Drummer and architect renowned for spreading the Christian message with the Joystrings and making public buildings accessible
A record company publicity shot of the Joystrings taken in the mid-1960s depicts the drummer Wycliffe Noble and the group posing with their instruments in a Soho alleyway against a seedy backdrop of striptease clubs and betting shops. It was the kind of streetwise image of “swinging London” that was de rigueur in the pop world at the time, but with one incongruity; they were all in Salvation Army uniforms.
The Joystrings were among Britain’s first Christian pop groups, and with Noble driving the sound from behind his drum kit, they took the beat-driven message of the gospel into the charts with hits such as It’s an Open Secret and A Starry Night.
John Peel was not a fan and accused them of unleashing “numberless hordes of drip-dry gospellers” on the sinning pop scene. However, Cliff Richard was a champion of the group, which donated the royalties from their recordings to Salvation Army charities. “Guitars in church, let alone music with a beat, were for many a definite no-no,” Richard wrote in a foreword to a book about the group. “But there, in the forefront of evangelism were the Joystrings, proving that the Devil didn’t have all the good music.”
By 1967 the group’s fame had crossed the Atlantic and they were invited to appear on the The Ed Sullivan Show, the television showcase that had launched the Beatles in America. Shortly before they were due to depart for America they launched the Salvations Army’s “For God’s Sake Care” appeal to raise £3 million for the disadvantaged with an appearance at the Playboy Club.
The venue, where they played for three nights, was part of a programme to take their music and its message to non-churchgoers and had been preceded by performances at the Vauxhall car plant in Luton and at Butlin’s holiday camps in Clacton and Margate. When pictures appeared in the press of the group’s members mingling with the club’s scantily clad “bunny girls”, it proved too much for the more conservative elements of the church, including the outraged elders of the Salvation Army’s American division. In the unholy furore that followed, the group’s US tour was cancelled, as was their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
General Frederick Coutts, the head of the Salvation Army in Britain, defended them by declaring: “We play for sinners, not for saints.” But the Joystrings broke up the following year and Noble returned to his architectural practice, pioneering the introduction of disabled access to public buildings, including Somerset House, the Royal Albert Hall and the Houses of Parliament.
Known to friends as “Wykkie”, he came to recognise that disabled access was an overlooked issue when he and his wife Elizabeth were running a Salvation Army club for people with disabilities in Paddington in the late-1950s. For many in wheelchairs, he reasoned, their biggest problem was not disability, but access.
Asked to deliver Thought for the Day on Radio 4, Noble chose accessibility as his theme and the broadcast led to an invitation to meet the Central Council for the Care of Cripples (later renamed the Central Council for the Disabled and now Radar). The result was an exhibition of imaginative demonstration dwellings, which Noble designed for people with disabilities. It was a milestone in accessibility awareness and over the next few years he “practically wrote the rule book” on accessible building design, for which he was appointed an OBE.
Noble was a genial man of enormous energy with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Elizabeth, to whom he was married for more than 60 years, recalls him arriving home from gigs at 3am and being at his desk at his architectural practice by 9am. They had two children, Jan, a poet, and Kim.
Charles Wycliffe Noble was born on June 12, 1925, in Greenock, Renfrewshire, where his father, Charlie, and his mother, Mabel, were corps officers in the Salvation Army. As his father rose up the ranks from adjutant to major, he was posted to different locations including Wick, Edinburgh and Liverpool.
By the time the family moved to Batley, West Yorkshire, at the height of the Depression, the six-year-old Wycliffe was accompanying his father on charitable visits to the homes of the poor, where he helped by shovelling coal and doing odd jobs. The poverty he witnessed had a profound effect on him, compounded by a further move to Poplar in the East End of London, where he was shocked to find that several of his classmates had no shoes.
He noted that the biggest problem for many was not disability, but access
After studying architecture, his first professional engagement came working under Sir Hugh Casson as part of the design team for the 1951 Festival of Britain, during which he met and worked with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth as well as Feliks Topolski. He started his own practice soon afterwards.
One of the notable buildings on which he worked was Park House on the Sandringham estate, the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales. When the Queen donated the property in 1983 to the Leonard Cheshire charity for use as a hotel for disabled people, Noble was tasked with the conversion. He was supervising work on the house one day when Diana arrived unannounced. They took a tour of the house together and when she pointed out where she had etched her name in the doorframe of what had once been her nursery, he had the frame removed and sent to her as a memento.
An accomplished musician who was tutored by Jack Wilson, a timpanist at the Royal Opera House, and the jazz drummer Kenny Clare, Noble played in a Salvation Army brass band for more than 40 years. When General Coutts suggested in 1963 that the organisation should update its image and copy “the Beatles sound” to reach out to young people, Noble was an obvious choice for the drum stool, joining the lead singer Joy Webb, the bassist Bill Davidson and Peter and Sylvia Daziel in the line-up. The group made their television debut on Cliff Michelmore’s BBC show Tonight in 1964 and a recording contract with EMI followed.
His other passions included boating and fast sports cars, especially MGs, of which he owned several. In old age he took up bell-ringing and he joined the march through London against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, carrying a banner that read: “Make tea not war.”
It was a sad irony that, having done so much for disabled people, he spent his final years in a wheelchair. “It is very bad theology to think that Heaven could ever be improved upon,” said Keith Banks, his Salvation Army colleague, on the news of Noble’s death. “My guess is that he may have started redesigning the place already.”
Wycliffe Noble OBE, musician and architect, was born on June 12, 1925. He died on April 1, 2017, aged 91