There cannot be many women whose contributions to successful enterprises straddle a gamut from the epic task of helping to unscramble the Enigma code to the removal of a smoking Midlothian coal bing.
For Marjorie Noble both ventures were mere punctuation marks in a life filled with voluntary service that began as a teenage Red Cross volunteer in Cheshire and took her from Bletchley Park and the secret work of Station X to the Buchan coast, Edinburgh and finally the glorious shores of Loch Etive.
Along the way she sacrificed a career as an artist to support her husband, a former Bomber Command veteran, their family and astonishing 38 organisations, encompassing The Samaritans, Edinburgh Zoo and Oban’s Museum of War and Peace.
Born in Stockport, to James and Ethel Smith, she attended Lymefield Primary School and then Stockport Grammar School for Girls where she excelled in art and sports. A 15-year-old pupil when the Second World War broke out, she displayed an early determination to do her bit for others by collecting paper for the war effort and later volunteered as a Red Cross helper.
After leaving school she went to Manchester College of Art but left to join the Wrens, signing up with her childhood friend Hazel. Following induction and training in London they were posted, in 1943, to Gayhurst Manor, a Bletchley Park outstation known as P5. Bletchley was the centre dedicated to cracking the German Enigma code, an encryption that changed on a daily basis, resulting in a fiendishly complicated operation to decipher it and the vital messages being transmitted by the enemy.
Recruits were picked for their superior intelligence (something Noble always refuted), problem-solving skills – evidenced by their ability to complete the Telegraph cryptic crossword in a few minutes – and their discretion. Many young upper and middle-class women were seen as the right type who would never blab and in Noble’s case that remained the situation for many decades. It was only when the wartime work of the codebreaking establishment was declassified in the 1970s that she finally broke her silence.
On reading a Sunday newspaper which revealed Bletchley’s role, she gathered her family around and explained her contribution. It transpired she had been a Bombe operator, working on one of the machines, developed by maths genius Alan Turing and improved by fellow codebreaker Gordon Welchman, to decrypt secret settings of Enigma.
By the end of March 1942 there were 26 bombes in operation and that September Gayhurst Manor opened as an outstation. She served there from 1943 to May 1945 when she moved next door to Bletchley Park itself to help crack the Japanese codes.
The huge bombe machines, forerunners of today’s computers, involved a complex series of drums and brushes attempting to match pairs of letters corresponding to the German Enigma coding for that day. Noble apparently said she only indulged in smoking because the cigarette packets, once folded up, were the perfect size for tweaking out bits of the computer that needed replacing.
During her time at Gayhurst the Wrens often threw parties, inviting airmen stationed nearby, and she met her future husband David Noble at one of their bashes. When Germany’s surrender ended the war in Europe the couple went off London to celebrate VE Day and David proposed.
Soon afterwards he was transferred to the RAF’s police branch, under the command of the Provost Marshal, and posted to Malaya. His fiancée wanted to remain closer to his family in Inverness and was posted to Rattray Head near Peterhead.
Following demobilisation she returned to her studies at Manchester College of Art and was offered the opportunity to exhibit at a London gallery but declined, putting her own career to one side to marry David in Cheshire. They moved to Edinburgh where he became a solicitor and, after the birth of their first son, they settled in Roslin, in an 18th century dower house with 50 acres of grounds. The property, with no mains electricity and water from a private supply, was undoubtedly a challenge but also a charming place for a growing family, which subsequently expanded with a daughter and second son.
Family holidays were spent in a rustic cottage, accessible only by dinghy, on the isle of Horrisdale, near Gairloch, before they acquired a 70ft, former RAF air-sea rescue boat, moored at Crinan.
Meanwhile, as the children grew up, their mother returned to voluntary work, becoming involved in the Edinburgh Samaritans following the suicide of a close friend. She also became a member of one of the capital’s first Children’s Panels and then in 1970 was persuaded to stand as a candidate for Midlothian County Council’s Glencorse ward. She and David had been in involved in the local Conservative Association for some time and he masterminded her winning election campaign.
She was one of only three Conservatives on the council and, despite opposing political views, forged a firm friendship with the Labour Provost, David Smith, who taught her the ropes of local government. When local authorities were reorganised in the mid-1970s she sat on the steering committee for the new Lothian Regional Council and stood for the Penicuik ward, once again winning the seat.
Perpetually on the side of her constituents, she did not think twice about dismissing officials’ views and procedures if they contradicted the interests of locals.
Among her achievements was the moving of the Mauricewood bing which had cast an unpleasant cloud, literally and metaphorically, over the local community. It was on the site of the Mauricewood Colliery where 63 men and boys were killed in an underground fire in 1889. She campaigned for a memorial there and eventually managed to have the bing removed.
She was also involved in establishing Beeslack School, Pentland Hills Country Park and a local bypass and sat on a wide range of organisations from Lothian Health Board to arts councils, theatre groups, the police board, local charities and Edinburgh Zoo. She gave up local politics when her husband was appointed sheriff in Oban. However their move to North Connel by Loch Etive did not stop her contributing to the community.
Meals on Wheels, Abbeyfield House and the WRVS hospital shop all benefited from her unique talents and latterly she became a volunteer at Oban’s Museum of War and Peace. She was 83 by then and still unstoppable – a member of Oban Arts Club, The Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Argyll Bird Club as well as a keen gardener. Predeceased by her husband, who she nursed at home, she is survived by their children Andrew, Jill and Toby, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.