Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Oral History

Heather Mayfield

Part I

Keynote address by Heather Mayfield, first daughter of Nevil Shute Norway, presented at the Nevil Shute Centennial Celebration in Albuquerque, New Mexico, January 16, 1999.

Transcribed by Jerre J. Schermerhorn

NOTE: This transcription was made possible through the courtesy of Fred Weiss of the Paper Tiger, who owns the sole copyright to the tapes transcribed. These tapes, and all the others from the Centennial, are available for sale through the Paper Tiger at:

Heather and Nevil Shute

Thank you very much, Dan [Telfair], for those kind words. I must admit that you have helped me every bit as much as I have helped you, and John [Henry] too.

It's a truly humbling experience to see so many people here to honor my father, who to me, was my father, and so I would like to welcome everybody here today. Especially my family who have come along and some of them are sick and some of them have traveled a fair distance last night. I won't embarrass them by asking them to stand up, but should you happen to see any red heads around the place, they just might be related to my husband and me.

I've given talks similar to this before, but certainly none to such an august group as this. I called the talks that I gave at that time just 'Nevil Shute and his books' because the books were what my audiences then were interested in. And so I thought, I've got to find a different title for this talk because the talk is slightly different, and I debated "Nevil Shute 101," and I thought uh-huh that is not quite the title for this talk. So finally I settled on "Nevil Shute 100." Partly because of the centenary, and partly because 100 in his lexicon, bearing in mind the R-101 was just complete anathema and so this is "Nevil Shute 100." If there are any Nevil Shute scholars here, would you please leave the room! (Laughs - joined by audience.)

When Dan and I were talking about how I could best help out here, Dan wanted me to participate in a panel, and I said, well, really, no I'm a generalist more than a specialist, and so here you have just a very, very general outline of my father's life.

Like I say, if this is old news to any of you, please feel very, very free to - just to walk out of here (Audience laughter).

My father was born in 1899, January 17th and he was born in Ealing in London, or just outside London at the time, and he lived the life of a small boy of that time. He did the usual small boy things: he went to school rather reluctantly; he flew kites; he watched the airplanes which were just starting to fly over London. He watched them with absolute fascination. He went fishing, he did all those sort of small boy things.

Now, he had a happy childhood. He had an older brother, Fred, who was about four years older, whom he absolutely worshiped. Fred was, I think, probably everything that my father wanted to be. He was good looking, he was athletic. He had a completely different type of brain. He had a literary brain which he had inherited from his father, my grand-father.

My grandfather was a writer too, as I think probably most people here know. He wrote, generally speaking, rather dry books - "Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall," "History of the Postal Packet," and he did write one novel which I believe was called "Pass and Peters." Is that correct? Yes, I believe so.

My Dad's grandmother was also a writer of sort of Harlequin-type romances, so that there was definitely a history of writing on both sides of the family which has not continued into this generation (Audience laughs), and there was every indication that Fred Norway was going to be a brilliant literary scholar.

One of the most important things to realize, as far as my father was concerned and which haunted him all of his life - was his stammer. He stammered from the time that he was a small boy and it impacted practically every area of his life. It made it impossible for him to become an officer in the First World War. He wanted to become an Air Force officer, and then, failing that because of his stammer, he tried the Army and failed for that same reason, and ended up as an infantryman. The way his stammer affected him in his childhood, of course, was everyone knows that children can be very cruel and cutting, biting, and they made life absolutely misery for him at the first school that he attended, and so his parents were very wise and they took him out of that school and they sent him to another school in Oxford where he went as a weekly boarder. It's about, I suppose, 40 miles from London to Oxford - something like that.

My dad had been very unhappy in the first school that he was at and so he ran away from the school. He went, ostensibly, to school every morning and he arrived back at the correct time in the afternoon, but he spent the day in the museums, and just sort of browsing around - particularly the British Museum - all the mechanical things, the beginnings of the airplane industry. Everything was there for him, and I think he probably got a lot better education there than he would have done had he continued at school.

So, anyway, like I say, he went to this school, Lymans in Oxford, and there his stammer did not appear to matter, and he really blossomed at this school. He was introduced there to sailing, and to motorbikes, to cars, and after about three years or so he had to leave that school. Partly because he was old enough and partly because his father became head of the postoffice in Ireland, and that signaled a change in his lifestyle. In London there had been several men of the caliber of my grandfather who were in the postoffice, and all doing pretty much the same work, but in Ireland, my grandfather was the big frog in the small puddle. They had a mansion to keep up and they were known in the area, and so they had to live a little bit more constrained a life perhaps, because they were in the public eye. They had a position to keep up. They had servants and all this sort of thing, but my father did continue going to school in England and came back to Ireland for the vacations.

Then in 1914 war broke out, and his brother Fred went into the Army. Dad went to Shrewsbury school, which is a public school in England. Public schools in England are private schools here. The difference in terminology. At Shrewsbury, in 1914, everyone was getting to be very, very pro-war. Everyone was looking forward, eventually, to being in the war. It was a very popular war, if anyone can imagine at this day and age a popular war. World War I and World War II were both very popular wars, and my Dad was really looking forward to going to war to follow his brother Fred into the war.

Unfortunately, Fred did not last long in the war. He was wounded after he'd only been in the war for a few months, and his wounds, while they were not serious, there were no antibiotics then, and he did not survive the wounds. He died a rather lingering death, but it's interesting to know that one of the Army officers over Fred had contacted my grandparents and said, Look Fred has had these rather nasty wounds. Perhaps you could come along and be with him, and such was the nature of war in those times that my grandparents went along, and were with Fred, behind the lines when he died.

Wars, at that time, were very localized. They were sort of ­ there was the front line, but you get 10 miles or so behind the front line and there's nothing. It's just all completely safe. This, of course, made my Dad all the more keen on going to war. He wanted to avenge Fred's death, but, I mean - as I have just said, he could not do it. He could not become an officer in the Army or in the Navy. But he did end up as an infantryman, and then the war ended. And so there we had one very, very frustrated young man who, for several years, had just been aimed straight at the war. He felt that he was deprived of that. He commented one time that it was very easy for him to understand how the Kamikaze pilots came to be. He played a very small part in the German-backed rebellion in Ireland. He was a stretcher bearer.

In 1919, after the end of the war, he went up to Oxford to Balliol College, which is one of the more prestigious colleges in the University, and it's very interesting there. At that time there was no entrance exam or anything like that. You went along and you were interviewed by the Dean, and if the Dean liked you he accepted you, and if the Dean did not like you, he said, "Well, you know, maybe this other college would be a little bit better for you. Why don't I call my friend over there?" I suppose they did have transcripts of his work - of his school work, but I'm not sure about that.

My father studied engineering there, rather half-heartedly. He was not particularly interested in constructing roads and constructing dams. He was interested in airplanes. Every chance he possibly could he was out at an airport, he was watching the planes. He was working on the airplanes. He could not, at that time, learn to fly because he didn't have the money for that. But he was around airplanes as much as he could be and during the long vacations, which were from May until October, he volunteered at the De Havilland aircraft company.

He eventually graduated from Balliol with third-class honors, which is OK - it's not brilliant but, you know, for somebody who wasn't really particularly interested in his studies it was good. And then he went to work full-time for De Havilland's where he had been spending his summers. He did not stay there very long, however, because there was really no place for advancement there. The head engineers and calculators were men just a few years older than him. There was nobody retiring.

And so he went to work at Vickers, which was another aircraft company. And that was where he started work on the R-100. He was the Chief Calculator there, and the R-100 was an airship, a dirigible, which at that time was thought to be the way that ­ was the future of airline travel because it was comfortable, it was gracious and while the speed was not very great, nor was the speed of the airplanes at that time. So he started working there. There had already been one airship disaster, the R-38, which had just blown up with everyone on board it. This had been a government operation.

The R-100 was to be a private operation and the R-101 was to be a government operation. Just sort of running in conjunction it was a classic case of private industry versus government. And I'm not going to go into this in any great detail because you can read all about it in great detail in "Slide Rule." But suffice it to remain that the R-100, which was the private industry one, which was run on a shoestring, there was a story going around that Nevil had got himself a new car so that now they had some spare parts for the airship. (Audience laughter.)

So they were definitely operating on a shoestring, and the government R-101 was very, very well financed. But they did not have the knowledge. Because they were so well financed they felt that they could pretty much buy whatever they wanted. They didn't have to work for it, it was just, I mean, they were the government they had the best of everything, so of course their airship was going to be far better than the ill equipped poorly funded R-100.

R-100 turned out, of course, to be much better. It was completed faster. It made successful trial runs throughout England, and it made the trip across the Atlantic to Montreal and back.

The government one, the R-101 - oh, was like I say, very well financed, but they did not do the testing that had been done on the R-100. So they had a deadline to meet. There was to be a conference of the Commonwealth Ministers in India, and they, the government, was absolutely determined that the R-101 was to fly over to India with all the head honchos in the government, and, you know, it was to be there on October 4th. So it left England on October 2, 1930, I believe, with everyone on board - no testing - and it crashed in France and everyone was killed. That was the end of the airship program and by that time, of course, the regular aircraft were getting to be a little bit bigger, and a little bit better, a little bit faster, and it was at this time that my father decided - Where could he go? What could he do now? He had been a big frog in a small puddle. It would be hard for him to find a job in the aircraft industry, so he decided to form his own aircraft business, which was called "Airspeed" and that was in existence from about 1930 through, I think, '38 he left it, but it was still going then and it was eventually taken over by De Havilland's where my dad first started off working.

"Airspeed" was a company that was designed to build the small aircraft. He got his first orders from Sir Allan Cobham who ran a sort of an air circus, and the first airplanes that he built for that were acrobatic airplanes. They went on to build two, maybe three more different sorts of airplanes, all of which were extremely well done. Very well built. And in fact I think it was the Envoy, let's see here - hmmm I haven't made a note of it, but I believe it was the Envoy that was chosen eventually to be the airplane for the Kings Flight, which is equivalent to President Clinton's Air Force One, and it was the airplane that would take the royal family wherever they needed to go for their openings and their ceremonies, and this and that.

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