Nevil Shute

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nevil Shute
Shute, pictured in 1949
Shute, pictured in 1949
BornNevil Shute Norway
(1899-01-17)17 January 1899
Ealing, Middlesex, England
Died12 January 1960(1960-01-12) (aged 60)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
aeronautical engineer

Nevil Shute Norway (17 January 1899 – 12 January 1960) was an English novelist and aeronautical engineer who spent his later years in Australia. He used his full name in his engineering career and Nevil Shute as his pen name, in order to protect his engineering career from inferences by his employers (Vickers) or from fellow engineers that he was "not a serious person"[1] or from potentially adverse publicity in connection with his novels, which included On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.

Early life[edit]

Shute was born in Somerset Road, Ealing (which was then in Middlesex), in the house described in his novel Trustee from the Toolroom. He was educated at the Dragon School, Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford; he graduated from Oxford in 1922 with a third-class degree in engineering science.

Shute was the son of Arthur Hamilton Norway, who became head of the Post Office in Ireland before the First World War and was based at the General Post Office, Dublin in 1916 at the time of the Easter Rising, and his wife Mary Louisa Gadsden. Shute himself was later commended for his role as a stretcher-bearer during the rising.[2][3] His grandmother Georgina Norway was a novelist.

Shute attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and trained as a gunner. He was unable to take up a commission in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, which he believed was because of his stammer. He served as a soldier in the Suffolk Regiment, enlisting in the ranks in August 1918. He guarded the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary, and served in military funeral parties in Kent during the 1918 flu pandemic.[2]

Career in aviation[edit]

An aeronautical engineer as well as a pilot, Shute began his engineering career with the de Havilland Aircraft Company. He used his pen-name as an author to protect his engineering career from any potentially adverse publicity in connection with his novels.[4]

Dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities for advancement, he took a position in 1924 with Vickers Ltd., where he was involved with the development of airships, working as Chief Calculator (stress engineer) on the R100 airship project for the Vickers subsidiary Airship Guarantee Company. In 1929, he was promoted to deputy chief engineer of the R100 project under Barnes Wallis. When Wallis left the project, Shute became the chief engineer.[2]

The R100 was a prototype for passenger-carrying airships that would serve the needs of Britain's empire. The government-funded but privately developed R100 made a successful 1930 round trip to Canada. While in Canada it made trips from Montreal to Ottawa, Toronto, and Niagara Falls. The fatal 1930 crash near Beauvais, France, of its government-developed counterpart R101 ended British interest in dirigibles. The R100 was immediately grounded and subsequently scrapped.

Shute gives a detailed account of the development of the two airships in his 1954 autobiographical work, Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer.[5] When he started, he wrote that he was shocked to find that before building the R38 the civil servants concerned '"had made no attempt to calculate the aerodynamic forces acting on the ship"' but had just copied the size of girders in German airships.[6] The calculations for just one transverse frame of the R100 could take two or three months, and the solution '"almost amounted to a religious experience."[7] But later he wrote that '"the disaster was the product of the system rather than the men at Cardington"; the one thing that was proved is that "government officials are totally ineffective in engineering development" and any weapons (they develop) will be bad weapons. The R101 made one short test flight in perfect weather, and was given an airworthiness certificate for her flight to India to meet the minister’s deadline. Norway thought it probable that a new outer cover for the R101 was taped on with rubber adhesive which reacted with the dope.[8] His account is very critical of the R101 design and management team, and strongly hints that senior team members were complicit in concealing flaws in the airship's design and construction. In The Tender Ship, Manhattan Project engineer and Virginia Tech professor Arthur Squires used Shute's account of the R100 and R101 as a primary illustration of his thesis that governments are usually incompetent managers of technology projects.[9]

In 1931, with the cancellation of the R100 project, Shute teamed up with the talented de Havilland-trained designer A. Hessell Tiltman to found the aircraft construction company Airspeed Ltd.[2] A site was available in a former trolleybus garage on Piccadilly, York.[10] Despite setbacks, including the usual problems of a new business, Airspeed Limited eventually gained recognition when its Envoy aircraft was chosen for the King's Flight. With the approach of the Second World War, a military version of the Envoy was developed, to be called the Airspeed Oxford. The Oxford became the standard advanced multi-engined trainer for the RAF and British Commonwealth, with over 8,500 being built.

For the innovation of developing a hydraulic retractable undercarriage for the Airspeed Courier, and his work on R100, Shute was made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

On 7 March 1931, Shute married Frances Mary Heaton, a 28-year-old medical practitioner. They had two daughters, (Heather) Felicity and Shirley.

Second World War[edit]

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Shute was a rising novelist. Even as war seemed imminent he was working on military projects with his former boss at Vickers, Sir Dennistoun Burney. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) as a sub-lieutenant, having joined as an 'elderly yachtsman' and expected to be in charge of a drifter or minesweeper, but after two days he was asked about his career and technical experience. He reached the "dizzy rank" of lieutenant-commander, knowing nothing about "Sunday Divisions" and secretly fearing when he went on a little ship that he would be the senior naval officer and "have to do something".[11]

So he ended up in the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. There he was a head of engineering, working on secret weapons such as Panjandrum, a job that appealed to the engineer in him. He also developed the Rocket Spear, an anti-submarine missile with a fluted cast iron head. After the first U-boat was sunk by it, Charles Goodeve sent him a message concluding "I am particularly pleased as it fully substantiates the foresight you showed in pushing this in its early stages. My congratulations."[12]

His celebrity as a writer caused the Ministry of Information to send him to the Normandy Landings on 6 June 1944 and later to Burma as a correspondent. He finished the war with the rank of lieutenant commander in the RNVR.

Literary career[edit]

Shute's first novel, Stephen Morris, was written in 1923, but not published until 1961 (with its 1924 sequel, Pilotage).

His first published novel was Marazan, which came out in 1926. After that he averaged one novel every two years through the 1950s, with the exception of a six-year hiatus while he was establishing his own aircraft construction company, Airspeed Ltd. Sales of his books grew slowly with each novel, but he became much better known after the publication of his third to last book, On the Beach, in 1957.

Shute's novels are written in a simple, highly readable style, with clearly delineated plot lines. Where there is a romantic element, sex is referred to only obliquely. Many of the stories are introduced by a narrator who is not a character in the story. The most common theme in Shute's novels is the dignity of work, spanning all classes, whether a Spanish bar hostess in the Balkans (Ruined City) or a brilliant but unworldly boffin (No Highway). His novels are in three main clusters: early pre-war flying adventures; Second World War tales; and stories set in Australia.

Another recurrent theme is the bridging of social barriers such as class (Lonely Road and Landfall), race (The Chequer Board), or religion (Round the Bend). The Australian novels are individual hymns to that country, with subtle disparagement of the mores of the United States (Beyond the Black Stump) and overt antipathy towards the post-World War II socialist government of Shute's native Britain (The Far Country and In the Wet).

Shute's heroes tended to be like himself: middle-class solicitors, doctors, accountants, bank managers, and engineers—generally university graduates. However (as in Trustee from the Toolroom), Shute valued the honest artisans and their social integrity and contributions to society more than the contributions of the upper classes.

Aviation and engineering provide the backdrop for many of Shute's novels. He identified how engineering, science, and design could improve human life and more than once used the anonymous epigram, "It has been said an engineer is a man who can do for ten shillings what any fool can do for a pound."[4]

Several of Shute's novels explored the boundary between accepted science and rational belief, on the one hand, and mystical or paranormal possibilities, including reincarnation, on the other hand. Shute did this by including elements of fantasy and science fiction in novels that were considered mainstream. They included Buddhist astrology and folk prophecy in The Chequer Board; the effective use of a planchette in No Highway; a messiah figure in Round the Bend; reincarnation, science fiction, and Aboriginal psychic powers in In the Wet.

Twenty-four of his novels and novellas have been published. Many of his books have been adapted for the screen, including Lonely Road in 1936; Landfall: A Channel Story in 1949; Pied Piper in 1942 and again in 1959, and also as Crossing to Freedom, a CBS made-for-television movie, in 1990; On the Beach in 1959 and again in 2000 as a two-part miniseries; and No Highway in 1951. A Town Like Alice was adapted into a film in 1956, serialised for Australian television in 1981, and also broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1997 starring Jason Connery, Becky Hindley, Bernard Hepton and Virginia McKenna. Shute's 1952 novel The Far Country was filmed for television as six one-hour episodes in 1972, and as a two-part miniseries in 1987.[13]

Vintage Books reprinted all 23 of his books in 2009.[14]

Shute's final work was published more than 40 years after his death. The Seafarers was first drafted in 1946–47, rewritten, and then put aside. In 1948, Shute again rewrote it, changing the title to Blind Understanding, but he left the manuscript incomplete. According to Dan Telfair in the foreword of the 2002 edition, some of the themes in The Seafarers and Blind Understanding were used in Shute's 1955 novel Requiem for a Wren.[15]

Activities after the war[edit]

In 1948, Shute flew his own Percival Proctor aeroplane to Australia and back, accompanied by the writer James Riddell, who published a book, Flight of Fancy, based on the trip, in 1950.[16]

On his return, concerned about what he saw as he "felt oppressed by British taxation", he decided that he and his family would move to Australia. In 1950, he settled with his wife and two daughters on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne.[17] Remembering his 1930 trip to Canada and his decision to immigrate to Australia, he wrote, in 1954, "For the first time in my life I saw how people live in an English-speaking country outside England." [18] Although he intended to remain in Australia, he did not apply for Australian citizenship, which was at that time a mere formality because he was a British subject.[19] In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the world's best-selling novelists.[20] Between 1956 and 1958 in Australia, he took up car racing as a hobby, driving a white Jaguar XK140.[21] Some of this experience found its way into his book On the Beach.

Shute died in Melbourne in 1960 after a stroke.[22]


"BIG Books" at the Nevil Shute Memorial Library, Alice Springs (2018).

Norway Road and Nevil Shute Road at Portsmouth Airport, Hampshire were both named after him. Shute Avenue in Berwick, Victoria was named after him, when the farm used for filming the 1959 film On the Beach was subdivided for housing.

The public library in Alice Springs, Northern Territory is the Nevil Shute Memorial Library.[23]

In the Readers' List of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the 20th century, A Town Like Alice came in at number 17, Trustee from the Toolroom at 27, and On the Beach at 56.[24]


  • Stephen Morris (1923, published 1961) ISBN 1-84232-297-4 (with Pilotage). A young pilot takes on a daring and dangerous mission.
  • Pilotage (1924, published 1961): a continuation of Stephen Morris.
  • Marazan (1926) ISBN 1-84232-265-6. A convict rescues a downed pilot who helps him break up a drug ring.
  • So Disdained (1928) ISBN 1-84232-294-X. Published in the U.S. as The Mysterious Aviator, and written soon after the General Strike of 1926, it reflected the debate in British society about socialism. The principled narrator initially chooses loyalty to a friend who betrayed Britain to Russia, over loyalty to his King and country. The book concludes with the narrator joining forces with Italian Fascists against a group of Russian spies.
  • Lonely Road (1932) ISBN 1-84232-261-3. This novel deals with conspiracies and counterconspiracies, and experiments with writing styles.
  • Ruined City (1938) ISBN 1-84232-290-7: U.S. title: Kindling. A rich banker revives a town economically with a shipbuilding company through questionable financial dealings. He goes to jail for fraud, but the shipyard revives. Ruined City was distilled from Shute's experiences in trying to set up his own aircraft company.
  • What Happened to the Corbetts (1938) ISBN 1-84232-302-4. U.S. title: Ordeal. Foretells the German bombing of Southampton early in WWII.
  • An Old Captivity (1940) ISBN 1-84232-275-3. The story of a pilot hired to take aerial photographs of a site in Greenland, who suffers a drug-induced flashback to Viking times.
  • Landfall: A Channel Story (1940) ISBN 1-84232-258-3. A young RAF pilot and a British barmaid fall in love. His career suffers a setback when he is thought to have sunk a British submarine in error, but he is vindicated.
  • Pied Piper (1942) ISBN 1-84232-278-8. An old man rescues seven children (one of them the niece of a Gestapo officer) from France during the Nazi invasion.
  • Most Secret (1942, published 1945) ISBN 1-84232-269-9. Unconventional attacks on German forces during WWII, using a French fishing boat.
  • Pastoral (1944) ISBN 1-84232-277-X. Crew relations and love at an airbase in rural surroundings in wartime England.
  • Vinland the Good (film script, 1946) ISBN 1-889439-11-8
  • The Seafarers (1946–7, published 2002) ISBN 1-889439-32-0. The story of a dashing British naval Lieutenant and a Wren who meet right at the end of the Second World War. Their romance is blighted by differences in social background and economic constraints; in unhappiness each turns to odd jobs in boating circles.[25]
  • The Chequer Board (1947) ISBN 1-84232-248-6. A dying man looks up three wartime comrades, one of whom sees Burma during Japanese occupation and in its independence period after the war. The novel contains a discussion of racism in the US and in the US Army stationed in Britain: British townsfolk prefer the company of black soldiers.
  • No Highway (1948) ISBN 1-84232-273-7. Set in Britain and Canada; an eccentric "boffin" at RAE Farnborough predicts metal fatigue in a new airliner, but is not believed. The Comet failed for just this reason several years later, in 1954.
  • A Town Like Alice (1950) ISBN 1-84232-300-8: U.S. title: The Legacy. The hero and heroine meet while both are prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya (now Malaysia). After the war they seek each other out and reunite in a small Australian town that would have no future if not for her plans to turn it into "a town like Alice".
  • Round the Bend (1951) ISBN 1-84232-289-3. About a new religion developing around an aircraft mechanic. Shute considered this his best novel. It tackles racism, condemning the White Australia policy.
  • The Far Country (1952) ISBN 1-84232-251-6. A young woman travels to Australia. About the economic plight of Britain after WWII, in light of high wool prices providing prosperity to sheep farmers in Australia in the same period. A doctor condemns the National Health Service, another overcomes prejudice to operate.
  • In the Wet (1953) ISBN 1-84232-254-0. An Anglican priest tells the story of an Australian aviator. This embraces a drug-induced flash forward to Britain in the 1980s. The novel criticises British socialism and anti-monarchist democratic sentiment.
  • Shute, Nevil (1954). Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer. London: William Heinemann Ltd. ISBN 1-84232-291-5. & ISBN 1-84232-291-5; (1964: Ballantine, New York)
  • Requiem for a Wren (1955) ISBN 1-84232-286-9. U.S. title: The Breaking Wave. The story of a young British woman who, plagued with guilt after shooting down a plane carrying Polish refugees in World War II, moves to Australia to work anonymously for the parents of her (now deceased) Australian lover, whilst the lover's brother searches for her in Britain. The title echoes William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun.
  • Beyond the Black Stump (1956) ISBN 1-84232-246-X. The ethical standards of an unconventional family living in a remote part of Australia are compared with those of a conventional family living in Oregon.
  • On the Beach (1957) ISBN 1-84232-276-1. Shute's best-known novel, set in Melbourne, whose population are awaiting death from the effects of an atomic war. It was serialised in more than 40 newspapers, and adapted into a 1959 film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In 2007, Gideon Haigh wrote an article in The Monthly arguing that On the Beach is Australia's most important novel: "Most novels of apocalypse posit at least a group of survivors and the semblance of hope. On The Beach allows nothing of the kind".[26][27]
  • The Rainbow and the Rose (1958) ISBN 1-84232-283-4. One man's three love stories; narration shifts from the narrator to the main character and back.
  • Trustee from the Toolroom (1960) ISBN 1-84232-301-6. Shute's last novel, about the recovery of a lost legacy of diamonds from a wrecked yacht. Set in Britain, the Pacific Islands, and the American northwest.


  1. ^ Shute1954, p. 65.
  2. ^ a b c d Ryan, A. P. "Extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951–1960". Nevil Shute Foundation. Archived from the original on 2 September 2015. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
  3. ^ "Photo Timeline: 1911–1920 page 2". Nevil Shute Foundation. Archived from the original on 19 April 2012. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  4. ^ a b Shute 1954, p. 63.
  5. ^ Shute 1954, pp. 54–149.
  6. ^ Shute 1954, p. 55.
  7. ^ Shute 1954, p. 76.
  8. ^ Shute 1954, pp. 128, 129.
  9. ^ Squires, Arthur M. (1986). The Tender Ship. Boston, MA: Birkhäuser Boston. doi:10.1007/978-1-4757-1926-0. ISBN 978-0-8176-3312-7.
  10. ^ Stead, Mark (26 October 2013). "New aviation museum planned for city centre". The Press. York. Archived from the original on 14 July 2015.
  11. ^ Shute 1954, p. 3.
  12. ^ Gerald Pawle (1957), Secret Weapons of World War II (original title, The Secret War), 1967 reprint, New York: Ballantine, Part II, "The Enemy under the Waters", Ch. 18, "Harrying the U-boats", pp. 183-186.
  13. ^ Murray, Scott (1996). Australia on the small screen, 1970-1995: The complete guide to tele-features and mini-series. Oxford University Press. p. 193.
  14. ^ Hensher, Philip (4 December 2009). "Nevil Shute: profile". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 2 June 2013. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
  15. ^ Telfair, Dan (2002). Foreword. The Seafarers. By Shute, Nevil. Paper Tiger Books. ISBN 9781889439327. Archived from the original on 22 October 2023. Retrieved 23 July 2021.
  16. ^ "Nevil Shute Foundation—Title". Nevil Shute Foundation. Archived from the original on 7 December 2017. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  17. ^ Croft (2002)
  18. ^ Shute 1954, pp. 113–114.
  19. ^ "Citizenship in Australia – Fact sheet 187". National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 22 January 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2012.
  20. ^ Meacham, Steve (25 July 2003). "Remaindered with little honour in his adopted land". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 7 May 2008.
  21. ^ "Photo Timeline 1951–1960 page 5". Nevil Shute Norway Foundation. Archived from the original on 19 April 2014. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
  22. ^ "Books: The Two Lives of Nevil Shute" Archived 20 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Time, 25 January 1960. Retrieved 24 April 2011.
  23. ^ Alice Springs public library history Archived 28 April 2013 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 29 April 2013
  24. ^ "The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels: The Reader's List | Book awards | LibraryThing". Archived from the original on 22 November 2021. Retrieved 22 November 2021.
  25. ^ Milgram, Shoshana. "The Seafarers". Book Review. Nevil Shute Norway Foundation. Archived from the original on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  26. ^ Haigh, Gideon (June 2007). "Shute the Messenger – How the end of the world came to Melbourne (6800 words)". The Monthly (24). Archived from the original on 23 July 2013. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
  27. ^ Haigh, Gideon (1 June 2007). "Shute's sands of time". The Daily Telegraph. Australia. Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 11 September 2013.

External links[edit]