Norris McWhirter

Norris Dewar McWhirter was a British writer, political activist, co-founder of The Freedom Association, and a television presenter. He and his twin brother Ross were known internationally for the founding of Guinness World Records which they wrote and annually updated together between 1955 and 1975. After Ross's assassination by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Norris carried on alone as editor.

Early life

Norris and Ross were the twin sons of William McWhirter, the editor of the Sunday Pictorial, and Margaret Williamson. In 1929, as William was working on the founding of the Northcliffe Newspapers chain of provincial newspapers, the family moved to "Aberfoyle", in Broad Walk, Winchmore Hill. Like their elder brother, Kennedy, Norris and Ross were educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Oxford. Norris chose to complete his law degree in two years rather than the usual three. Between 1943 and 1946, Norris served as a sub-lieutenant with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on escort duty in Atlantic and on board a minesweeper in the Pacific.


McWhirter was an all-round athlete and represented Scotland at running during the 1950s. He and his brother became sports journalists in 1950. In 1951, they published Get to Your Marks and that year they founded an agency to provide facts and figures to Fleet Street, setting out, in Norris McWhirter's words: "to supply facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks, encyclopedias, and advertisers". At the same time, he became a founding member of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians.
McWhirter came to public attention while working for the BBC as a sports commentator. On 6 May 1954, he kept the time when Roger Bannister ran the first sub four-minute mile. After the race, he began his announcement:
As a result of Event Four, the one mile, the winner was R. G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record, in a time of three minutes...

at which the rest of McWhirter's announcement was drowned out in the enthusiastic uproar.
One of the athletes covered was runner Christopher Chataway, the employee at Guinness who recommended them to Sir Hugh Beaver. After an interview in which the Guinness directors enjoyed testing the twins' knowledge of records and unusual facts, the brothers agreed to start work on the book that became The Guinness Book of Records in 1954. In August 1955, the first slim green volume – 198 pages long – was at the bookstalls, and in four more months it was Britain's No. 1 nonfiction best-seller.
In 1954, the McWhirter brothers sued Daily Mail sports writer J. L. Manning for his critical piece about non-journalist sports writers. The McWhirters were awarded £300 in damages.
McWhirter was also part of the BBC commentary team for their Olympic Games coverage between 1960 and 1976.

Political activity

He was an active member of the Conservative Party in the early 1960s and fought, unsuccessfully, to recapture Orpington in the 1964 and 1966 UK general elections after its loss to the Liberals in the 1962 by-election.
His brother, Ross, was a critic of British government policy in Northern Ireland, and called for a "tougher" response by the Army against Irish republicans. Ross was shot dead by the IRA in 1975 at his home in Middlesex after offering a reward for information leading to the apprehension of those carrying out a bombing campaign in London at the time. Following Ross's murder, Norris co-founded the right-wing political organisation the National Association for Freedom in 1975. This organisation initiated legal challenges against the trade union movement in the UK, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the European Economic Community in Brussels. All of the work it undertakes falls within the following Eight Principles of a Free Society: Individual Freedom, Personal & Family Responsibility, The Rule of Law, Limited Government, Free Market Economy, National Parliamentary Democracy, Strong National Defences and a Free Press and Other Media. It continues its political activities to this day.
Norris was a member of the Secretariat of the anti-communist European Freedom Campaign, established in London at an Inaugural Rally at Westminster Central Hall on 10 December 1988.

''Record Breakers''

Both brothers were regulars on the BBC show Record Breakers. They were noted for their photographic memory, enabling them to provide detailed answers to any questions from the audience about entries in the Guinness Book of Records.
After Ross's death, Norris continued to appear on the show, eventually making him one of the most recognisable people on children's television in the 1970s and 1980s. McWhirter was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1980 New Year Honours.

Personal life and death

In 1957, McWhirter married Carole Eckert, who died in 1987; they had a son and a daughter. In 1990, he married his secretary, Tessa von Weichardt, née Pocock.
He retired from The Guinness Book of Records in 1985, though he continued in an advisory role until 1996. He continued to write, editing a new reference book, Norris McWhirter's Book of Millennium Records, in 1999.
In 1985, he launched an unsuccessful defamation case against the Independent Broadcasting Authority for the TV programme Spitting Image, which had inserted a subliminal image of McWhirter's face imposed on the body of a naked woman.
McWhirter died from a heart attack at his home in Kington Langley, Wiltshire, on 19 April 2004, aged 78. His memorial service – attended by, among others, Baroness Thatcher, John Gouriet, Jeremy Beadle, Christopher Gill, Jeffrey Archer, Gregory Lauder-Frost and Sir Roger Bannister – was held in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, on 7 October 2004. He was interred at St Peter's Church, Wiltshire, England.

Selected bibliography

; Sports and general encyclopaedia