John Noble

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Simon John Noble, oyster grower and businessman: born London 31 October 1936; died Glasgow 9 February 2002.

John Noble said that his ambition was to make oysters as cheap and plentiful as they were when Dickens's Sam Weller complained that "poverty and oysters seem to go together". When he died suddenly last week, aged 65, his Loch Fyne oysters was selling over a million gigas oysters a year, grown in the clean waters of the loch, which, warmed by the Gulf Stream, is ideal for cultivating shellfish. He was also a moving force in the rapidly expanding chain of Loch Fyne restaurants.

As the laird of Ardkinglas, his Argyllshire estate on the opposite shore of Loch Fyne, "Johnny" Noble lived in a fabulous Scottish baronial pile built in 1906 for his great-grandfather by Robert Lorimer. Though it took only 20 months to build, Lorimer designed every detail of the 80-room house, from its door furniture to light fittings. With its turrets, crowstepped gables and S-shaped roofs, the house epitomises the Scottish baronial style, while inside it contains a bewildering series of kitchens, an oval-domed lime-green-tiled bathroom with a Heath Robinson-inspired shower that can be set to "spray," "shower" or "wave", and a drawing-room ceiling painting by Roger Fry of a confused-looking Apollo racing on a chariot through a very cloudy sky. Noble always maintained that his Apollo "was suffering from a touch of motion sickness".

Born in London in 1936, Noble moved with his family to Scotland in 1939, and was at prep school in Fife before Eton, where he was known as "Sammy", and remembered because he and his friend Tim "Pussy" Kimber devised a scheme to win the Eton steeplechase: one of them began the race, while the other, dressed in the same clothes, hid in the shrubbery by the finish line, then leapt out and won ahead of the pack. Noble did his National Service with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, went up for one year to Magdalen College, Oxford, and then to Aix-en-Provence, where he polished up his very serviceable French.

Noble sometimes said that he never married because he'd had so much female company when he was young. He grew up in a house full of women, with two sisters and his Jewish mother, Elizabeth Lucas, who devoted her life to looking after her family, and filled the house with relatives and artistic friends of his father. His grandfather Sir John Noble was a director of Armstrong Whitworth, the armaments and shipbuilding company; when after the First World War it merged with Vickers, he went to live at Ardkinglas.

Johnny Noble began his working life at S.G. Warburg's, but left the merchant bank after a year or so to start a more congenial wine importing business, French and Foreign Wines, which gave him plenty of excuses to go to his beloved France. He liquidated the firm in 1975. His father had died in 1972 and he had inherited the estate which, though it had previously provided enough income to run and maintain the house, was now failing to produce sufficient revenues. Looking around for a business opportunity, he met Andrew Lane, a marine biologist, who suggested growing oysters in the loch.

Starting in 1977 with a few hundred seed of the Portuguese oyster Crassostrea gigas, the partners had four million oysters growing at the time of Noble's death, shipping some 1.25 million each year as far afield as Hong Kong. They also grow mussels on ropes in the loch. The Loch Fyne smokery produces prodigious quantities of justly celebrated smoked salmon, which it sells through supermarkets and by mail order, along with kippers, langoustines and other marine delicacies, and in 1994 Loch Fyne Oysters won the Queen's Award for Export.

In 1980, Noble and Lane set up an oyster bar at the head of the loch. Initially it was little more than a trestle table and an umbrella, then it moved to a disused cowshed. He was very keen on eating there himself, especially as it is open all day, and until fairly recently le patron could often be seen taking breakfast at one of its tables.

He was – with reason – extremely proud that the oyster farming, smokery, mail-order and restaurant businesses at Ardkinglas provide as many jobs (if not more) as when it was a traditional working estate in his great-grandfather's day. Over 100 local people are employed.

Noble was sincere in his belief that everyone should be able to enjoy good food at reasonable cost, and putting this credo into practice was responsible for the rapid success of his subsequent ventures. The oyster bar's fame spread, and Noble and Lane decided to look for capital to expand that side of the business. Lane says, "Johnny had always had to guarantee the loans from the sceptical bank." (Noble used to say that the reaction of the bank manager when asked for the initial funding was "Everyone must have a hobby, Mr Noble".) They invested their own money and raised the remainder from only 300 shareholders; the issue, said Andy Lane, "was oversubscribed, and the shareholders included a large number of Johnny's friends and relatives".

The target of 20 Loch Fyne Oyster Bars was achieved by last year, with branches in such non-seaside locations as Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Bath and Nottingham. Several members of his family were involved in the running of the companies; so, says Andy Lane, "the businesses will continue seamlessly".

Johnny Noble had great charm, which he put to good use on the marketing side of his several businesses. He was his own best PR, and he appeared or was interviewed on several television and radio programmes. He was a true bon vivant and a wonderful host in the comfortably casual rooms of Ardkinglas which, as he said, "is not a house where every cushion has to be in place or where magazines are carefully lined up".

Paul Levy