would find incomprehensible, but one that still seems to fill this very able 81-year old with a degree of pride and affection.
Other than wash days, Babs doesn’t remember too much about Mary Street, but family Noble obviously found it more than a little cramped in one bedroom so they decamped to the relative luxury of a three bedroom tenement flat in Highholm Street during the gap between the arrival of Babs and young brother James. Unable to afford the luxury of much help with the move, the family transported everything by hand or on the back of a horse-drawn cart – fortunately the new flat was just around the corner. Still standing today, this imposing old sandstone block has seen better days, but continues to reek of the life and lives that it has seen. No need back then for the security door that guards the common stair nowadays, when times seemed harder but simpler, and the kids would be running in and out to play in the street. Appropriately today the street is sheltered by a railway bridge from the post-industrial blandness that is the reclaimed site of past shipyard glories - meaning that if you close your eyes you can still imagine the noise of kids playing in the street seventy years ago.
Like all families, the two parents developed their own roles and characters, with John Joseph having to work hard to maintain the family, but retaining a strong sense of humour and a caring demeanour. (The author remembers as a young boy being carried by his grandfather, at that point in his declining years, some distance back to the Highholm Street flat as the unwelcome recipient of a nasty dog bite requiring medical attention – and marvelling at his strength). Babs' mother had to work equally hard, and instilled the concept of hard work into both of her daughters, who from an early age took significant roles in the business of keeping the house in order. Babs fondly remembers the ability of her mother to know what the children were thinking before they did, and recounts an episode where she had been sent to retrieve some square sausage from the kitchen cupboard and had barely started a diversion with her finger into a tin of condensed milk before a maternal hand came quietly round the door with a painful slap to remind her of the original errand.
Babs' eyes light up when she remembers her early years in the flat, and whilst times were often hard, there were obviously many happy days and it’s clear that fond memories remain dominant. Never ones to miss the ‘acquisition’ of unwanted property from elsewhere, John Joseph had noticed that his ground floor flat was set at some height from street level. A hole in the hall floor later and the famous ‘dunny’ (dungeon) was created, complete with a ladder which had seen previous life on a ship, giving the family the equivalent of double the floor space. Equipped with bits and pieces of ‘acquired’ furniture (and assorted fruit boxes), it wasn't exactly luxurious, but it gave the kids a fantastic, dimly-lit land of adventure and the parents somewhere else to hide the clutter that ten people create.
By the time Babs arrived her eldest brother was already fifteen, so she grew up in a boisterous and noisy environment, surrounded by both children and adults. Never more so than at ‘the plot’, an allotment beside the railway embankment that John Joseph rented from his employer, and which provided for the family in many ways. As well as a fantastic, and safe playground during the summer, it provided a steady supply of fresh vegetables to a family for whom there was never quite enough food. And it also provided some sanctuary for John Joseph on the few occasions when even he needed some respite from the noise. Times weren’t easy for anyone in that part of the world in the late 1930s but Babs doesn’t remember often being hungry. She does remember her father taking advantage of his background as a farm labourer and teaching them all how to steal vegetables from other plots by “tickling” the potato or carrot out of the ground whilst leaving the visible part of the plant untouched. She also remembers, surprisingly fondly, the regular chore of following behind Pollock’s horses to gather manure for use at the plot – and to this day can’t see a horse pass by on the street without wondering whether someone is retracing her steps and following the horse with a shovel. She chuckles, mischievously, at her frequent use of the word ‘acquire’.
By the time Babs was approaching primary school age the country was sliding gently into the second World War, and the arrival of baby brothers James and Durward was soon about to be offset by the departure of George to the Navy; a journey taken by many young men of their generation. It was just as well that the Noble family had developed a strong streak of self-sufficiency, initiative and acquisitiveness for the times that lay ahead.
24th February 2016
W. Stewart Matthews