Nevil Shute Norway was as well-known in aviation circles as he was in literary circles and whilst celebrated for his novels ‘On the Beach’ and ‘A Town like Alice’, his early years were mainly dedicated to aircraft and in particular, the Airspeed Company.
He was born in Ealing, West London on 17th January 1899 and spent his formative years in education at Dragon Prep School and Shrewsbury Boarding School.
Whist he was a teenager, Nevil's father (Arthur Hamilton Norway) was Head of the Post Office in Dublin, Ireland and he was often commended for his work as a stretcher bearer, especially during his visits which coincided with the Easter uprisings of 1916.
Later, he attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich where he trained as a gunner. Unfortunately, he was unable to take up a commission in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in the First World War, which he believed was because of his stammer.
Such was his fascination with flight, he often worked unpaid within their Design Office in Hendon.
At the end of hostilities, Airco suffered financially and closed their large factory which had been built up because of the war requirements.
At the end of the war, Norway returned to education at Balliol College, Oxford from which he graduated in 1922 with a third-class degree in engineering science. Geoffrey De Havilland had started the De Havilland Aircraft Company on Stag Lane Airfield at nearby Edgware, North London and after his graduation and during his employment by De Havilland he took the opportunity to qualify as a pilot.
He left De Havilland during 1924, mainly because most of their employees were younger and nowhere near as committed. Additionally, he felt that the chance of promotion within the company was very slight. During his time at De Havilland however, he started writing novels as a form of relaxation and he had his first book published under what he described as his Christian names (Nevil Shute) in order to protect his engineering career. His first published novel was ‘Marazan’, which came out in 1926 and thereafter he averaged just one novel every two years through until the 1950s.
At the time, a certain Barnes N. Wallis was acting as a senior designer at Vickers Aviation
and he was actively recruiting staff for the design of his large airship, the R100. Vickers had created a subsidiary company (The Airship Guarantee Company) to build the airship at the Royal Naval Air Station Howden, near Hull in the Ridings of East Yorkshire. It was considered at the time that long distances and freight travel would need to be undertaken by airships as they could transport much heavier loads.
Aeroplanes, it was decided, would never be large or powerful enough for this work. German Zeppelins were already operating services across the Atlantic and even to South America. It was agreed that two large airships would be built: one at Howden by Vickers (R100) and second by a government team at Cardington, Bedfordshire.
The R100 construction was completed during 1929 and Norway moved to York, where he stayed in the St. Leonard’s Club and drove the twenty miles or so to Howden each day. He was the appointed as Chief Calculator (Stress Engineer) on the huge project and by 1929 he had been appointed Deputy Chief Engineer, later becoming the Chief Engineer when Wallis left the project.
The maiden flight took place on 16th December 1930 and a calm day, without any wind. This was vital in order to actually get the airship out of the hangar as there was only around two feet clearance on each side of the craft. At 7.17 am and with the crew aboard, the airship was walked out of the hangar.
The R100's maiden flight was to nearby York for a circuit around the Minster and the City, before heading south towards Cardington where she would undergo formal flight trials.
After the flight trials (some of over twenty-four hours flight duration) the R100 undertook a long overseas flight to Canada starting which began at 3.50 am on the morning of 29th July 1930.
It proved to be quite an eventful flight and they arrived in Montreal after seventy-eight hours, having travelled 3,300 miles over land and sea.
This meant that the R100 had set an average speed of 40 mph, over twice the speed of any existing ship or train journey.
They departed for the return journey at 9.28 pm on the evening of 13th August and this time they had an uneventful journey arriving at Cardington fifty-seven and a half hours later. The government-funded (but privately developed) R100 subsequently made another very successful Tour of Canada in 1930 which included very successful visits to Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls. Under his 'alternative identity' of Nevil Shute, Norway gave a detailed account of the development of the two airships in his 1954 autobiographical work 'Slide Rule'.
Sadly, on 5th October 1930 the R101 crashed in France during a long-distance trial flight to India. 46 of the 54 passengers perished in the crash and following this one single accident, airship building in Britain all but ended. After the disaster, Norway was said to have been overly critical of the design of the R100 and the Vickers management team which did not sit well with Wallis or Vickers.
All the airship team at Howden were out of work and Norway, who had just got engaged to be married to a young doctor working at York Hospital, tried desperately to get the whole design team employed with an American aircraft manufacturer.
Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful and so he declared that he wanted to start his own aircraft manufacturing company, alongside Alfred Hessell Tiltman, a very senior designer from the De Havilland Company. Tiltman had earlier joined the R100 Team at Howden and was more than willing to join the venture.
They estimated that they would need a minimum of £30,000 capital and so Hessell Tiltman contacted Sir Alan Cobham to invite him to invest, and also to take a seat on the board. They produced a company prospectus and with less than £2,000 capital they rented a former trolleybus garage near the market at Piccadilly, York and started to design aeroplanes.
A name for the company was required and after considering some alternatives they were registered as Airspeed Ltd
in 1931. Norway was still living in the St. Leonard’s Club where he met a commercial solicitor Mr. A.E Hewitt, who he also convinced to invest in exchange for a Directorship.
On 7th March 1931, Norway married his 28-year-old fiancee Frances Mary Heaton with whom he had two daughters, (Heather) Felicity and Shirley.
Nevil Shute with daughter Heather in 1933
The first Chairman of Airspeed Limited was Lord Grimthorpe (Ralph William Ernest Beckett, 3rd Baron Grimthorpe) who was a wealthy banker and racehorse breeder from the East Riding of Yorkshire. The rest of the board comprised Sir Alan Cobham, Mr. Hewitt, Mr Hessell Tiltman and Nevil Shute Norway.
Nevil Shute with Hessell Tiltman and Lord Grimthorpe
Unfortunately, the floatation of Airspeed Limited
was a complete failure as they only raised a capital investment of just under £5,000, not enough to build a powered aircraft.
Despite this, Sir Alan Cobham thought that the venture was worth carrying on with and was prepared to place an order for two, 10-passenger aircraft capable of operating from small airfields with short take off runs that he would use for pleasure flights.
A small sales room was rented on a weekly basis and woodworking benches were set up to produce components for three aircraft. They set up a small office and store room with the design office about a half mile away. By July 1932, the construction of the first glider was well under way and on this basis, Sir Alan Cobham placed his order for the two joyriding planes.
First workshop in York (as seen in 2020)
Before all of this however, Cobham insisted that they would need to gain publicity by producing a flying machine of some sort and that until they had such a craft, it would be impossible to raise any further capital.
With these words ringing in his ears, Norway directed his small design team to build a low-cost, high-performance glider designated as the AS1 Tern.
In August 1931, their first glider was transported to Sherburn-in-Elmet Airfield, mounted on a trailer towed behind Norway’s car. The same car was also used to tow the glider (via a long steel cable) into the air where it achieved a 1-minute flight after each tow. It had been decided that to avoid any costly accidents it would be necessary to use an experienced 'soaring pilot' and so a visiting German aviator was employed and paid a ridiculously small amount to fly the glider.
Publicity was the key and the trials were hugely successful, with several British Gliding Records captured. Cashflow was however, noticeably short and so when they finished the trials, all three gliders that had been built were sold, albeit at a loss.
Cobham’s predictions had started to turn into reality as Airspeed shares started to sell in small numbers whilst 'Nevil Shute' gave up his writing so that Nevil Norway could devote all of his energy to Airspeed and so he did not write anything new for the next five years.
The AS4 Ferry
, designed and built for Sir Alan Cobham, was progressing well although the design work was tailing off by the end of December 1933. It was an unconventional design with 3 engines, 2 of which were De Havilland Gipsy IIs and a third De Havilland Gipsy III, mounted in the upper wing.
AS4 Ferry outside Portsmouth Works
By comparison with other aircraft on the market at the time, the AS4 Ferry was considered to be a fairly specialised aircraft with very little market potential. Norway remained convinced however, believing that they would be able to sell it to operators where speed was not of paramount significance, especially if there was a requirement to operate from a small or short runway.
The first AS4 Ferry was finished in March 1934, after which it was towed on its own wheels through the night with a police escort (and minus the extension wings) to Sherburn-in-Elmet. It was quite a sight as they reached Tadcaster at around 2.00 am and by dawn they arrived at the airfield where the aircraft was quickly it re-assembled. Initial flight trials proved very satisfactory and so it was flown directly to Martlesham Heath for further tests and to obtain its certificate of airworthiness.
The second AS4 Ferry for Sir Alan Cobham was built alongside another two aircraft 'for stock' and with the business outlook much improved, Airspeed were able to take on more office and manufacturing staff. It was obvious that to keep on producing aircraft they would need to move from York to workshops sited on an established airfield. Norway found York City Corporation decidedly backward in their thinking to provide a municipal airfield and so he set about investigating other cities. Meanwhile, the design of a new six seater monoplane was started.
After looking at many sites around the UK, an airfield at Portsmouth was found to be the most suitable as it was not only available but it was adjacent to good water which would aid the development of a seaplane. The real key factor was however the landowner’s willingness to erect a purpose-built factory in exchange for a down-payment of just £1,000. The balance of the overall cost (£4,000) could then be paid in installments over the next ten years and this would allow the Airspeed business to grow in a controllable fashion. The initial payment came from the sale of the last two AS4 Ferries although it has been said that a Bentley was also taken as part payment.
In March 1933, the Airspeed moved to Portsmouth and for the first time everything would be housed under one roof. Of the one hundred workers in York, around fifty moved south and whilst more followed later.
The next design off the Airspeed drawing board was the AS5 Courier
, a single-engine low-wing monoplane passenger transport which first flew on 1st April 1933.
The Courier design had a retractable undercarriage which was quite unusual at that time. When retracted it left half of the wheels projecting below the wings so it was claimed that it could be landed with little damage if the undercarriage could not be lowered for any reason.
The AS5 Courier saw reasonable success with 16 examples being built. It also saw enormous recognition when its development variant (the AS6 Envoy
) was chosen for service in the Kings Flight.
With the approach of war, a military version of the AS6 Envoy was developed and designated as the AS10 Airspeed Oxford
. The Oxford became the standard advanced multi-engine trainer for the RAF and British Commonwealth, with over 8,500 being built.
Norway himself however, was deeply affected by the tragedy which befell one AS5 Courier (G-ACSY) which crashed on 29th September 1934 at Shoreham, killing all four people on board and injuring two on the ground. Another dark cloud in the history of Airspeed happened in 1936 when a gun-running organisation (Union Founders' Trust) bought five Couriers with the intention of selling them for use by the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
However, protests from the non-interference lobby in England stopped deliveries and 2 Republican sympathisers from within the Airspeed staff made an abortive attempt to steal the aircraft. Sadly, one of them (Arthur Gargett) died when it crashed during take-off from Portsmouth on 20th August 1936 whilst another (Joseph Smith) was later sentenced to four months in prison for theft.
During 1936, it was proposed that all airplanes under manufacture and development at Airspeed would use only the Wolseley Scorpio radial aero engine, under development by Nuffield Mechanizations and Aero Limited. Norway had considered the project a safe bet as it was effectively a government-led and funded venture headed by motor manufacturer William Morris. Morris had recently re-organised all of his enterprises under the Nuffield Trust banner after he was ennobled as Baron (Lord) Nuffield.
William Richard Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield,
Things went very sour when the relationship was abandoned in September 1936, after the expenditure of about £200,000 and when Nuffield decided to deal solely with the War Office and the Admiralty, rather than the Air Ministry and Airspeed.
According to Norway, the Scorpio was a very advanced engine and the purchase price much lower than other competing engines and that its loss would be a major disaster for Airspeed. He asked Nuffield to continue the project and Nuffield replied ‘I tell you, Norway ... I sent that I.T.P. (Intention to Proceed) thing back to them (the Air Ministry) and I told them they could put it where the monkey put the nuts!’
Norway later claimed that the loss of the Wolseley engine was due to the ‘over-cautious high civil servants of the Air Ministry’ and that it was a huge loss to Britain's aviation future. He added that ‘admitting Air Ministry methods of doing business would be like introducing a maggot into an apple. Better to stick to selling motor vehicles for cash to the War Office and the Admiralty, who retained their normal methods of buying and selling’.
Airspeed were in trouble and in June 1940, a formal announcement was made that the De Havilland Aircraft Company had completed negotiations to purchase the majority holdings of Airspeed ordinary shares from Swan, Hunter and from Wigham Richardson, Ltd.
However, Airspeed would retain its identity as a separate company despite being a wholly owned subsidiary of De Havilland.
This effectively ended Norway’s direct involvement with aviation manufacturing and by the outbreak of the Second World War he was already an accomplished novelist under his pseudonym of Nevil Shute.
Despite his growing celebrity, he could mostly be found working on military projects alongside his former boss at Vickers, Sir Denniston Burney.
He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant, enrolled as an ‘elderly yachtsman’ with an expectation of being put in charge of a Drifter or Minesweeper. He was found out after just 2 days however, when he was questioned about sailing career his career and nautical experience.
He did eventually reach the ‘dizzy rank’ of Lieutenant-Commander although knowing nothing about ‘Sunday Divisions’ he was secretly very afraid that if he was ever posted to a little ship that he would become the Senior Naval Officer and actually ‘have to do something nautical’.
Norway ended up just a few years later in what would become The Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD) where he became a Head of Engineering. He found himself working on secret weapons such as Panjandrum, a job that appealed to the engineer in him. He also developed the ‘Rocket Spear’, an anti-submarine missile with a fluted cast iron head. After it sunk its first U-boat, the head of D.M.W.D. Charles Goodeve sent him a message concluding ‘I am particularly pleased as it fully substantiates the foresight you showed in pushing this in its early stages. My congratulations’.
His celebrity as a writer also saw the Ministry of Information send him to Normandy for the D-Day Landings on 6th June 1944. It was an experience which deeply affected him and a little later he was sent to Burma as a War Correspondent.
After the war and a period of rest, he flew his own Percival Proctor aeroplane to Australia and back, accompanied by fellow writer James Riddell who subsequently published the book ‘Flight of Fancy’, based on the trip, in 1950.
Once back in the UK, he became increasingly disillusioned and concerned about the decline of the UK and he decided to emigrate with his family to Australia and in 1950 they settled on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne.
Post war he had been relatively prolific with his writing, releasing 4 novels in the 5 years. His novels were written in a highly readable style, often with some form of military backdrop and where sex is only obliquely referred to. Many of his stories were introduced by a narrator who is not necessarily a character within the story.
In 1950, when he published what would become one of his most famous titles: ‘A Town Like Alice’.
The storyline followed a hero and heroine who had met whilst the were both prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya. At the end of the war, they searched for each other and finally reunite in a small Australian town that would have no future, if not for her plans to turn it into ‘a town like Alice’ (taking the name from Alice Springs).
In 1956, the story found worldwide acclaim with the release of the Jack Lee film of the same name, starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch. It was further adapted for television in 1981 and starred Helen Morse, Bryan Brown, and Gordon Jackson as Noel Strachan.
By far the best-known novel from the pen of Nevil Shute Norway however is ‘On the Beach’, published in 1957.
The term ‘on the beach’ is a Royal Navy term that means ‘retired from the service’ and the story is set in a post-apocalyptic Melbourne, whose population is awaiting death from the effects of an atomic war. Initially, it was serialised in more than 40 newspapers before being adapted in 1959 to a feature film starring Gregory Peck Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins.
His final novel was ‘Trustee from the Toolroom’ published in 1960 and harks back to his formative years with the main characters living in Ealing, as he did some 60 years earlier.
Nevil Shute Norway died on 12th January following a stroke, just months before its publication.