Mr. Norway

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  Who was the popular British novelist, who once worked as an aircraft designer, and also enjoyed racing a Jaguar car at Phillip Island in Australia? He raced incognito under the name of "Mr. N. S. Norway", but was better known by the name initialled "N.S." - Nevil Shute.

Jaguar at Phillip Island

Nevil Shute Norway at Phillip Island, April 1957
Photo: Peter D'Abbs -

Nevil Shute Norway chose to write under a shortened version of his name. He was of the opinion that Vickers, his employer at the time, "would probably take a poor view of an employee who wrote novels on the side". His wide experience with aircraft included working as the "Chief Calculator" for the R100, one of two competing airship projects in Britain in the late 1920s. In today's computer age, it is hard to imagine a time when teams of people were employed to perform complex calculations! The R100 was built by a private enterprise team, competing with the government R101 team. This program ended with the crash of the R101 in October 1930, with the loss of 48 of the 54 on board.

The R100 team was headed up by Barnes Wallis, later the designer of the "Dambuster" bombs. Perhaps less well known is the fact that much later Wallis was also the designer of the Parkes radio telescope in NSW; still one of the world's leading astronomical observatories.

In the late 1950s, "Mr. Norway" was a regular contestant at the then new Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. He regularly raced a somewhat unusual white Jaguar XK140. He was quite competent, placing in scratch races, but mostly raced purely for the enjoyment of it. He told Peter D'Abbs, the "official" Island photographer, that he "didn't want to be the fastest competitor, just the oldest."

The Island circuit is now the home of the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix. The track was set up, and for a number of years owned and run, by the Phillip Island Auto Racing Club (PIARC). The Grand Opening meeting was held 15 December 1956. This track replaced the much older square circuit on the public roads on the Island. My late father, Colin R De La Rue, was a foundation Member of PIARC, and a few years ago I renewed his number 21 membership ticket. I still have his collection of race programs and other memorabilia, now on display at the museum in the Visitor Centre at the circuit.

(This collection includes programs from 1956 to 1960, a very handsome brochure, advertising "Australia's FIRST International Grand Prix Circuit", and various club news bulletins, meeting notices, reports, etc, from 1953 to 1960. Many of these are typewritten, and hand-signed by Winston Maguire, the Foundation President.)

One of Nevil Shute's best-known stories was On the Beach, filmed in and around Melbourne in 1959 by Stanley Kramer. One of Norway's motivations for racing was research for the story. At the end of the movie version of the movie, Fred Astaire's character Julian competes in the Australian Grand Prix. This was shot in part at Phillip Island. In this scene, a white Jaguar XK can be seen. There was a story at the time that the author made a cameo appearance in the movie. In several years of research, I have come to the conclusion that this may well have been planned, but appears not to have actually happened. However, each time I dig into this, more uncertainties arise...

Based on an article that originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 1998 edition of TableAus.

More Norway information

See more details about Nevil Shute Norway on this site:

  • See the Racing page.
  • See the On the Beach page. For more discussion on the cameo appearance, go straight here.
  • Read on for the following info on this page:

  • Peter D'Abbs reminiscences.
  • Norway's Secretary.
  • The Secret War.
  • The Jaguar.
  • Some of the content here is derived from the autobiographical book Slide Rule. For the most comprehensive information on Nevil Shute Norway, go to the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation web site. This group has organised a number of international conferences. OZ2001 was held in March 2001 at Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. I spoke at this conference on the topics covered in these pages.

    Norway lived at Langwarrin, near Frankston, for the latter part of his life during the 1950s. His house, now known as "Devon Park", is still there, at the corner of Robinsons Road and Westernport Highway.

    He attended St. Thomas' Church in Langwarrin, and also raised money to build the current building. There is a dedicated inscription from Frances Norway on the baptismal font at the church. The inscription shows that Norway was cremated and his ashes committed to the English Channel. He died at home in Langwarrin on 12 January 1960.

    You can also see some info about Norway at Hanneke Hoogstrate's Plane Writing site.

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    Peter D'Abbs - reminiscences

    Peter D'Abbs was the "official" Phillip Island photographer, and took photos of car racing events right around Victoria for many years. He has shared a number of anecdotes relating to Norway, having spent some time with him over the years he was involved with racing. See his photos of Norway in his Jaguar on the Racing page.

    In the 1950s, it was quite commonplace for race cars to also be registered for public roads, and to be driven to and from events. Peter once drove to the Island with Norway for a race meeting, and was left to drive the Norway family home in their large American station wagon, while Norway drove the Jaguar home. Peter recalls Norway and Lex Davison, another competitor also driving his race car, driving off like "bats out of hell", while he was left following in the ungainly wagon.

    On one occasion in 1957, Peter visited the Norway family. Peter offered Norway some of his photos of the races: "I've got enough of your books; what about some pictures?" He has a clear memory of Norway's ability to hold an audience enthralled, in spite of a speech defect. After his first heart attack, Norway described his experience to Peter as being "... down into the valley of the shadow. And let me tell you, it's not so bloody clever." Peter also tells of Norway building a radio-controlled model steam tug as a personal project, using a live steam engine. He also knew the English-American Gray brothers, Fred and Lyall, who were friends of the Norways.

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    Norway's Secretary

    Patricia Taws, a visitor to this site, wrote in July 1998:

    Many years ago (1963-4) I lived in a truly weird boarding house in Frankston, Victoria. One day, while looking for something to read, I began a conversation about books with a fellow boarder. She... offered to loan me a book by Nevil Shute.

    When I saw the quite personal (but quite proper) inscription on the fly-leaf I asked her about it. It turned out that she had been the nanny for the Norway family for many years, and also acted as Norway's secretary. She had come to Australia with the family and decided to stay. To my annoyance, I can't remember her name. Needless to say, not only were all her copies of the Shute books autographed, they were hard back first editions as well...

    Shirley Norway, one of Nevil Shute Norway's two daughters, replied in March 1999:

    Her name was Sally Bessant. And while she taught me to be a secretary and helped me with my shorthand and typing, she could never have been described as a nanny. I was fifteen when we went to Australia and the younger of the two daughters. I did not need a nanny...

    Norway's will was quoted in The Melbourne Age on 25 Nov 1960, and referred his secretary as Gladys Bessant. He left her �A1,000, "in addition to the value of a first class steamship passage to England, to which she was entitled to under the terms of her contract. The trustees were directed to make provision, if necessary, for Mrs Bessant in her old age."

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    The Secret War

    There is a connection between this story and the other stories on this site relating to World War II secret activities: The Gremlins and The Name's Fleming - Ian Fleming. There is a clue to this in Nevil Shute's book Most Secret. Shirley Norway had the following to say:

    "Most Secret" was not allowed to be published for a couple of years because of the sensitive nature of some of the material in it. Have you read "The Secret War" by Gerald Pawle? It is all about the Admiralty Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development where Dad worked during World War II...

    This Department was known as the "Wheezers and Dodgers". One of the people mentioned in this book is Barnes Wallis - Norway's boss at the R100 - who was associated with this group during the Dambuster bomb development.

    Another worker at DMWD was Alec Menhinick, a long-term friend of Norway's. Alec was a test-rider for Norton motorcycles in England. The Menhinick family was later sponsored by Norway - known to them as 'Uncle Nevil' - to emigrate to Australia. The family's subsequent life was much influenced by the Norway family. Norway was the godfather of Alec's daughter Angela, and he also used the story of Alec and his wife to some extent in 'Requiem for a Wren' and also in 'The Seafarers'. (Advised by Alec's son, Jolyon Menhinick, 2010). After coming to Australia, Alec apparently drove Norway's Jaguar at some events. He was also the stand-in driver for Fred Astaire in On the Beach. Alec and his brother George both worked at Repco.

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    The Jaguar

    Julian Smith's 1976 biography of Nevil Shute Norway states that he bought the Jaguar "when he started writing On the Beach" (sometime in 1956). See more about this biography at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation web site. In another reference in the biography, Smith quotes:

    "I suddenly went crazy the other day" he [Shute] wrote a friend a few months after his November 1955 heart attack, "and ordered an open two-seater Jaguar XK140 so you will probably see my obituary before long." He had taken up road racing, feeling that he had reached the age when he was calm enough to do so, that he had lived his life and learned something of patience.

    The jaguar was dispatched to Bryson's, a Melbourne Jaguar dealer, on 8 Mar 1956, and delivered to Norway on 11 May 1956. This was the only XK140 Special Equipment roadster sold in Melbourne in 1956; only 12 SE roadsters were made in that year, and only two were shipped to Australia. The other one went to Sydney.

    The Jaguar XK140 was said to have a top speed of around 145 miles per hour (230 km/h) - more experienced reports place it at 130 mph (210 km/h) in "favourable conditions". The engine capacity was 3.442 l. At the time of the OZ2001 conference, a number of people got together and tracked down Norway's XK140. It is still in existence, and has been beautifully restored (although the jury is still out on the white-wall tyres).

    The present owner, Darren Overend, brought it along on the day. Fred Greenwood is also featured in these photos - he was the "farm manager" for the Norways at Langwarrin, and spoke about the hours he spent looking after the Jaguar.

       Jaguar today 1       Jaguar today 2   

    See more photos of the car in its heyday at the Racing page.

    A confusing issue with photographs of the Island races is that there was also a white XK120 competing in some events, which looks very much like Norway's XK140. The main noticeable differences are the front bumper and radiator grille. The rear bumpers are also different, but these don't tend to show in the photos. The front bumper of Norway's car was not always attached during races, and is missing from most of the Phillip Island event photos. The radiator grille is also removed for some events, and a smaller windscreen was sometimes used. When the full bumper is mounted, the registration number of the car - GMP-834 (Victoria) - can be seen, and both a PIARC and a Light Car Club of Australia (LCCA) membership badge.

    Norway traded the car back in at Bryson's on an XK150 Jaguar. His new XK150 was dispatched to Bryson’s 28 Oct 1957, but as Norway was still competing in the 140 until at least April 1958, it is unclear exactly when the 140 was sold or traded. In another story, Norway had a Jaguar stolen from Doug Whiteford’s garage in late 1958. It was found again after the thief had spray-painted it a different colour. However, there are different versions of this story as to whether it was the 140 or the 150 that was stolen, and whether it was sprayed blue or green!

    Darren's father bought the XK140 from Bryson's in late 1959. Darren can remember being driven to school in it. After owning it for about two years, the Overend family traded it in on the first E-Type Jaguar in Australia in October 1961.

    After it passed through a number of hands, Darren was able to reclaim it again in about 1988. His father had paid �A2,000 for it - Darren had to find about $A46,000 to buy it back about 30 years later. Since then, Darren rebuilt all the mechanicals, and did other work on it, to produce the beautiful car that it is today.

    In another weird coincidence, it turned out that my brother knew the rest of the Overend family back in the 1960s, but had not met Darren. Darren and I are each the youngest in our respective families.

    Thanks to Darren Overend for providing information in this section, and granting permission to publish it!

      Updated: 24 Jan 2006 To Top    

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