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Lew Norris (1924-2009)


One of the founding directors of Norris Brothers Ltd., of Haywards Heath, Sussex, Lew is probably most famous as the co-chief designer of Donald Campbell’s world record breaking ‘Bluebird’ hydroplane and car which are still, 50 years after their design, the only vehicles to break both world records in the same year. He became involved with Donald Campbell, after narrowly escaping from Burma during the communist take- over, when he did some design work for a woodworking machinery manufacturer in which Donald was a major shareholder.

Lew was the youngest of six brothers and two sisters, children of the engineer in charge of the gas works in Burgess Hill, Sussex. Four of the brothers became qualified engineers in different disciplines, one an accountant, and one was killed in the Battle of Britain. In 1953 Lew, now a marine engineer with his brothers Eric, the accountant, and Ken, an aeronautical engineer, set up Norris Brothers Ltd., an engineering design consultancy. The company became probably the most diverse and innovative of its type. Apart from the ‘Bluebirds’ they were responsible for many original concepts, which, most famously included the automatic seat belt fitted to all cars today. Had they been less trusting of others they would have become wealthy on this alone, but they were cheated out of the patent rights. Other noteworthy ‘firsts’ were air supported buildings, a rotary engine for motorcycles, a high gap micro-switch which became an industry standard under the ‘Pye’ name, a concrete pump, what became the ‘go-kart’, and a number of others.

As the company grew, Lew realised that design alone would not make much money, so whilst Ken concentrated on the more esoteric aspects of the business, he developed the manufacturing side.

The first product was a ball valve made under a joint-venture agreement with the Worcester Valve Company of Massachusetts, U.S.A. This was eventually bought out by a major British conglomerate, but not before Lew and his team had developed a control system which he licensed to Worcester in the U.S., and became its Vice-President. Despite Worcester Valve U.K. being vastly smaller than its competitors it became, and still is, a market leader. Initially this was through Lew introducing management and computer systems long before they became a ‘must have’. Subsequently he developed and patented the ‘Flotronic’ pump renowned for its ease of maintenance in the process industries. Other companies designed and produced spool valves, packaging machinery, lift trucks and explosion proof boxes.

Success brought a good income and Lew moved to Alderney from where he piloted his own twin-engine aircraft across to Shoreham until he was nearly 75. He then relocated to Hove in Sussex and remained active in his companies until ill health prevented him. Despite their major contribution to engineering in the U.K., he and his brother Ken were never honoured by their country. He died peacefully on Friday 13th. February, and leaves a widow Beryl and three daughters, Jane, Sara and Lucinda. His funeral will take place on Wednesday 25th February. Any donations should be to the RNLI.

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