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Noble, James (1876–1941)

by Jan Kociumbas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

James Noble (1876?-1941), Aboriginal clergyman, was reputedly born in 1876 near Boulia, North Queensland, of parents from Normanton. In the early 1890s he was a stockman for the Doyle brothers at Riversleigh on the Gregory River, and was taken south to Invermien, their station near Scone, New South Wales. Having asked to stay in the district and receive some education, Noble was given private lessons in the evenings. He was baptized at St Luke's, Scone, on 1 July 1895 and confirmed six days later.

Suffering from poor health, Noble left to work for Canon Edwards, of Hughenden, Queensland, and after 1896 for (Rev.) E. R. Gribble (1869-1957), son of Rev. J. B. Gribble, at Yarrabah, an Anglican mission near Cairns. Noble rapidly became indispensable to Gribble's missionary endeavours, and on 11 October 1901 was licensed as a lay reader in St John's parish, Cairns. In 1904 he helped to resettle at Yarrabah some hundred Aborigines from Fraser Island.

Soon after his arrival at Yarrabah, Noble had married Maggie Frew; their son died within months and his mother shortly after. A year later Noble's fiancée Lizzie Moore, first matron of Yarrabah hospital, also died. He later married Angelina (c.1879-1964), a part-Aborigine from Winton, abducted by a horse-dealer who, to avoid the authorities, had dressed her in men's clothing and called her Tommy. Noticed by police at Cairns, she had been sent to Yarrabah where she did well at the mission school. In 1904, as Noble's wife, Angelina accompanied an expedition to the Mitchell River, to help to choose a mission site.

The Nobles looked after the party and negotiated with local Aborigines warring with encroaching cattlemen. In 1905 James returned to the Mitchell with Gribble to unload supplies, pitch tents and build horse-yards, as well as performing religious duties. That year he had charge also of thirty Aborigines farming at Bukki Creek, largest of the Yarrabah mission's eight outstations.

In 1907 Noble represented Gribble at the synod of North Queensland and in 1908 accompanied him to a missionary gathering in Brisbane, preaching and addressing large audiences. Next year the Nobles pioneered another mission on the Roper River. They returned to Yarrabah in June 1910. In 1913 at Gribble's request they set out for a mission reopened at Forrest River on the Cambridge Gulf, Western Australia. While the family waited at Darwin for sea transport, Noble held services for local Aborigines. Arriving at Forrest River in April 1914, they found the mission to consist merely of a hut, a small boat and a few tools. Noble constructed several buildings, including a shed where Angelina treated the sick, and overlanded cattle from stations up to 200 miles (322 km) distant. Noble was licensed as a lay reader at Forrest River in February 1925. In May Gribble sent him to the eastern States where he preached in numerous churches and addressed meetings. On 13 September 1925 he was made deacon at St George's Cathedral, Perth, before returning to Forrest River. Thus he became the first Aboriginal Anglican clergyman in Australia.

Following reports in August 1926 of police reprisals for the spearing of an overseer on a cattle-station, Gribble sent Noble, skilled in tracking, to investigate. At the site of one of the massacres he discovered an improvised oven, and the teeth and charred bones he brought back, together with his evidence before a commission of inquiry in 1927, contributed to the arrest of two policemen for murder. Angelina, who knew at least five Aboriginal languages, interpreted for the inquiry.

By 1928 there were twenty-four buildings at Forrest River, many constructed of sun-dried bricks made by Noble. In 1933 there was a permanent population of 170 Aborigines with some 800 regular visitors. In addition to nursing, Angelina taught the mission children, baked the mission bread and cooked for the staff. After their return to Yarrabah in 1932, the Nobles went with Gribble to the Palm Island mission where Noble was licensed as assistant minister on 19 December 1933.

In declining health Noble returned with his family in 1934 to Yarrabah where he visited the hospital and taught traditional skills. After injury from a fall he died on 25 November 1941 in Cairns District Hospital and was buried in Yarrabah cemetery. According to a grandson he was a superb horseman, and Gribble claimed him as a gifted speaker whose earnest, unassuming manner 'completely won all with whom he came in contact'. Angelina died on 19 October 1964 in St Luke's Hospital, Yarrabah, where she, too, was buried. Two sons and four daughters survived them.

Select Bibliography

  • E. R. Gribble, Forty Years with the Aborigines (Syd, 1930)
  • E. R. Gribble, A Despised Race (Syd, 1933)
  • G. Higgins, James Noble of Yarrabah (Lawson, NSW, 1981)
  • Scone and Upper Hunter Historical Society Journal, 3, pt 1, 1969.

Citation details

Jan Kociumbas, 'Noble, James (1876–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/noble-james-7853/text13641, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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