During the great depression, Granny Begg lived in Hartley Street, a steep hill between Batley and Dewsbury. She was the Home League Secretary at the local Salvation Army corps. Wycliffe’s parents, Adjutant and Mrs Charlie Noble were in charge of The Salvation Army’s work at Batley. Unemployment and poverty are everywhere. A local council charity ‘Boots for bairns’ had run out of money and could no longer provide boots for poor children. Wycliffe told me that his dad took him on his home visits. Before going into a house his dad would explain to him the circumstances of the people living there. Wycliffe also told me that in the Batley Salvation Army hall his dad organized purposeful, practical day activities for the unemployed men.
A few days ago my brother spent two hours researching this project in the Batley News of 1930; however it received no newspaper coverage. My cousin Avril is, on her mother’s side, related to Granny Begg. Wycliffe did go visiting with his dad – including to Granny Begg’s. ‘Little Wycliffe’, as he was known, was very young and wore a ‘harding apron’. Harding is the West Yorkshire noun for ‘hessian’ from which sand bags are made. Complete with apron ‘Little Wycliffe’, arrived at Granny Begg’s and unable to say ‘shovel’, he would announce ‘I’ve come to shubble your coal’ and disappear down the rickety wooden steps into the cellar to play in the coal hole.
When his parents moved to Poplar in the East End of London, Wycliffe not only witnessed poverty around him but also experienced it in his own home. Again there were children he went to school with who had no shoes. His mother made toffee to sell in order to raise funds for the small living allowance they received from The Salvation Army as ‘salary’. Wycliffe kept her toffee-making dishes and cutters for a long time afterwards. When on 8 January 1966 the Joystrings visited Batley Wycliffe recalled those visit to Granny Begg’s after my Aunty Mary, who had been a teenager at the time, had made herself known to him.
Perhaps it was those childhood influences and experiences that created in Wycliffe that motivation to help the socially disadvantaged, both as a professional and as a follower of Jesus? Were these the seeds which made him the quintessential Salvationist, faith and works?
There is a story about the Apostle Paul being shipwrecked and was a total strangers when washed up on the Island of Malta. Paul writes:
The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.’ Acts 28:1, 2
This verse describes for me the way in which Wycliffe lived: Whenever Wycliffe saw someone shipwrecked, cold and in the rain, he showed ‘unusual kindnesses’ and lit a fire.
In the 1970s my life was caught up in a severe storm and I was shipwrecked. Wycliffe showed me many unusual kindnesses and lit a fire for me. That fire was being brought into the company of Liz, Jan and Kim all resident in their home. I call them ‘The Sunbury Samaritans’ because that is what they are. Wycliffe may have been its founder but they are all samaritans. Many of us have sat in the kitchen and poured our hearts out while Liz poured out an endless river of tea and coffee – and wisdom. Jan uses his gift as a poet to get alongside homeless people, many of whom have mental health issues. Kim runs art classes for homeless people who may also suffer mental illnesses and occasionally takes them to art exhibitions. Unusual kindnesses seem to be in their family DNA. In the 1980s some homeless people were allowed to sleep in the basement of The Salvation Army in Kingston. To ensure safety the local Salvation Army Captain would sleep there, too. Every now and again this very private man, Wycliffe Noble, would in order give the captain a night off, sleep there himself.
Who will ever know how many unusual kindnesses Wycliffe showed in his life or how many fires he lit for those shipwrecked or out in the rain and the cold. Because Wycliffe was a brilliant raconteur, I want to adapt an anonymous phrase:
Because of Wycliffe Noble…
I laughed a little louder
I cried a little less
And I smiled a lot more