Tuesday, September 25, 2012
If you were to see Mrs. Noble in 1890, just after the birth of her youngest child and presiding as President of the Ladies Recreation Club of Hong Kong, you would think that the world was her oyster. Always had been, always would be. After all, she was married to the man who had just been appointed Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, the bank whose reputation was head and shoulders above all the other banks in Hong Kong.
The first adjustment to such a picture of a life of ease would be to learn that she was born at sea in 1858. She was the first born child of Capt. John Malone Sexton and Josephine Mary O’Brien, both from Newcastle, Co. Limerick. Her father had been raised by a step father, John Norris, a local schoolmaster. An account, written in 1892 - probably by Nicholas Upton D’Arcy, remembers him as being: about 18 or 19 years old in very poor circumstances. In fact not a shoe to his foot and like Bryan Olinn [a character in a folk tale] had no breeches to wear or very little of it.
Why a schoolmaster’s step son should be so ill attired, is not commented on by D’Arcy.
We do know that John Malone Sexton then did what so many young Irishmen did in the aftermath of the famine: he enlisted in the 90th went through the war and so distinguished himself that he came home a Captain and married Mary O'Brien who was a fine and very clever girl. The army was an effective passport to a brighter future for him.
Military records always make the lists of battles and medals sound so dry: Major Sexton served throughout the Eastern campaign of 1854-55 as Adjutant of the 25th Regiment from June 1855, including the battles of Alma, Inkerman, siege and fall of Sebastapol, and sortie of 26th October (Medal with three Clasps, Knight of the Legion of Honour, and Turkish Medal). Behind such lists are tales of daring deeds and personal risk.
In order to inject some life into the lists of such battles, it helps to think of Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastapol Sketches, or Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Think of nurses such as Florence Nightingale tending to the wounded. The men that she cared for could have included Sexton's fellow soldiers, if not him as well. The risks of one of the battles that he fought, this one at Inkerman, is pithily described: Despite being severely outnumbered, the allied troops held their ground, becoming a marvel of each regiment's tradition and tenacity. The amount of fog during the battle led to many of the troops on both sides being cut off, in battalion-sized groups or less. Thus, the battle became known as "The Soldier's Battle". In short, it was all bloody terrifying.
It was after proving his mettle in such battles, that John Malone Sexton, who had left Co. Limerick as a barefoot young man, came back home as a Captain and claimed his bride. She was Josephine Mary O’Brien, the daughter of Myles O’Brien, the local apothecary and member of a successful farming family. Right from the start, John and Mary seemed to be a good fit with British military life in India:
She went to India with the regt and became the most popular and best liked lady in the 90th. They remained there for several years and Sexton got an appointment of £2000 or £3000 a year and became a Colonel and I believe is now a General and commands a wide district in India, and has a large family. Nicholas Upton D’Arcy.
Given the dates of some of the battles that Sexton was involved in, matched up with the fact that Frances Sexton was born at sea, she was probably born early in 1858 - before March. If her father had already returned to India before her birth, and was on the next battlefield before she and her mother could make their way to India, then she may have been born a bit later in the year. This is another one of those places where the kindness of strangers could possibly help me out with a birth date, and/or the pertinent shipping records.
We do know that Frances’ father was active in battle during most of first year after her birth, and often afterwards as well. He served as Adjutant of the 95th in the Indian campaign of 1858-59, including action on March 30th leading to the siege and capture of Kotah. Later, he served as a Staff Officer to Colonel Raines commanding the infantry in the battle of Kota ke Serai. In another battle which resulted in the capture of Gwalior on June 20th 1858, he was severely burnt by the explosion of powder while serving a gun captured from the enemy and turned on them. His bravery was repeatedly recognized in the published lists of honours called dispatches. Later in this same year, he was also active in the siege and capture of Pourie, and was amongst the troops who surprised the rebel camp at Koondrye on December 15th. No matter what was asked of him, John Malone Sexton was the kind of soldier who put his boots where they were needed.
Not that such devotion by a soldier to military duty is ever easy on those they leave back at home. His wife, like many military wives, was left behind for long periods of time in India. Many families in this community experienced the cycle of the men being on the battle field, away from home, and then returning on a leave. Nine months later, there was often the birth of a child. Not all of these children lived, of course. The tropical climate took its toll.
A second daughter, Myrna – who did live, was born seven years after Frances, in 1865 in India. She was born in Poona [aka Pune], probably in the large British military cantonment to the east of Poona. There may have been other brothers or sisters born in this interval. Again, there are more records to search. Four years later, a third daughter, Grace was born at Bombay. The last child known for sure to be part of this family was George Henry Noble Sexton, born in 1876 in what the British census records referred to as East Indies.
This last known child, George Henry Noble Sexton, was described in HSBC histories as being Frances NOBLE's nephew, but I believe that he was actually her much younger brother. I doubt that there are two boys in census records with the same name, birth place, and birth date.
There is one more possible sister for Frances. In 1881, the Sexton family was holidaying in the Isle of Wight. Mary, the mother, was there with Louisa Noble, an aunt of her son-in-law – George Edward Noble, as well as the baby of the family, George Noble Sexton – who was then aged five. The mystery so far is that there was also a six year old staying with them: Pauline Leonara Sexton [1874-1899]. So far, I have been unable to find the names of her parents. Other than her birth and death dates, all I know is that she was born at St. Leonards on Sea, in Sussex. Again, others may be able to help me on this.
The evidence that she was a sister of Frances is circumstantial. In 1881, Grace SEXTON, age 11 and born in India was a boarder at the St. Leonards-Mayfield, a Roman Catholic girl’s boarding school on High Street, Mayfield in Sussex. This would have been Grace Gertrude SEXTON, Frances’ younger sister, born 1869 in Bombay. I suspect that it is more than coincidence that this is the same school where Pauline SEXTON, at age 16 was a student in 1891.
As for Frances’ mother, Mary Sexton née O’Brien, she died sometime between the 1881 and 1891census, probably in England. It would have been sometime after the family’s Isle of Wight holiday. In the 1891 census, her husband was a widower, living in London with three of their children, and one grandson.
These Noble and Sexton families formed close bonds of both friendship and family connections that endured through at least two generations. Some of the Sexton boys have Noble as a middle name, and some Noble boys have the Sexton name as a middle name. Time and again unmarried or widowed aunts of one family resided with the family of the other. Together, the extended families provided the social glue and professional connections that helped all the inter-related children find their feet as adults.
For example. John Frederick Sexton Noble, the grandson who was living with his grandfather John Malone Sexton, in London in 1891, was hired at HSBC, as his father had been, and as was his uncle, George Henry Noble Sexton. In spite of the generational difference, they were both born in 1876. Their HSBC careers overlapped with Sexton serving in Bombay (1896-1903) and Noble in Hong Kong (1897-1901). The source that had initially described them as cousins was H.D. Sharpin, writing in the 1950s. Given their ages, the confusion is understandable. Still, Sharpin is one of those who had firsthand knowledge of the two young men, and left a brief record in the HSBC archives:
They all lived near each other in “The Lines” on Malabar Hill, Bombay. Sexton and Noble were wonderful at Amateur Theatricals, and were the life and soul of the mess. Sexton was a lad of promise, but while home on his first leave, suddenly disappeared into a Monastery in Ireland and we never heard of him again.
Another one of the sons of HSBC staff who was taken into the Noble family’s care was George Gordon Morriss, son of Edward Morriss. In 1911, he was 26 years old, already widowed, and staying with Frances and her family. His father had been hired away from the Agra in 1872, after he had served as liquidator of the Agra, and had been an agent in Bombay along with Noble sr., as well as manager of Yokohama where he died in 1890. Frances’ husband had been the executor’s of Edward Morriss’ will.
Looking back on all this, there are a few conclusions worth noting. For starters, even though there may not have been the traditional village available to these families to support them in raising their children, the support of their extended family on two continents was just as effective. Also, that when it came to the success of the men and their male children, their mothers were as critical when it came to forging the connections that underpinned their future successes as their fathers were.
Frances’ latter years:
Sometime in the mid to late 1890s, it seems that Frances left Hong Kong and then lived in England for the second half of her life, a country that was new to her. When they first arrived in London, her husband was in ill health, sick enough that he had to resign his position at HSBC. He continued to serve in a diminished role, suffering from what, I don’t know, but it is likely that the nature of his illness would be described in his death certificate - April 10, 1901.
Frances had married young, at age seventeen, but ended up living in England another forty-four years after the death of her husband. Together, they had four children who lived, and one who died. When and how that child died, I have yet to learn. If any of their ancestors have survived, there may be family letters and such which could shed light on this. There is a son in a family picture that I have posted on the blog piece about Frances’ husband. The name of this boy is unknown to me, and it may be that he was the child who died. If he was, then there would have to be another child who I know nothing about.
Frances’ children lived with her in their early adult years. In 1911, her eldest son was 34 years old, unmarried, and living in their large, seventeen room home at 37 Inverness Terrace, London. He worked as an accountant. One daughter, Mary Josephine, age 22, lived at home until a year later, when she married Lionel John Crossley Anderson, of the HK Shanghai Bank (Penang). Their daughter, Diana Margaret, was born Jan 13, 1918 in Tientsin, China. [NOTE: Lionel may be related to A. Hay Anderson, the Manager of the Agra and Masterman Bank in Hong Kong in 1866. In terms of any connection that this might have to the larger story that I am pursuing, A. Hay Anderson was the manager who released Thomas Jackson from his Agra contract so he could go to work for HSBC.] The one daughter, Kathleen, who was not living at home, had married earlier in the year an optical instrumentation dealer: Edward Ford Callaghan,. They lived not far away at 8 Marchwood Cresent, Ealing W., Middlesex.
Frances died at age 87, at Wharneford Hospital, near Oxford, England. In normal circumstances, I would check to see if there was family nearby that had sparked her decision to move out of London, but 1945 was not a time of normal circumstances. Thousands of Londoners had fled, and many more were still fleeing the city to avoid the nightly bombing raids.
With this in mind, it would be fair to say that Frances’ life had gone full circle. Born and raised in a time and place of military conflict and danger, she had died on another continent in another time and place that was also embroiled in military conflict and danger. Perhaps that moment when she was elected President of Ladies Recreation Club of Hong Kong was one of the calmer oases in her life.
As for the rest of her story, I hope to learn more when I visit Hong Kong in November of this year. I also hope to hear from others, as a result of this post, perhaps people who may have some kind of family connection with her story. As always, I am all ears – and am also open to correction. I don’t claim to have this all nailed down. It is totally open to additions and revisions.
Links of interest:
It was in 2003 when I first saw this picture, one of hundreds found in a family photo album at Gilford Castle. It was one of many that had been passed down by relations of Sir Thomas Jackson. Years later, I learned what Mr. Noble’s initials were from a photo in Frank H.H. King’s history of HSBC. His full name was: George Edward Noble. At the peak of his bank career, he was Chief Manager of HSBC. Since I knew absolutely nothing about him in 2003, the sparse inscription beneath the photo raised a deluge of questions:
Who was the mother of Mr. Noble’s children?
Was she alive when the photo was taken?
Was she the photographer?
When was the photo taken?
What were the names of the children?
When were they born?
Who was the elderly woman? Was she the family amah?
Is it possible that she was George Edward Noble’s mother?
This last question is speculation, but it is not as farfetched as it might seem. We can be reasonably certain that George Edward’s father was John Noble (1799-aft 1871), an East India merchant born in Co. Kent, England. John’s wife is so far only known to me by her first name: Mary-Ann. According to census records, she was born in Lambeth. She was probably the mother of George Edward, but at present I can find no birth certificate that ties her to him, unlike the paper trail of her other children.
It may be that this glitch is simply a clerical error, and George Edward has no birth connection to anyone other than George and Mary Anne. I don’t know if his father ever lived in India, as some East India merchants did – keeping two separate families, one in England and one in India. There are dozens of other people with the Noble surname in and around Bombay at the same time that Noble’s father was active in trade. More research is needed. It should be noted that there were also a number of people with the Sexton surname who lived near these Nobles in Bombay. One of them, Frances Bertha Marion “Daisy” Sexton, became George Edward Noble’s future wife, which is another thing that I will get to.
George’s Older Brother: Henry Noble – Manager of Agra Bank
The young George Edward was not the first family member to be a banker in the Far East. His brother Henry – fourteen years older than George - was manager of the Agra and Masterman’s Bank in Hong Kong in the mid-1860s. He drowned in 1866, age 34, and left a family of three children in Hong Kong, children who were already motherless. Their mother, Catherine Haywood had already died November 15th, 1865 at the Agra Bank where they lived. She died in the same year that her youngest child was born. I do not yet have a record of the cause of her death, nor the exact birth date of her youngest, but it is entirely possible that the birth and the death were cause and effect.
If the death of his wife wasn’t bad enough, Henry also faced grief on another front. The Agra and Masterman Bank was facing bankruptcy. In fact, it closed its doors a few months after his death, as a result of a bear raid on its assets on June 7, 1866. Perhaps the grief of losing his wife as well as the shaky fortunes of the Agra were part of the reason he had sailed to Foochow [now called Fuzhou], even though The Bankers’ Magazine claims he had gone only for his health:
To add to this unpleasant state of affairs, we had the misfortune to lose our manager, Mr Henry Noble, at Hong Kong, a gentleman highly esteemed by us, who was drowned in a voyage to Foochow undertaken for benefit of his health. The Bankers’ magazine, Vol 26
The trip from Hong Kong to Foochow is about 700 km [434 miles] by sea. Even today, it takes at least a couple of days to sail there. Foochow was a focal point for trade, so Henry would have done business there in the past. After the treaty following the Opium War of 1842, it had become a significant export port, and was central to the exchange banking business conducted at the time by the Agra and other such banks.
The Great Tea Race of 1866, an event that began a few months after Henry’s death, started from Foochow and included five tea clippers fully loaded up with freshly harvested tea, racing towards Britain – a race of some three months duration. Like Hong Kong, Foochow was a place where the cutting edge technologies of the time linked up with the cutting edge ways of doing business within the British Empire. Not all of them were benign or beneficial, especially to those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, but money was there to be made hand over fist for those who had the zeal and the connections as well as the additional resources of character and coin for the game.
Henry Noble’s ship may have foundered and sunk somewhere between Hong Kong and Foochow, but as yet I can find no record of this. The timing of his death, being so close on the heels of the death of his wife and just before the failure of Agra and Mastermans, does make me wonder if depression might not have played a part in his demise. This would not have been something that his fellow bankers would have wanted to include, or even hint at, in their reports. The Agra was shaky enough as it was. It is worth noting that Henry was the manager overseeing Thomas Jackson, the future Chief Manager of HSBC. He must have trained him well.
Henry’s three orphaned children, ages one to five, were raised by family in England. At the time of the 1871 census, the baby of the family, Edith Isabella, was living with her grandparents and a maiden aunt in the town of Clare, Co. Suffolk, England. She was six years old. I don’t know where the other two children ended up living after the deaths of their parents. It seems there was dissention about what would be best for them. A legal case was fought two years after Henry’s death between his father, John Noble, and the great uncle and next friend of the children: Thomas Bridge. Since the children are named in the suit, it probably concerned their needs and/or their assets. Reading this court case is one job that I will have to leave to the kindness of strangers. Regardless of how the case played out, it is still a tale of profound loss and tragedy.
George Edward Noble and HSBC.
In February 1866, the year of Henry’s death, George Edward Noble was nineteen years old, and newly recruited by HSBC. He had started his career at the Shanghai Commercial Bank Corporation of India. It was another of the banks in the region that failed that year. In their case, it was because of over-speculation in Shanghai real estate, and the unauthorized investment of the bank’s funds by the San Francisco Manager in California mining enterprises. Plus ça change
when it comes to the most frequent reasons for bank failures. It was a useful heads up for Noble.
He and Thomas Jackson, who had previously worked at the failed Agra and Mastermans Bank, were hired that year along with a handful of other fresh faced recruits. Of the twenty young men hired locally around that time, there were only nine who lasted more than a decade. More to the point, George Edward Noble and Thomas Jackson both rose to serve in the position of Hong Kong Manager, the top staff position in the bank. There must be something to be said for knowing the lay of the land from a range of perspectives at an early age, including learning about failure.
George’s first HSBC appointment was as Agent in Shanghai. Two years later, he was promoted to Acting Accountant at Hong Kong, a definite step up the ladder. A year after that, 1869, he became the accountant in Bombay. In essence, this meant that he was now in charge of the Bombay office, a post that enable him to cash in on his father’s business contacts. Bear in mind that when he was first appointed to this post, he had only reached the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
I have posted a chronology on my web site that focuses on his various banking appointments, so I won’t go into a great deal of detail here about his professional life. My interest here is in teasing out what we can learn about his personal life, and what insights we may gain about his character. Regrettably, thus far, there is little to go on.
What we do know is that at the time HSBC employees were expected to wait until they had made it to the rank of Accountant, and had also been employed by HSBC for at least ten years before they married. It wasn’t an unusual restriction for its time; it was common enough in other spheres such as the military. Even so, the men used to refer to HSBC as the Heart and Soul Breaking Corporation on account of this restriction. These kinds of policies served the bank’s interest. After all, it was cheaper to house a half dozen junior clerks in a bachelor’s mess than to put up a married couple in a home of their own, even without considering the accommodation costs of the almost inevitable children.
By the time of his marriage, Noble had fulfilled the seniority requirement by serving as Accountant in Bombay, but was about half a year short of the usually expected waiting period for marriage. There is no record of whether his marriage was approved by the senior brass, or whether he simply flew under the radar for a while. His wife, Frances Sexton, was a mere seventeen years old at the time of their marriage, a not unusual age for that time and place. He was twenty-nine.
A year later on October 26, 1876, George was authorized to make what arrangements he wished for new premises to be built at Bombay provided no material increase in rent or furnishing etc. The need for these improvements was likely occasioned by the birth of his son, John Frederick Sexton Noble, a few months earlier on August 7, 1876. A year later, George left on leave, and the next glimpse that we have of him is in Hong Kong.
For several years, he worked as the HSBC Inspector of Branches. This meant that he had to spend a considerable amount of time traveling from branch to branch. He also did a stint taking temporary charge of the Calcutta agency, and later of the agency in Manila. During the time that he was thusly employed, his wife gave birth to a second son. At this point, I do not know how often or for how long he was able to be home with his young family, or whether they traveled with him when he was in charge of managing the agencies in Calcutta and Manila.
In some ways, the traveling demands of such HSBC work were not dissimilar from the military absences that his mother-in-law had experienced when she was the wife of a military man. At least both mother and daughter had the support of significant numbers of friends and family nearby as they raised their children in the British community in Bombay.
The career heartbreak of George’s life was that no sooner had he reached his professional pinnacle than he was decked by the onset of a severe and chronic illness. He had been appointed Chief Manager on January 1, 1889, succeeding the wildly popular Thomas Jackson. By March 27th 1890, he was so ill that he had to be granted emergency sick leave. There was some hope that he would recover, but four months later, he needed an additional twelve months off work. A year after this, it was clear that his health was such that he could never return to his post in Hong Kong. In spite of this, he was appointed to the HSBC London Committee, a post that he served in until the time of his death in 1901. In 1899, a letter from A.M.Reith to Charles Addis said that Noble was very shaky and “an interview with him is rather painful”.
George was only forty-four years old when he was sidelined by whatever this serious illness was. It had to have come as a shock. His wife, who was only aged thirty-two, had just given birth to their youngest child, Kathleen Louisa, a few months earlier. She was active in the local community, particularly in her role as President of the Ladies Recreation Club of Hong Kong. In the end, his tenure as Chief Manager and their place at the pinnacle of Hong Kong society had only lasted a little over a year.
Unfortunately, George’s tenure also suffered in comparison with his predecessor, Thomas Jackson. He lacked the charm, the royal jelly, that Jackson had in abundance. As H.D. Sharpin, a junior staff member, described him years later:
He seemed rather aloof in general, and not talkative. My only contact with him was pressing him to countersign D/Drafts etc for waiting customers. He was inclined to be lazy about this, and seemed rather bored with the work, I think. I remember once , as I was going in to see him, a lady stopped me and asked if she could see Mr. Noble. I told him a lady wished to see him. He grunted and said “Is she pretty?” from which he got the reputation of being a bit of a gay dog – probably quite undeserved.
Noble was one of those men whose record as a banker did end up being judged more favourably in hindsight. During his brief tenure as Chief Manager, he had been under considerable pressure to exceed what he believed were prudent credit ratings for brokers. Perhaps his ill health was part of the reason that he eventually buckled. Had he been more socially gifted than he was, he might have been cut some slack, and might have been judged less harshly at the time.
With respect to unfairness, there were likely some other ways in which the deck was stacked against him. He and his wife were both Roman Catholic, a faith that still meant exclusion from some social circles. There is also the question I raised earlier, about whether he may have been of both British as well as Indian ancestry. I don’t want to make too much of this, after all, it may be nothing more than a clerical error. If there is more to it than that, then the description of his appearance may have some bearing: G.E. Noble was a fairly big heavily built man of dark complexion with a thick mustache. Further research may prove that he was born in Camberwell or Dulwich, with a mother named Mary Anne who was born in Lambeth in 1807. It is only that I don’t yet know.
PS. One last bit - George's nephew, Henry Haywood Noble (1861-1834), son of George's brother Henry Noble (1832-1866) was executor of George's will. Another instance of the links within the extended family.
PS. One last bit - George's nephew, Henry Haywood Noble (1861-1834), son of George's brother Henry Noble (1832-1866) was executor of George's will. Another instance of the links within the extended family.
An article in The Gazette. London, Wednesday,September 12, 1866.
Blog piece about his wife: Frances Bertha Marion "Daisy" SEXTON
Blog piece about his wife: Frances Bertha Marion "Daisy" SEXTON