By: Scott RossPublished: August 12, 2022

Norris and Ross McWhirter

There was a time when if a parent or teacher were desperate for a kid to read, well, any-fucking-thing, they’d eventually toss them a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records. It was a captivating tomb loaded with obese motorcycle-riding twins, a dude with 100 cigarettes in his mouth, and all other manner of jaw-dropping mutants, perfect fodder for young minds trying to understand the world around them. But, because children are thankless and cruel, it would never occur to them to ask who might be behind such a magnificent compendium of trivia. The answer to that unasked question is Norris and Ross McWhirter, who are surely the Guinness World Record holders for Most Successful Twins in Trivia Publishing.

Norris and Ross were born--in that order--August 12, 1925, in Winchmore Hill, Middlesex, England, the sons of a newspaper man and a housewife. Both men served in the Royal Navy, but did so separately, the first time in their lives they’d been apart, though they did run into each other once during the war, when their ships collided in Malta. They would then go on to Trinity College at Oxford, where they ran together on a record-setting relay team, before moving back home and each working in sports journalism.

(For a hilarious insight into the enduring fervor of sibling rivalries, particularly between twins, consider Norris’ online biography, where it’s made clear that the men were identical twins who lived parallel lives, but “As the slightly faster athlete of the two, Norris also competed abroad, in Scotland and Norway,” while a friend of the two is quoted as noting that Norris "was the senior partner of the two. He was a better sprinter than Ross, and I've always felt that he was a little better in everything. My impression is that Ross tended to follow.")

In 1951, the lads set up their own business, McWhirter Twins Ltd., a fact-gathering service; three years later, they got their big break. Legend has it that Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Guinness Brewing, was out hunting one day in 1954 when he got into an argument with a friend over which was the fastest game bird. Sir Hugo was then further agitated to find there was no book (or the internet) to settle such a dispute, and so reached out to McWhirter Twins Ltd. to write such a book.

It took the McWhirters sixteen weeks and £35,000 to produce a 198-page book titled The Guinness Book of Superlatives. The book hit stores in October 1955, just in time for Christmas and the first run 187,000 copies flew off the shelves; within four months, it was the #1 bestseller in the country. In the decades since, the series of books has spawned TV series and specials, a museum, a board game, sold more than 140 million copies, and developed a massive social media presence.

During The Troubles, Ross was an IRA hawk, advocating for requiring all Irish people living in Britain to register with their local police and submit signed photos in order to rent flats. He also offered a £50,000 reward, part of his “Beat the Bombers” initiative, for information that would lead to the arrest of those responsible for a recent spate of bombings.

"We are gradually wallowing into a situation of terror and violence, and not enough is being done to stop it,” McWhirter said at the time. Three weeks later, on November 27, 1975, he was gunned down on the doorstep of his north London home, taking shots to the head and chest from IRA members Harry Duggan and Hugh Doherty. Duggan and Doherty were arrested two weeks later following a shootout with police and charged with 10 murders and 20 bombings--in 1977, they were sentenced to life in prison, but were released in 1999 as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ross was just 50 at the time of his death. Norris was gutted, calling the loss of his twin “not a bereavement, an amputation”.

Norris, who it should be remembered was “a little better in everything,” lived to be 78, when he was felled by a heart attack on April 19, 2004, while playing tennis at his home in Wiltshire.

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