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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Obituary: Norris McWhirter
Norris McWhirter
Record beaker: Norris McWhirter
Norris McWhirter, who has died aged 78, was joint founder of the Guinness Book of Records with his identical twin brother Ross. They were also its first editors, and Norris was also remembered for his 23 years presenting BBC One's Record Breakers.

Norris McWhirter was born in London on 12 August 1925, the son of a distinguished journalist - his father was, among other things, editor of the Daily Mail, Sunday Despatch and Sunday Pictorial.

The twin sons were educated at Marlborough, and went on to Oxford after war service in the Royal Navy.

Fascinated by records

An outstanding athlete, Norris was an international sprinter, and worked as a freelance journalist for newspapers and the BBC - he was a commentator at the Olympic Games from 1960 to 1972.

On 6 May 1954, it was Norris McWhirter who made the announcement of the world's first sub-four minute mile.

He had practised in his bath the night before and told the Oxford crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event No 9, the one mile. First, No 41, R G Bannister, of the Amateur Athletic Association. The time is three minutes 59.4 seconds."

Norris McWhirter CBE
McWhirter announced the world's first sub-four minute mile
In the 1950s the brothers set up McWhirter Twins Ltd, a facts and figures agency, supplying newspapers, year books and encyclopaedias.

They had always been fascinated by records, and in 1955 were commissioned to produce the Guinness Book of Superlatives. They completed the task in 16 weeks, and the book was an immediate success.

Its name was changed to the Guinness Book of Records in 1956 and it has, to date, sold more than 100 million copies.

Fascination with useful and obscure facts - such as the world's tallest man and shortest woman - has continued unabated, and led to spin-off publications like the Guinness Book of Olympic Records and the Book of Amazing Achievements.

McWhirter became a television celebrity, using his encyclopaedic memory on programmes like Record Breakers, which he presented, alongside the late Roy Castle, from 1972 to 1995.

Against EU single currency

But he suffered a great tragedy when his brother Ross was murdered by the IRA in 1975 after he offered a large reward for information leading to the capture of IRA bombers.

Following his brother's death, Norris became increasingly involved with the Freedom Association, a libertarian - some would say right-wing - group which challenged what it considered to be violations of individual freedom.

Roy Castle
Roy Castle appeared with Norris McWhirter on Record Breakers
The association's targets included trade unions, sporting bodies and broadcasting organisations. Its first success in the courts came when it backed three railwaymen dismissed by British Rail for refusing to join a union.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the closed shop was illegal. The Association also supported a woman who made legal history with a successful private prosecution for manslaughter after her son died of a drugs overdose.

But McWhirter also had his failures - the High Court rejected his application for an injunction to stop the International Cricket Conference banning players from Test Matches after they had worked in South Africa.

More recently, McWhirter campaigned assiduously against UK entry into the EU single currency and was among a number of people who contributed to a fighting fund to support the former Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton, in his unsuccessful libel action against Mohamed Al Fayed.

Norris McWhirter stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate in two general elections - in 1964 and 1966.

He was also a prolific contributor to the letters columns of newspapers - his targets included CND, Labour Party policy, the BBC and the IBA.

Record Breakers' McWhirter dies
20 Apr 04  |  TV and Radio
Norris McWhirter: Your tributes
20 Apr 04  |  Have Your Say


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