There may have been a small corner in the Obits pages of one of the nationals or a few lines, perhaps, in the sports pages. But I don’t live in Britain any more, or in South Africa, so I may have missed them.But it would be a profound shame if, in this year of Olympic and Paralympic nirvana, the nationals do not give over some space for Richard Norris who died at the end of August in Pretoria at the age of 80.
Not because he was my housemaster when I was a cadet at Pangbourne College – delightful though that thought may be – but because he was one of Britain’s finest post-war athletes, a member of the Great Britain hockey team that won the bronze medal at the Helsinki Olympics of 1952. He also played for England and Natal with considerable success.
Not that we knew any of this. We always knew him as “Chaps” which I thought one of the kinder nicknames the cadets gave to the teachers, one which suggested decency and a team ethic, both of which were very much in Norris’ make-up. To us he was a housemaster, a teacher of mathematics and a bloody good hockey coach.
We knew about his medal from Helsinki but he never talked about it; nor did he carry on about the other elements of his sparkling hockey career. And it wasn’t just us.
“He was very modest about this and I did not know he even had an Olympic medal until I found it in a drawer when I was about 11 or 12,” says his daughter Claire.
“He never spoke about it much and in fact he gave away his competitor’s medal (this was a medal given to everyone who competed), although it was returned to him many years later.”
Richard Owen Alfred Norris, to give him his full beam, was born in Bombay in 1931 and grew up in India, something which according to his old Great Britain teammate Neil Nugent came in handy in the Olympics when Britain played both India and Pakistan.
“He spoke Urdu/Hindi quite fluently,” says Neil. “This helped during the matches against India and Pakistan because they were saying what they intended to do next in these languages and he would pass it on!”
His father was an army man but died when Norris was just four. He later returned to England to attend King’s School Canterbury which is really where he made his name as a sportsman, representing Kent Schools in rugby, hockey and cricket as well as the Kent men’s hockey team. For good measure, he also found time to make an appearance at Junior Wimbledon.
Moving to Trinity College, Oxford, where took a degree in engineering, Norris continued to excel on the hockey field winning a Blue every year he was there. Aged just 20, and before he had even played for England he was selected for Great Britain.
He had an outstanding debut, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-4 victory over Netherlands in Amsterdam. He was the youngest member of the side that travelled to Helsinki for the 1952 Olympics.
“The rest of us were working men so he was the kid of the side,” says Nugent. “But he was a perfect teammate. He was a very nice guy with a charming smile. It was a very happy team.”
Norris also happened to be a very good centre-forward.
“He was a splendidly built, chunky athlete; one or two people felt he was more like a rugby player,” says Nugent who was moved from centre-forward to inside forward to accommodate Norris.
“He had this wonderful burst of speed and great control, the kind of stickwork that gives defenders nightmares. He was so strong down the middle and he had this tremendously powerful shot.
GB beat Belgium thanks to a goal from Nugent before coming up against India, who had won gold at every Games since 1932, in the semi-final.
“Unfortunately, we had two mishaps in the first ten minutes,” says Nugent.
“We let in a rather silly goal and then I got hit by the ball just above the knee. I was unconscious for a moment and when I woke I was pretty incapable. There were no substitutes so I was shipped out to the wing but we were effectively playing that game with ten men.”
Norris scored GB’s only goal in a 3-1 defeat but they went on to beat Pakistan in the play-off for the bronze medal.
Norris played five times in all for GB, missing the 1956 Games because of a cartilage operation. He also played for England between 1953 and 1959, scoring in his first six internationals and finishing with 18 goals from 17 matches – a record that bears comparison with the best in the world.
His stickwork was helped perhaps by the fact he was ambidextrous, something that helped him in other sports as well.
“He had an extraordinary ability to bowl left arm nippies almost as well as he did right arm,” says Ian Busby who taught alongside him at Millfied and Pangbourne.
“I’d never come across anyone having an ambidextrous ability to that extent: batting yes, tennis yes but bowling is something else,”
After completing his national service in the Royal Artillery – during which he was accidentally shot in the leg with a gun that his unwitting assailant did not think was loaded – he joined the Nautical College, Pangbourne, as it was then known, in 1957 as maths teacher and hockey coach.It was to be a short stay. An England hockey tour to South Africa brought him into contact with Hilton College just outside Pietermaritzburg. Recently married to Mary, he accepted their offer and moved continents.
He produced a number of South African hockey internationals but perhaps his most celebrated charge was a boy called Mike Procter who went on to achieve a modicum of success as a cricketer…
Norris continued playing for Natal inspiring them each year between 1960 and 1964 to win the South African Interprovincial tournament. That led to an invitation to play for South Africa but the English federation became rather sticky on the idea and insisted that as he had already played for England and GB, he would not be allowed to do so. He made a final appearance for Natal just before he left South Africa in 1971, at the age of 39.
Next stop was Millfied in Somerset where he came into contact for the first time with Ian Busby.
“I remember vividly one game against Weston, a side which then comprised half the Somerset team, when Rich bullied off, showed the ball to at least three defenders, drew the goalkeeper and ran the ball into the goal,” laughs the bearded Buzzers, no mean hockey coach himself.
“No one touched it and it was all over in half a minute. I just followed behind. He must have been nearly 40 then.”
In 1972, he returned to Pangbourne.
“He appealed in so many ways,” says Peter Points, the headmaster at the time.
“We had a shortage of experienced maths teachers, his games record went without saying and he also had a very sociable style which went down well with the cadets and with the parents. He was also a very cultivated man who loved music and the theatre.”
And a decent bottle of wine. Time for a small confession here I am afraid. As Hesperus boys we were not always the best behaved and took the notion of the wreck quite seriously. And when lights went out it was not unusual to hear the whisper of “creep” going around the dormitory.
Creeps took on many forms from a simple midnight swim to carefully planned Italian Job style heists. On a couple of occasions our creep involved entering the housemaster’s wine cellar and borrowing a couple of bottles. I say borrowed because I am sure we always had the intention of replacing them although, ahem, we never did. Sorry about that.
Norris was a tremendous mentor. He was amusing and forgiving but never a pushover. The boys knew where the line was and, by and large, respected it. No one complained if they were caught crossing that line.
I also came into contact with him on the hockey field. I was a half decent grunter in midfield but I was not alone in being a little awestruck by Norris when he set aside his inhibitions to show us how something should be done. His stickwork was clean and rapid, his shooting power from a corner little short of nuclear. He would rattle the backboards in the blink of an eye.
Needless to say, our own stickwork and finishing could be frustrating.
“I can teach them how to score goals but I can’t bloody well do it for them!” was the frequent slightly high-pitched lament.
After retiring from Pangbourne in 1992, he continued to teach privately and had a mathematics textbook published by Cambridge Press before returning to South Africa in 2008 to be near Claire and their grandchildren.
He returned regularly to the UK. This summer he was in Britain to hook up with some of his old teaching comrades for a reunion with the surviving members of that 1952 Olympic side. Together they attended the Olympic hockey at the Riverbank Arena on August 1st when, perhaps fittingly for Norris, Great Britain drew with South Africa.
He is survived by his wife Mary and their two children Hugh, who was educated at Pangbourne, and Claire, and four grandchildren.
Richard Norris born Bombay 10 December 1931; died Pretoria 25 August 2012
©Barney Spender 2012
INTERNATIONAL PLAYING RECORD
England, 17 caps, 18 goals
1 – 11 April 1953 v Scotland (Guildford) 1 goal
2 – 18 April 1953 v Ireland (Dublin) 1
3 – 25 April 1953 v Netherlands (Trent Bridge) 1
4 – 27 March 1954 v Wales (Reading) 3
5 – 10 April 1954 v Ireland (Blackpool) 2
6 – 17 April 1954 v Denmark (Folkestone) 3
7 – 25 March 1956 v Wales (Guildford)
8 – 29 March 1958 v Wales (Bristol) 1
9 – 19 April 1958 v Ireland (Hove) 1
10 – 26 April 1958 v Scotland (Graingemouth)
11 – 16 August 1958 v South Africa (Port Elizabeth)
12 – 30 August 1958 v South Africa (Durban)
13 – 6 September 1958 v South Africa (Johannesburg)
14 – 13 September 1958 v South Africa (Salisbury)
15 – 20 September 1958 v Kenya (Nairobi) 3
16 – 21 March 1959 v Wales (Wrexham) 2
17 – 4 April 1959 v Scotland (Sunderland)
Great Britain, 5 caps, 4 goals
1 – 4 May 1952 v Netherlands (Amstelveen) 3 goals
2 – 18 July 1952 v Belgium (Helsinki)
3 – 20 July 1952 v India (Helsinki) 1
4 – 22 July 1952 v Pakistan (Helsinki)
5 – 24 October 1953 v Belgium (Bristol)