Tuesday, September 25, 2012

George Edward Noble

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.



  1. Hi Sharon
    I was googling Nicholas Upton d'Arcy and found your page - brilliant! I have a NUd'A in my family tree. He married a great great aunt of mine, Rosalina Jane Curling. her father Edward Curling was the Land Agent on the Earl of Devon's Irish estate at Newcastle West in Co. Limerick. I would be very interested to know where you found the quotations from Nicholas as it might tell me something about my family. All good wishes LucyAnn Curling