Norris McWhirter - A Short Biography

McWhirter, Norris (Dewar)

Aug. 12, 1925- (2004) Writer; publisher. Address: b. Guinness Superlatives Ltd., 2 Cecil Court, London Rd., Enfield EN2 8OJ, Middlesex, England


Since its debut in 1955, the British Guinness Book of Records (known in the United States as the Guinness Book of World Records), compiled by Norris and the late Ross McWhirter,  has become a worldwide best seller. Listing  thousands of both obscure and well-known  records on everything front staying awake  (Roger Guy English, 288 hours) to the world's  heaviest cat (42 pounds, 10 ounces), the Guinness honk has sold 35,000,000 copies and has been book has sold 35,000,000 copies and has been translated into twenty-one languages, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. It has spurred thousands of would-be record-holders to try to get their names into its pages; launching a fad that Sports Illustrated has dubbed "Guinnessport."


As director of Guinness Superlatives Ltd., publisher of the world's most popular reference work, Norris McWhirter engages in voluminous correspondence and travels thousands of miles in order to keep the book up-to-date, a task he once shared with his collaborator and twin brother Ross, who was gunned down by Irish Republican Army terrorists in 1975. A stickler for accuracy, McWhirter insists on verification for each of the book’s 15,000 entries--most of which he has committed to memory. In addition to compiling the Guinness Book of Records, McWhirter is the author or coauthor of a number of related books, including the Dunlop Illustrated Encyclopedia of Facts (Sterling, 1979) and the Guinness Sports Record Book (Sterling, 1976).  He is also a television commentator for the BBC.  


Norris Dewar McWhirter was born at 7:40 P.M. in London, England on August 12 1925, the son of William Allan and Margaret (Williamson) McWhirter. His identical twin brother, Alan Ross, was born exactly twenty minutes later. Of Scottish descent, the McWhirter can trace their family tree back to 1696. Norris McWhirter's grandfather. William McWhirter invented the voltameter and ammeter, and his  father, William Allan McWhirter, was a distinguished Fleet Street newspaperman and publisher, the first Englishman to edit three national papers—the Sunday Pictorial, the Sunday Dispatch, and the Daily Mail. According to Norris McWhirter, his father "started 11 newspapers from scratch in the provinces and was managing director of both Northcliffe Newspapers, which he virtually founded, and the Associated Newspapers." An elder brother, Kennedy Graeme McWhirter, is a barrister.  


Fascinated by facts from an early age, the McWhirter twins reportedly read scores of newspapers a week as youngsters, and their favorite book was Whitaker's Almanack. Both were educated at the public schools of Chesterton and Marlborough. From 1943 to 1946 the twins served in the Royal Navy, where they were separated for the first time in their lives. Norris was made a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, assigned to the second escort group in the Atlantic and was later assigned to a minesweeper in the Pacific: Ross was posted to a minesweeper in the Mediterranean. They met only once during the war, when their ships collided in Malta harbor.  Later the twins attended Trinity College, Oxford, where Norris took his B.A. degree in international relations and economics and his M.A. in contract law in 1948. At Oxford they both belonged to the same record-setting relay team. As the slightly faster athlete of the two, Norris also competed abroad, in Scotland and Norway.


After graduating from Oxford the twins moved back to their parents' home. Norris worked as a freelance sportswriter and Ross covered rugby and tennis for the Star. The two continued the extremely close relationship of their childhood. One of their friends told Arturo F. Gonzalez of Parade magazine (September 5, 1976): "They had minds like Japanese calculators. They talked to each other in a code that only they fully comprehended. One would start a sentence and the other would finish it up. When you called them on the phone you never could really be sure which one you were talking to. I remember that Norris once had to make a quick trip to Paris and couldn't find his own passport, so he just took Ross'. Nobody noticed the difference."  Another close friend observed that Norris "was the senior partner of the two. He was a better sprinter than Ross, and I've always felt that he was a little better in everything. My impression is that Ross tended to follow." From 1951 to 1967 Norris McWhirter was a sportswriter for the Star and, from 1951 to 1987, for the London Observer. For a while he and Ross produced, a short-lived track magazine, Athletics World. In 1951 he became managing director of McWhirter Twins Ltd., a fact-gathering service for advertisers, newspapers, writers, yearbooks, and encyclopedias, and on his father's death in 1955 he became chairman of William McWhirter & Sons.


In 1954 the famous Anglo-Irish brewery known as Arthur Guinness, Son & Co., hired the firm of McWhirter Twins Ltd., to compile a book of records. According to the widely circulated story, Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Guinness, was fowl-hunting along the Irish coast when he and a companion disagreed over what was the fastest game bird. On discovering that the information was not available and that no book of superlatives or records existed, Sir Hugh commissioned the McWhirters to write one, thinking it might be used in pubs to help settle heated arguments. A subsidiary, Guinness Superlatives Ltd., in which McWhirter today holds a substantial interest and the title of managing director, was established to publish it.


Working around the clock, the McWhirter brothers assembled a slim, 198-page volume in sixteen weeks at a cost of $35,000. The first printing of 187,000 copies published in October 1955 in time for the Christmas rush, was an immediate success, and within four months the Guinness Book of Superlatives was England's number one best seller in the nonfiction category. Since 1956, when the Mc Whirters published a new, revised and greatly enlarged edition, the Guinness Book of Records, as it is now titled, has been updated, revised and reissued at regular intervals. In Great Britain the publisher is Guinness Superlatives Ltd., the largest single market for the book, however, is the United States, where Sterling Publishing Company holds the hardcover rights and Bantam the paperback rights. Of the 4,500,000 copies sold worldwide in 1978, almost 9,000,000 were sold in America.


Encouraged by the success of the Guinness Book of Records, Norris and Ross went on to write other books, many of them spinoffs of the Guinness work, but aimed at a juvenile audience. The first edition of the Dunlop Book of Facts (Dreghorn, 1964), prepared in collaboration with the Dunlop Rubber Company, was issued in 1964. Other titles include the Guinness Book of Olympic Records (Sterling, 1964); Surprising Facts About Plants (Franklin Walls, 1972); Surprising Facts About Kings and Rulers (Franklin Watts, 1973); Guinness Book of Amazing Achievement (Sterling, 1975); Guinness Sports Record Book (Sterling, 1976):  Guinness Book of Surprising Accomplishments (Sterling, 1977); Guinness Game Book (Sterling, 1978): and Guinness Book of Startling Acts and Facts (Sterling, 1978). In addition, the McWhirter twins collaborated on Get toYour Marks (Kaye, 1950). Norris has contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook, Modern Athletics, and the Encyclopedia of Sport.


As a television commentator, McWhirter covered the Olympic Games for the BBC for more than a decade, from 1960 to 1972. He also hosted What's In the Picture (1957) and, since 1972, The Record Breakers, a children’s show based on the Guinness book. On May 6, 1954 he was public address announcer at the historic track meet at Iffley Road near Oxford when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Anticipating Bannister's stunning success McWhirter had carefully rehearsed his dramatic "crescendo-suspense" announcement in his bathtub the night before the race took place.


Encouraged by their growing public recognition, Norris and Ross McWhirter ventured into national politics. As staunch Conservatives, they opposed what they viewed as Great Britain's pervasive unionism, government bureaucracy, and permissiveness. In the late 1950’s according to a piece by Jerry Kirshenbaum in Sports Illustrated (July 30. 1979), they once "mischievously disrupted a ban-the-bomb rally by using a car with a loudspeaker on top to direct unsuspecting marchers into a field." In 1964 both men ran for Parliament on the Conservative ticket in different districts and lost, with each receiving, strangely enough, 19,000 odd votes.


After his defeat in the 1964 election Norris McWhirter left most of the political crusading to Ross. Nevertheless, as Kirshenbaum noted in his article, "Although Ross was more visibly involved in politics, longtime friends ... know better than to downplay Norris McWhirter's role." Among Ross's more publicized battles were his 1973 attempt to stop the BBC from showing a 45-minute film about Andy Warhol that contained elements of nudity and homosexuality and a 1975 writ of injunction he succeeded in winning against striking ferry workers.


An outspoken foe of Irish Republican Army terrorists, Ross McWhirter once published a   pamphlet entitled How To Beat the Bombers and offered $102,000 for the conviction of terrorists. On the evening of November 27, 1975 two IRA gunmen shot and killed him on the doorstep of his home in suburban London, less than a mile from the offices of Guinness Superlatives Ltd. Fifteen months later, on February 10, 1977, four IRA terrorists were given life sentences after being convicted of six killings, including the murders of Ross McWhirter and Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, a noted cancer expert, a 1975 kidnapping, and a series of bombings. Deeply shaken by his brother’s death, Norris McWhirter told the press, "To take action on one's principles is a very, very rare thing, and that's what Ross was doing ... He was absolutely doing the right thing." In 1976 he wrote a book, Ross: The Story of a Shared Life (Churchill Press, 1976), about his life with his brother. In the opening paragraph of its Preface, Norris McWhirter wrote: "This account of my twin brother's life began as a piece of private therapy very soon after his assassination. That it has become a book at all is due to the insistence of friends who were determined that there should be something less remote than an unmarked grave, references in law books and a Memorial Fund.


"After the violent death of Ross, Norris McWhirter briefly considered abandoning their pet project, the Guinness Book of Records. He had always felt as he once put it, that he and his twin brother had looked upon their "individual experiences as collective." But eventually he decided against it. As he assured Arturo F. Genzalez during the interview for Parade: "Not a day goes by here that we don't all miss Ross terribly, but I know he would want us to continue as we have, despite his being gone."


Norris McWhirter operates out of the top floor of a three-story building in the north   London suburb of Enfield, which still has a mailbox bearing Ross McWhirter's name. There he continues to maintain the high level of accuracy that has characterized the Guinness Book of Records since its inception, through the judicious use of photographs, news clippings, and eyewitnesses to record-breaking events. He receives something like 20,000 letters a year, queries dozens of experts, and conducts firsthand research in hundreds of nonfiction books and periodicals. "You develop a technique in reading so that words like longest, shortest, biggest, and other 'ests' jump out at you," he has said. McWhirter disavows comparisons between himself and less scrupulously accurate predecessors such as Robert Ripley of Believe-it-Or-Not fame. "That Ripley," he told the writer for People (September 10, 1974), "used the greatest title in the world. His facts didn't have to be correct, just interesting.


"Although the Guinness Book of Records contains records on nearly every subject imaginable, from yachting and pigeon racing to the art of running backwards, roughly one-fourth of it is devoted to sports. Still, it is the more quirky records, such as shoe-shining, and balancing on one foot that have aroused the most interest, a curiosity the publicity-conscious McWhirter encourages by issuing certificates and selling Guinness ties to record-breakers.


The tremendous success of the Guinness book has stimulated dozens of commercial spinoffs, such as greeting cards, cereal boxes, puzzles, notebooks, jump ropes, Dixie cups, and calendars. Guinness museums have sprung up in the Empire State Building and various other places. A television program with David Frost, a show at Radio City Music Hall, and a cartoon strip syndicated in some 100 newspapers have also showcased Guinness material.  


"Guinnessport"—the sport of getting one's name into the Guinness Book of Records— has flourished in recent years especially in the hospitable atmosphere of the United States.  Its participants, according to Sports Illustrated, consist of "fraternity boys, failed athletes, assorted crazies, and maybe even some normal folk." Occasionally mass Guinness "olympics" are held in such places as New South Wales, London, San Antonio and Los Angeles. "By acting as a kind of clearinghouse," McWhirter told Jerry Kirshenbaum, "the book is a catalyst for a lot of record-breaking. Nowadays, a record only has to be printed for somebody else to break it." Defending the inclusion of "crazy" entries in the Guinness Book of Records, McWhirter has said: "What many people don't realize is that only 3% of the book is devoted to zany records. Life isn't all frivolous. I know that. But it’s not all serious, either. It's the same with records. There's room for all kinds."


On December 28, 1957 Norris McWhirter married Carole Eckert, a former student of gourmet cookery at the Cordon Bieu, whom he met on a skiing vacation. They have a daughter, Jane, and a son, Alasdair. McWhirter is a gray-haired gray-eyed, and sharp-featured man, who stands five feet nine inches tall and weighs about 170 pounds. He is a member of the Royal Institution, the Association of Track and Field Statisticians, the Society of Genealogists, and a past member of the Sports Council. His clubs include the Caledonian, Vincent's (Oxford), and Achilles. He is a member of the Church of England.  


Thirty years of compiling records and statistics have not quenched McWhirter's interest in the odd or unusual. He told one interviewer:  "People are fascinated with extremes. They like to know what the steel brackets are around a given subject. People crave delineation and points of reference. It's a matter of orientation, but it's also part of the natural competitiveness that most of us have."


 References: People p45+ S 16 '74 pors; Sport  Illus p55+ F 8 '65; JI30 '79 pots: Contemporary  Authors vols 13-14 (1975); McWhirter, Norris.  Ross: The Story of a Shared Life (1976);  Who's Who, 1978-79


1979 – Current Biography

See more about Norris McWhirter