S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Roberts, Reverend Noel (ornithology)

Born: 14 October 1880, Pretoria, South Africa.
Died: 13 January 1960, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Noel Roberts, a clergyman, was the eldest son of Archdeacon Alfred Roberts and his wife Marianne E. (Edda) Fannin*, and brother of the well known naturalist Austin Roberts. Noel spent his early boyhood in Potchefstroom, where he and his brother learned much about natural history from Thomas Ayres*, including how to collect, preserve, and record information about birds and small mammals. Noel left Potchefstroom early in 1897 to start his career as a pupil teacher at the Diocesan College School in Pretoria. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) he stayed with family on a farm in the Karkloof area of Natal. On 23 December 1906 he was ordained in the Anglican Church in Pretoria. After serving in that city for some time he was appointed to Pietersburg and then to Orchards, Johannesburg, where he remained until at least 1924. During World War I (1914-1918) he enlisted for active service with the South African Infantry in France and was awarded the Military Cross. He later served his church in Potchefstroom, Lichtenburg, Heidelberg, and Booysens, Johannesburg. He was married twice, first to Kathleen B. Hankin Turvin (who died in 1938) and then to Dora Manley (who died in 1955). However, he had no children.

Roberts's interest in natural history related mainly to birds. During 1906/7 he and Austin presented many and valuable birds' eggs and nests to the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria. He became a member of the South African Ornithologists' Union in 1907 and in 1909 contributed a short paper on "Pyromelana oryx and its nesting parasites" to the Union's Journal (Vol. 5(1), pp. 22-24). In June 1909 he played a leading role in founding the short-lived Pretoria Field Naturalists' Club and served as its vice-president. He became an expert bird photographer and wrote two popular booklets on South African birds: Who's who in birdland: A pocket guide to the feathered celebrities of South Africa (Johannesburg, not dated, but post-1910, 71p), illustrated by his own photographs; and South African nature study notes. Series 1. Birds (Cape Town, 1917, 45p), aimed at teachers who taught "nature study" in primary schools.

Roberts is perhaps better known for his contributions to ethnology. While in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) he obtained a set of dikomana drums and the crocodile totem of Chief Malaboch (of the Xananwa tribe, living in the Blouberg). These items were later housed in the Africana Museum, Johannesburg. He became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913 and contributed several papers relating to the indigenous population to its Report, for example, "A few notes on to kolo, a system of divination practised by the superior natives of Malaboch's tribe in the Northern Transvaal" (1914, pp. 367-370); "The Bagananoa or Ma-laboch; notes on their early history, customs and creed" (1915, pp. 241-255); and "Rock paintings of the Northern Transvaal" (1916, pp. 568-574). With C.A.T. Winter he furthermore published a pamphlet (not dated) on "The Kgoma, or initiation rites of the Bapedi of Sekukuniland". While undergoing military training in Potchefstroom in 1917 he was informed by the council of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science that a new Section E of the Association was being formed to cover the subjects anthropology and ethnology, and was offered an appointment as its first president. His presidential address, "Native education from an economic point of view", was published in the association's Report (1917, pp. 88-100) and also as a pamphlet.

Roberts's other scientific interests are reflected in his membership of the Royal Society of South Africa and the Astronomical Society of South Africa. In later years he wrote two more works: Vital principles; a popular exposition of the scientific laws on which spiritual healing is based (Johannesburg, not datet, 67p) and Lest we forget; a summary of records and traditions of the parish of St John the Baptist, Zeerust, with notes on earlier Christian missions in the district of Marico (Lichtenburg, 1934, 30p). After his retirement he settled on the Natal South Coast, but during the last years of his life he stayed with friends, Dr and Mrs Hudson of Johannesburg.

List of sources:
Astronomical Society of South Africa. Journal, 1924, Vol. 1(3), pp. 98-100: List of members.

Brain, C.K. Austin Roberts: A lifelong devotion to South Africa's birds and beasts. Cape Town: John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, 1998.

National Archives Repository (TAB), Source MHG, Vol. 0, Ref. 856/60: death notice, Noel Roberts.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). . Documents relating to Roberts, Noel.

Obituary: The late Rev. Noel Roberts. South African Journal of Science, 1960, Vol. 56, p. 114.

Retrospective South African National Bibliography for the period 1926-1958. Pretoria: State Library, 1985.

Royal Society of South Africa. Transactions, 1917, Vol. 6, list of members.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1914-1918.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Ornithologists' Union. Journal, 1909, Vol. 5.

Transvaal Museum. Annual report for the year 1906-07. National Archives Repository (TAB), Source TKP, Vol. 196.

Compiled by: C. Plug