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Samuel Norris

Epithet: MHK, MLC, journalist, 'Fearless Leader of Manx Democracy' (1875-1948)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Samuel Norris, founder of the Manx Reform League in 1903, imprisoned by Lord Raglan in 1916, was a prominent member of the Manx legislature for 22 years. He was also a prolific journalist and author, and a successful self-made printer and publisher. His memoirs are an indispensable source for early 20th century Manx history and have ensured his continuing fame as the best-known public figure of his generation.

Norris was reticent about his early life. Family research has revealed that he was born in Tyldesley, a pit village north of Manchester, near Bury, the fifth of six children of a coal-miner. According to one obituary, probably written by his elder son, he had 'hardworking parents' and 'knew full well the hardships and sorrows of the poor'. He attended elementary school, but was otherwise self-educated.

According to family tradition, young Sam was working as a grocer's delivery boy when he first saw his future wife, Margaret, who was the daughter of a paper mill manager and for a time worked as a milliner. They became engaged in 1897, married in 1901, and set up house in Onchan. By that time Norris was an established Manx resident. Following in the footsteps of his brother Tom, also a journalist on Manx papers for several years, Samuel arrived in the Island in October 1894, aged nineteen, and started work as a reporter on the Manx Sun, where he remained for four years. From 1898 he was the Manx correspondent of daily papers in Liverpool and Manchester, which then paid considerable attention to Manx affairs, and were widely read in the Island. He continued throughout his life, despite later prominence as a politician and businessman, to describe himself as a journalist.

Norris soon developed a keen interest in Manx history and politics, and became well-informed on most aspects of Island life, especially anything to do with Douglas. His pamphlet Douglas, The Naples of the North, Past and Present (1904), published by the Liverpool Mercury and consisting of articles written for that paper, gives a lively picture of the town in its heyday as an Edwardian seaside resort. He took an especial interest in Sir William Hillary, and in 1908 he and three others presented a Hillary memorial tablet to Douglas Corporation.

As a Manx reformer, Norris was not the first in the field among his contemporaries. Since 1895 the Manx Socialist Society had been agitating for social and political reform. In 1901 (later Sir) Thomas Henry Hall Caine's election to the Keys as 'the People's Man' briefly inspired popular enthusiasm. Two years later a Keys election year saw a revival of enthusiasm for reform; one major element in this was Norris's series of five articles in the Liverpool Mercury, written under the pseudonym of 'Verax', on 'Manxland's Home Rule Parliament'. These simply and succinctly described the existing state of affairs in the Island: the arbitrary power of the Governor and the Legislative Council, the limited role of the Keys, the archaic nature of the Manx legal and judicial system, the reliance on indirect taxation, which fell most heavily on the poor, and the urgent case for reform of Manx institutions. The articles attracted much attention, and were republished in pamphlet form, with an additional sixth article outlining a programme of reform measures.

Norris's politics were those of a radical Liberal. He took the initiative in founding the Manx National Reform League, appealing to a wider cross-section of opinion than the socialists could reach. Public meetings were held, and branches were formed throughout the Island. The programme adopted was very close to the agenda outlined in Norris's pamphlet. The campaign explicitly aimed at influencing candidates for the Keys, and ensuring the election of reformers. The new movement appeared to sweep all before it, and most members of the new House of Keys claimed to support the reform programme.

Momentum was harder to sustain after the election. The Keys petition for reform was not sent to the Home Office until early in 1907. Norris was occupied from 1904 in setting up the Norris-Meyer Press in partnership with Louis G. Meyer, a skilled letterpress printer. They published an Amusement Gazette in the holiday season, and a series of picture postcards, took on printing commissions, and sold stationery and newspapers. Above all, the business enabled Norris to produce his own publications, thus taking a continuing part in political debate.

At the end of 1905 he produced the first of his Manx Year Books, providing information on 'Manx finances, official salaries, and all aspects of Manx national and local government'. It made available information never hitherto conveniently collected in one easily accessible booklet, and became an essential handbook and source of reference for reformers.

Two years after the socialists' free monthly The Manx Reformer closed down, Norris launched his own monthly on very similar lines; The Manx Patriot, first published in October 1906, provided him with a political platform. A series of articles on 'Manx Home Rule in Practice' focussed on exposing sinecures and official perquisites. In 1907 Norris thundered against the 'Manx Church Scandal' and the appointment of unsuitable persons to church appointments by Bishop Straton. His 'Deemsters' Time Sheet' for 1907 demonstrated that the Deemsters and the Clerk of the Rolls appeared in court on average for only three or four hours a week each.

In the Keys election of 1908 the Patriot again rallied opinion, the Reform League organised meetings, and the electors again returned a pro-reform majority to the Keys, but reform seemed no nearer. At the end of 1909 Norris closed down the Patriot, which was losing money. At last, in May 1911 the MacDonnell Committee, appointed by the Home Secretary, arrived on the Island. Norris gave evidence for the Reform League, even though he had to admit that it no longer existed. He was pleased that the committee relied on his Year Book, and his Deemsters' Time Sheet was probably responsible for their recommendation that the post of Clerk of the Rolls be abolished. Norris argued for specific limited reforms, not for 'responsible self-government' or 'Home Rule'. In the remaining pre-war years, he was a member of the short-lived Manx Liberal Association. He dissolved his partnership with Meyer, and ran the Norris Modern Press alone from January 1913.

After eleven years' intermittent agitation, the implementation of reforms was yet again put on hold when World War I broke out. But the war provided Norris with the opportunity to put his talents to good use by organising pro-reform public opinion. In the summer of 1915 the collapse of the visiting industry led to acute distress among Douglas boarding house keepers who were expected to pay their rates in full. In December Norris set up the War Rights Union, becoming its organising secretary. Large meetings, mainly of seaside landladies, demanded a two-thirds rebate on their rates and grant aid from the Manx government, failing which they pledged themselves to passive resistance and refusal to pay their rates.

In the summer of 1916 the campaign intensified, with marches to the House of Keys, indoor meetings of 2000 people at the Villa Marina and outdoor meetings on Douglas beach. The scope of the agitation was broadened when the War Resistance Union renamed itself the Redress, Retrenchment and Reform Campaign. Norris's 'Manifesto to the Manx People' called for a new Governor and the introduction of income tax. Labour leaders J.D. Fell from Douglas and Christopher Robert Shimmin and William Philip Clucas from Peel, joined the campaign. The famous Tynwald Day demonstration, with its slogan 'Raglan Must Go!' was the most open act of defiance the Governor had experienced. Immediately afterwards Norris and other rate-refusers were summoned to court and ordered to pay their rates.

In August Norris began to make use of his English contacts. A leader in the Manchester Guardian supported his campaign. He and Shimmin were invited to a dinner at the Manchester Reform Club, where they stated the Manx reformers' case to an audience of Liberal MPs and other dignitaries. A new reform petition from the Island to the Home Secretary was signed by 6000 people.

Early in October the goods of rate refusers were distrained: Norris forfeited fifteen reams of paper and 2000 postcards from his business premises. He urged people to attend the coroner's sale and show their feelings, without buying the goods. Over 600 people attended the auction, a farcical failure as far as selling the goods was concerned, and this excited further critical comment in the English and Manx Press.

Norris and eight others were summoned to appear in the Manx High Court before Lord Raglan and the two Deemsters, all members of the legislature against which they were protesting. They were charged with obstructing the coroner's attempts to collect the rates, and contempt of his court. Norris alone, who refused to apologise or to promise not to repeat the offence, was committed to prison for an unspecified period to purge his contempt. The English Press was appalled. Norris's fellow-campaigners secured 3000 signatures for yet another petition, this time for his release. Questions were asked in the House of Commons. After a month in prison Norris apologised, promised not to repeat his offence, and was released. The Manx establishment had attracted a lot of adverse publicity, effectively scoring an own goal. Like the radical journalists Robert Fargher in the 1840s and James Brown in the 1860s, Norris emerged from prison a local hero and a symbol of resistance to arbitrary power.

In 1917 and 1918 leadership of the campaign for change passed to the Workers' Union branch, the new Manx labour movement, with mass support from unskilled workers, and its political wing, the Manx Labour Party. Norris made common cause with them over several issues. But during the bread strike of July 1918, Norris was not well received when he told strikers that he supported the House of Keys' insistence on Manx control of revenues as a precondition for the introduction of income tax, and that he considered this issue more important than the continuation of the bread subsidy for the ininepermy loaf'. For Norris, a constitutional principle was at stake, but his audience were more concerned with the bread-and-butter issue. At the end of 1918, however, Socialists and Liberals united in welcoming the resignation of Lord Raglan and the beginning of an era of reform under a new Governor.

Breaking new ground, Norris lectured in March 1919 on the position of women in the Isle of Man, proposing a ten-point Manx Women's Charter with emphasis on the need for a Married Women's Property Act. Later in the year he drafted an eleven-point national reform programme, calling for all progressive Keys election candidates to endorse it. He then stood for North Douglas, where he was triumphantly elected head of the poll.

The extra-parliamentary agitator could now play a constructive radical role inside Tynwald. In December 1919 Norris successfully piloted through Tynwald the provision of old age pensions for those over the age of 70. He took the initiative in proposing a 'Keys strike' from January to May 1920, in protest at wartime additions to government salaries which had been made without the knowledge of the Keys; the Home Secretary promised that this would never happen again. He got a Married Women's Property Act passed into law in 1921, and persuaded the Governor to revise prison regulations so as to improve the regime he had himself experienced. He pressed unsuccessfully for the redistribution of seats in order to give Douglas and Ramsey more representation in proportion to their population, at the expense of the sparsely populated rural areas. For years he argued in favour of removing the Deemsters from the legislature, reducing the power of the Governor, setting up an Executive Council to work with the Governor, and increasing Keys' control of the Island's finances. He called himself variously 'Progressive' or 'Independent Liberal'. 'I am nothing if not critical' he told an interviewer in September 1927, who described him as an authority on financial matters, and 'absolutely straightforward and above board'. Returned to the Keys in 1924 for a second term, in 1929 he lost his seat by four votes due to clever tactics by the Labour candidate, who advised his supporters to 'plump' for him alone, while Norris' supporters were asked to use all three of their votes. This gave Norris four years' breathing space in which to concentrate on his business. In 1924 the Norris Modern Press had moved from Walpole Avenue, Douglas, to Victoria Street. In 1928 he had embarked on a new venture which was to outlive him, the Douglas Weekly Diary: this handy publication gave full details of current local events, sports and entertainments, and also included 'Notes and Comments on Manx Political and Public Questions'. In other words, it was another way for Norris to expound his views to the Manx public. Most, if not all, of Manx Memories and Movements and Two Men of Manxland first appeared in these pages.

Samuel Norris was a highly conscientious man, who drove himself hard, and expected high standards from others as well. He employed as many as 20 people, and did not encourage trade unionism in his firm, which he did not think appropriate or necessary. From about 1900 he was a regular attender at Finch Hill Congregational Church, a deacon from 1919, and from 1902 on he edited and published the church magazine. He was a lifelong teetotaller. He was a benevolent but strict father and grandfather, very much the dominant Victorian paterfamilias, and expected his sons to enter the family firm, as they both did. His wife Margaret was a quieter person, with domestic talents and musical and artistic ability.

Early in 1934 Norris won a North Douglas by-election and returned to the Keys. At the General Election later that year, he issued a fourteen-point manifesto entitled 'Manx National Programme and Policy for the People'. He was not unduly modest, but he was consistent and genuine in his beliefs. Within Tynwald, he was renowned for lengthy speeches which irritated some of his colleagues. He was described after his death by the Speaker as 'not always easy to work with', but his convictions and undoubted sincerity compelled respect, and his intellectual power undoubtedly enhanced his influence.

From 1933 he was chairman of the Island's Postcard Censorship Committee, which replaced previous informal arrangements. He could still surprise people by his unorthodox tactics, as when he protested against an increase of the tax on tea in 1936 by sending a packet with an open letter to Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, and hurling another onto the floor during a sitting of Tynwald. In 1938 he published Manx Memories and Movements, an unparalleled Manx political autobiography.

In November 1939 Norris was among those co-opted to the Governor's War Consultative Committee, or 'War Cabinet'. This was in recognition of the desirability of taking him on board, rather than leaving him outside the committee as an independent critical voice. In October 1942 he resigned from the War Committee, pleading pressure of work, but perhaps also wishing to regain the freedom of the back benches. In November he made a resounding speech in the Keys embodying his vision of post-war Manx Home Rule and responsible government, demanding that political freedom, social welfare, and economic prosperity should be as extensive in the Isle of Man as they were in England. Appealing to the mood of wartime radicalism, he persuaded the Keys to set up a constitutional commission to consider post-war options.

In August 1943 Norris accepted nomination to the Legislative Council, and was a member for the next three years. In August 1944 he was saddened by the death of his son Alec, fighting with the Allied forces in Normandy; but he continued his crusade for reform, and in June 1945 published another book, This Manx Democracy! consisting of his November 1942 speech to the Keys, and articles published in the Douglas Weekly Diary in 194344. It was characteristic of Norris's approach to politics that at the age of 70, he still saw his programme as the focus for a national conference of Manx Progressives and a new Manx Democratic Party, much as he had succeeded in founding new organisations in 1903 and 1915-16. This time, this did not happen, and in October 1946 Norris's political career came to an end when, after the general election, he was not re-nominated to the Legislative Council.

In the spring of 1947 he published his last book Two Men of Manxland, a double biography of the Revd Thomas Edward Brown, whose centenary celebrations he had organised in 1930, and Hall Caine, of whom he thought less highly. In December 1948, aged 73, Samuel Norris was in Noble's Hospital for treatment of prostate problems when he suffered an interminable fit of hiccups which caused his death. Tributes poured in, and he was buried in Douglas Borough Cemetery.

He left £34,000, which, by today's monetary values, would have made him a millionaire. He left £100 to the Borough of Douglas to invest and apply the income to providing fruit and flowers for prisoners in the Isle of Man Prison, and he asked that the Salvation Army should give concerts at the prison. He also wanted Douglas Council to use any surplus to hold annual public meetings, or buy books on law and parliamentary rights.

Samuel Norris was indeed, as the Speaker of Tynwald described him, the 'fearless leader of Manx democracy', most of whose demands for reform have since come to fruition.

Biography written by Robert Fyson.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.348-53.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 11 July 1875

Date of death: 4 December 1948


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