Edward Felix Norton (18841954), by H. Ruttledge, 1924
Norton, Edward Felix (18841954), army officer and mountaineer, was born on 21 February 1884 at San Isidro, Argentina, the second son of Edward Norton, a director of the Royal Mail and Union Castle shipping lines, and his wife, Edith Sarah, the daughter of Sir Alfred Wills, judge of the Queen's Bench Division. His father established the Estancia la Ventura on wild pampas some 300 miles south of Buenos Aires, but Norton was taken back to England as an infant. He was educated at Charterhouse School and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and was commissioned in 1902. In 1907 he was posted to Meerut, India, first with the Royal Field Artillery, then from 1910 with the Royal Horse Artillery. During this period he was aide-de-camp to the viceroy.
In 1914 Norton went to France, where he served throughout the First World War, some of the time as staff officer, Royal Artillery, to the Canadian corps and from 1917 as commander of D battery, Royal Horse Artillery. He was three times mentioned in dispatches, was appointed to the DSO, and was awarded the MC. After the war he commanded D battery in India and later served on the staff at Chanak at a time when British relations with the Turks called for much diplomacy and tact. On 18 December 1925 he married (Isabel) Joyce, the daughter of William Pasteur CB CMG, a physician, with whom he had three sons. Having attended the Staff College and later the Imperial Defence College, he returned to India as senior instructor at the Staff College at Quetta (192932). He then became commander, Royal Artillery, to the 1st division at Aldershot, and subsequently brigadier-general staff to the Aldershot command. In 1937 he was appointed aide-de-camp to King George VI, in 1938 he commanded the Madras district, and in 1939 he was appointed CB.
As acting governor and commander-in-chief, Hong Kong (194041), Norton took a firm lead in bringing the inadequate air-raid shelter system up to scratch, so saving many lives when Japan invaded a few months later. While there he was severely injured in a riding accident, from which he never fully recovered. It forced his retirement in 1942, at which time he was holding command of the western independent district in India. He was granted the honorary rank of lieutenant-general. After returning to England he became commander of the north Hampshire sector of the Home Guard (19424); when the Home Guard was disbanded he went on to serve as Hampshire's county Army Cadet Force commandant (19448). In 1947 he was appointed colonel commandant of the Royal Horse Artillery.
Norton began alpine climbing at the Eagle's Nest above Sixt, in the Haute-Savoie, a chalet built by his grandfather Sir Alfred Wills, who was founder and third president of the Alpine Club. There, with his brother, Norton stalked chamois over ground which was so bad that even the local men kept off it. During his long service abroad he climbed wherever the opportunity offered, and in 1922 he was selected for the second British Mount Everest expedition. With George Leigh Mallory and (Theodore) Howard Somervell he reached the then record height of 26,985 feet. They were the first to pass the critical level of 8000 metres, and this without supplementary oxygen. In 1924, when the leader, Charles Granville Bruce, was taken ill, Norton took charge of the difficult third Everest expedition. After many crushing setbacks, and hazards owing to blizzards and ferocious winds, Norton led the first serious summit attempt. Again he climbed without oxygen, an aid for which he had little respect. At 28,000 feet his companion, Somervell, was stopped by severe throat trouble and Norton continued alone to a height of 28,126 feet. He reached the great couloir on the north face, which later became popularly known as Norton's couloir. This, too, was an altitude record, and it was fifty-four years before anyone climbed higher without oxygen. Another summit bid was undertaken a few days later by Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine, from which neither man returned. Norton handled this tragedy and the publicity it engendered with impeccable dignity, and his dispatches from Mount Everest after the loss are among the most lucid and moving examples of mountain writing. He also wrote the greater part of the official expedition book, The Fight for Everest, 1924.
In 1922 Norton was elected to the Alpine Club, of which in later years he twice refused the presidency on health grounds; he was a founder member of the Himalayan Club and an original member of the Mountain Club of India. In common with other members of the 1922 Everest expedition, he was awarded an Olympic silver-gilt medal (the prix d'Alpinisme, presented at the 1924 winter Olympics), and in 1926 he received the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1953 he was consulted by Brigadier John Hunt, who led the first successful Everest expedition and who was always quick to acknowledge Norton's useful strategic advice.
Tall and athletic in figure, Norton was a fine horseman, a keen shot, and an enthusiastic fisherman. His service years offered him plenty of scope for adventurous sports, but he was interested, too, in natural history, and on his trips to Everest made collections of birds and flowers for the British Museum (Natural History). He was a skilled draughtsman and watercolourist, with a preference for painting landscapes, several of which have been reproduced in the Everest literature. He also had a talent for quick and often witty sketches of his companions. A man of many interests, he was widely read, well informed, and a charming companion. Integrity was the essence of his character. He was a born leader and, in the army, popular with all ranks; he understood and got on well with Indians and with the Gurkhas, Sherpas, and Bhotias on Everest. Norton died at his home, Morestead Grove, Morestead, Winchester, on 3 November 1954, survived by his wife, Joyce.
T. G. Longstaff, rev. Audrey Salkeld
personal knowledge (1971) · private information (1971) · T. H. Somervell and T. G. Longstaff, Alpine Journal, 60 (1955), 15760 · GJ, 121 (1955), 123 · E. Shipton, Norton of Everest, GJ, 121 (1955), 845 · R. C. W. and T. G. Longstaff, Himalayan Journal, 19 (19556), 1836 · m. cert. · d. cert.
King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., MSS incl. some relating to service as acting governor of Hong Kong
priv. coll., Norton Everest archive, letters, diaries, paintings, sketches, and photographs | Alpine Club, London
RGS, Everest expedition archives
BFINA, record footage
H. Ruttledge, photograph, 1924, RGS [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1952, NPG · photograph, repro. in Alpine Journal, facing p. 158 · photographs, RGS, Alpine Club, John Noel photographic collection · photographs, priv. coll.
Wealth at death
£51,385 7s. 7d.: probate, 2 July 1955, CGPLA Eng. & Wales