Nöel Robb (nee Barrow) was born on 25 December 1913, in Plymouth, England. She was the third child of Benjamin Wingate Barrow, a naval officer and his wife, Charlotte Constance Barrow. Her father commanded a destroyer in the First World War and was held as a prisoner of war when his ship was sunk.
Robb completed her schooling in England and then enrolled at Bedford College, London from where she graduated with a BSc in 1935. In 1936, her former science teacher, a Miss Verinder, then the principal of St Cyprians School in Cape Town offered her a teaching post which she accepted, remaining at this school for four years.
On 28 December 1939 she married Francis Charles Robb (Frank). In 1947, Robb was elected on to the committee of St Cyprians School. She served on this body for thirty years. Robb also served on the Committee of the Marion Institute which runs nursery schools, one in District Six and the other in Bridgetown on the Cape Flats
Robb was one of the founding members of the Black Sash in Cape Town in August 1955 and was the Director of its first Advice Office, established in Cape Town in 1958, and a member of its governing regional council for almost 40 years. The Black Sash’s first stand was against Eric Louw, then South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Robb together with Joan Pare, Ethel Stuart Findley (her sister-in-law), Moira Henderson and Cherry van Selm donned their black sashes, confronted him.
The movement was then called The Women’s Defence of the Constitution League. Jean Sinclair and Ruth Foley, in opposition to the Senate Bill, started the organisation in Johannesburg. The then Government intended to double the size of the senate in order to get a two-thirds majority, when the assembly and senate sat together to consider a Bill to remove Coloured people from the Voter’s Roll. They spent the first year trying to oppose the Bill and supported those who fought it in the courts.
Their main activities were ‘haunting’ government Ministers and standing outside Parliament with their Black Sashes when it was in session. The League later changed its name to Black Sash. In 1956 the Black Sash organised a march in Cape Town, up Adderley Street to the Gardens, where the leaders carried a model of a book, the Constitution, draped in a large black sash.
In 1958, the then United Party asked the Black Sash to close, if not altogether, then at least for six months, to clear the field for the opposition. Some members felt that they should but women such as Eulalie Stott, Molly Peterson, Jessie Power and Robb felt that there was a need for non-party opposition to the government.
The Black Sash then opened an Advice Office to help Black women cope with the pass laws in 1958. They were offered an office in Sybrand Park, Athlone. Lettie Malindi, an African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) member worked as their interpreter.
Following the Sharpeville massacre, unrest broke out in Langa, Cape Town, Robb, together with Moira Henderson and a Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) leader (as a ‘guard’) drove food supplies to the people of this area.
In 1960, Moira Henderson and Robb became part of the Executive of Defence and Aid Fund when it was set up in Cape Town following the 1960 state of emergency. Money that came through from Canon Collins in London was used to defend those charged with political offences and to support the families of those who were sent to prison for political. When the Defence and Aid was banned, the security police raided her house and confiscated documents.
However, the legal defence work did not stop after the banning of Defence and Aid. Another branch of Defence and Aid, called the Dependants Conference was established separately in 1963, with Moira Henderson as chairperson.
Robb ran an Advice Office in Crossroads, Cape Town that was later moved to Mowbray, due to a lack of space to accommodate the working staff and the assistance seekers. When Khayelitsha, a Black township was formed, Robb became a familiar figure with residents calling her, “Mama Robb, Black Sash”. She spent two days a week at the Advice Office and at least one day a week working in Khayelitsha, continuing to assist people with legal and other bureaucratic problems.
In March 1989, the Black Sash elected her as honorary life Vice President, in tribute to her long history of leadership and service to the organization. In 1995, the Black Sash at its last national conference decided to abandon volunteer membership but to continue its main work by employing professionals under the management of the Black Sash Trust.
After the Black Sash changed its structures in 1995, she remained involved in the Legiwatch group, monitoring the new Parliament as they had done the old. She retained her clarity of thought and determination to stand on principle. Right back in 1989 she said “Whatever new government gets in, they will be doing things for pragmatic reasons and we will be standing outside opposing them”.
Dennis Davis and Michelle Le Roux, in the book, Precedent and Possibility, The Abuse of Law in South Africa singled her out: where they describe the battle of a Mr Komani to be allowed to have his wife live with him in Gugulethu. He approached the Advice Office, where “Noel Robb, one of the stalwarts of the office, sought to ensure the proper prosecution of Komani’s appeal”¦ she wrote to Geoffrey Budlender ”¦ at the Legal Resources Centre. It proved to be a stroke of genius” (quoted in the Sunday Independent, 23 November 2008). The Komani family eventually obtained the requisite permission, paving the way for many other families to live together within the law.
Nöel Robb passed away in January 2009 at the age of 95. She had five children, four girls and a boy, and 13 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.
Hutmacher MacLean B , (2004), Strike a woman, strike a rock: fighting for freedom in South Africa, (East London) pp. 87-96|BurtonM, ‘Friends of the Sash' pay tribute Noel Robb, from Blacksah, [online] Available at www.blacksash.org.za [Accessed 24 June 2011]|Cleminshaw D, ‘Friends of the Sash' pay tribute Noel RobbBlacksah,[online]Available at www.blacksash.org.za [Accessed 24 June 2011]