MY GRANDFATHER NOBBS
My grandfather, John Nobbs, was born an orphan, his father having been killed before he was born on his way home from market when his horse took fright and upset his dog cart. My great grandmother was thus left with five little boys to take care of. There is no doubt about her having been a woman of strong character. She begot her family at Bolt in Norfolk, and my grandfather sang in the parish church choir in that little town, he was brought up with his cousins, the Leakes, a family of yoeman stock who raised fruit and vegetables and ran a nursery garden on their land. Meantime Nannie Nobbs moved to .......where she made a living as a midwife and later became a devout and greatly respected early Methodist.
Two of her sons, twins I think they were, joined the Navy and served under Nelson as petty officers. On retirement they could not tolerate life ashore and managed to get themselves appointed joint-captains of the Light-ship on the Nore. it is proof of the splendid solidarity of Nannie's family of boys that, shortly after my father, John Leader Nobbs, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the joint-captains built a beautiful model barque 115 inches from bowsprit to mizzen boom) with standing rigging in two thicknesses and running rigging in three. This was sent as a present to my latter, then a very small boy. it is a family legend that it travelled, in its glass case, by the first direct train from Berlin to St. Petersburg (not a through-train; there was change of guage at the border, but the first train on the new line for Konigsberg to St. Petersburg.
Grandfather Nobbs and one of his cousins, when still under twenty, were sent to St. Petersburg with funds wherewith to start a rope-walk, the idea presumably being to make rope near where the flax and hemp grew. The venture did not prosper and the cousin returned to Norfolk. After that my grandfather entered the service of Ropes & Company, an American importing and exporting concern. For many years he made a winter trip into the province of Archangel to buy flax, crash and eiderdown. What he ordered was sent the following summer by river and lake to Petersburg for trans-shipment to Great Britain and the United States and to be paid for in gold the winter following on his return to the North. He was called "the most trusted man in All Russia". When the freeing of the serfs took place in 1848 the ukase simply provided that all labour should be paid for in cash. This, if you please, in a land with no banks and no paper money, and little copper and silver, and very little gold currency. So, of course, the serfs became robber gangs, certain of which laid various plots for putting my grandfather and his driver under the ice, and appropriating the gold and the horses. The North Russian peasants stood by him and fought some smart engagements with the robber gangs.
On the outbreak of the Crimean War in the autumn of 1854 the British Ambassador at Petersburg decided to send dispatches by the last British ship out of Cronstadt before the Gulf of Finland became icebound for the winter. The Neva ice was already coming down to close the south channel between Orangienbaum, the nearest land, and Cronstadt. The papers were made out in triplicate, and my grandfather and two other Englishmen were taken to Aranenbaum to try to cross the moving ice. John Nobbs got through, but the others were drowned.
My grandfather Nobbs' first wile, Grahame by name, was a Scotswoman. She died while my father was quite young. He married again and had two daughters by his second wife. One married a Strawson who invented the spraying of fruit trees; and the other a Firth, who went to Australia and became prominent in municipal affairs.*
The old gentleman had a genius for keeping children happy and in order. We loved to visit him at Alford in Lincoln- Shire, or have him come up to North Berwick and show us how to make all sorts of kites - English, Chinese and Russian - and how to sail our model yachts.
* My brother, Eric, when travelling to Cape Town as a Royal Scot at the close of the South African War, met one of his Australian connections who asked "Have you been much in Russia; you speak like my aunt Mrs. Firth.
autobiographical manuscript: a september moose fight >>