John Noble was educated in Inverness and came to South Africa in 1857 to join his elder brother, Professor Roderick Noble* of the South African College, Cape Town. He worked as a reporter for the newly established Cape Argus and developed a wide interest in the Cape Colony, its history and its people. In 1864 he became editor of the South African Mercantile Advertiser and Mail for a short period. In May 1865 he was appointed clerk of the House of Assembly, a post he held until he retired for health reasons in June 1897. He served three successive speakers, who relied heavily on his sound knowledge of parliamentary rules and proceedures, and was known for his courtesy, ability and patience. During his career he wrote various historical and literary works. On 6 November 1872 he married Susanna F. Leibbrandt. He was an early member of the South African Philosophical Society (founded in 1877), but remained a member for a few years only. In 1897 he briefly represented the colony of Natal on the council of the University of the Cape of Good Hope.
Noble's contributions to science consisted of publications through which scientific knowledge was disseminated, including two papers of geological interest. After visiting the diamond fields he published (anonymously) an article in the Cape Monthly Magazine in 1871 on the discovery of diamonds, the early days of the alluvial diggings, and the mines at Jagersfontein, Dutoitspan, and Bultfontein. Five years later he contributed another article to the same journal, "Colonial geology: Character and origin of the Claystone Porphyry or Trap Conglomerate" [the tillite of the Dwyka Formation]. By this time he had succeeded his brother as editor of the magazine, a position he held from 1875 to 1879.
Noble's most important publications aimed at the advancement of science were a series of handbooks on the Cape Colony and other territories in southern Africa. The first, Descriptive handbook of the Cape Colony: its conditions and resources... was published in London in 1875. It included descriptions of the colony's climate, agriculture, pastoral resources, mineral deposits, and industries. Three years later there followed an official handbook entitled The Cape and South Africa (Cape Town, 1878). In preparation for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 he was asked to expand his handbook of 1875 and compiled the Official handbook: history, productions and resources of the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town, 1886). Though he wrote most of it himself, it included articles by others, for example, Harry Bolus* on the flora of the colony; A.W. Heywood* on its woods and forests; T. Reunert* on diamond mining; P.D. Hahn* on viticulture; and C.L. Herman*, W.G. Atherstone*, H.W. Saunders and J. Baird on the Cape as a health resort. Seven years later Noble updated and extended this publication and produced the Illustrated official handbook of the Cape and South Africa (Cape Town, 1893), including additional articles on scientific topics by R. Trimen* on the country's vertebrate fauna; D.E. Hutchins* on woods and forests; D. Hutcheon* on livestock husbandry; Francis Spencer on gold mining on the Witwatersrand; and Ernest Williams* on the coal fields. A second edition of the handbook was published in 1896.
Noble was honoured by the British government as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1895. After his retirement in 1897 he went to England on holiday and died there.