Nevil Shute

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Nevil Shute Norway (17 January 1899 – 12 January 1960) was an English-Australian 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 to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels, which included On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.

Nevil Shute
Neville Shute AWW 1949
Born 17 January 1899
Ealing, Middlesex, England
Died 12 January 1960 (aged 60)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Pen name Nevil Shute
Occupation Novelist
aeronautical engineer
Nationality British, emigrated to Australia 1950
Genre Fiction

Early life

Born in Somerset Road, Ealing, Middlesex, he was educated at the Dragon School, Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford; he graduated from Oxford University in 1922 with a third-class degree in engineering science. Shute's father, Arthur Hamilton Norway, became head of the Post Office in Ireland before the First World War and was based at the main post office in Dublin in 1916 at the time of the Easter Rising. Shute himself was later commended for his role as a stretcher-bearer during the rising.[1] On 13 June 1915 his elder brother, Fredrick Hamilton Norway, aged 19, was wounded at Epinette, near Armentières, and was evacuated to Wimereux where he died, on 4 July, with his parents by his side. He was buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais.[2]

Shute attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, but because of his stammer was unable to take up a commission in the Royal Flying Corps, instead serving in the Great War as a soldier in the Suffolk Regiment.[1]

Career in aviation

An aeronautical engineer as well as a pilot, he 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 potential negative publicity in connection with his novels.)[3]

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 and when Wallis left the project he became the Chief Engineer.[1]

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 was a success in that it made a successful 1930 return trip to and from Canada and while in Canada undertook local trips to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls from Montreal. But the fatal 1930 crash in France of its government-developed counterpart R101 while flying to India ended British interest in dirigibles. The Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson, was killed in the crash along with many senior figures in the airship development programme.[1] 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. 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.[4]

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.[1]

A site was available in a former trolleybus garage on Piccadilly, York.[5] Despite setbacks and tribulations, including the usual problem of the start-up business, liquidity, Airspeed Limited eventually gained significant recognition when its Envoy aircraft was chosen for the King's Flight. With the approach of 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 and Shirley.

Second World War

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Shute was already 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 as a sub-lieutenant and quickly ended up in what would become 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."[6]

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 Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves (RNVR).

Literary career

Shute's first novel, the novella Stephen Morris, was written in 1923, but not published until 1961.

His first published novel was Marazan, which came out in 1926. After that he published one novel roughly 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. His popularity slowly grew with each novel, but he became far more famous after the publication of 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 an Eastern European bar "hostess" (Ruined City) or brilliant boffin (No Highway).

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, 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 apparently anonymous epigram "It has been said an engineer is a man who can do for five shillings what any fool can do for a pound."[7]

Several of Shute's novels explore the boundary between accepted science and rational belief, on the one hand, and mystical or paranormal possibilities, including reincarnation, on the other hand. Shute does this by including elements that can be considered fantasy or science fiction in novels that are classified as mainstream. These are based in elements that would be considered religious, mystical, or psychic phenomena in the British vernacular when they were written. These include: Buddhist astrology and folk prophecy in The Chequer Board; the effective use of a ouija board in No Highway; a messiah figure in Round the Bend; and past and future lives with a psychic connection, near-future 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 filmed, including Lonely Road (as The Lonely Road in 1936), Landfall: A Channel Story (as Landfall, in 1949), Pied Piper (as The Pied Piper in 1942 and as Crossing to Freedom in a CBS made-for-television film in 1990), On the Beach (as a 1959 film and a two-part miniseries in 2000), and No Highway (as the 1951 film No Highway in the Sky). A Town Like Alice was adapted into a film in 1956), serialised for Australian television as a miniseries in 1981, and broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1997 as a six-part radio drama starring Jason Connery, Becky Hindley, Bernard Hepton and Virginia McKenna, who had starred as the novel's heroine, Jean Paget, in the film version. The work was dramatised by Moya O'Shea, produced by Tracey Neale and David Blount, and directed by David Blount. It won a Sony Award in 1998. Shute's 1952 novel The Far Country is unrelated to the 1955 film of the same name, but was filmed for television as six one-hour episodes in 1972, and as a two-part miniseries in 1987.[8]

Vintage Books reprinted all 23 of his books in 2009.[9]

Shute's final literary publication occurred more than 40 years after his death. The Seafarers was first drafted in 1946–47, was subsequently rewritten, and then put aside. In 1948, Shute again rewrote it, changing the title to Blind Understanding but leaving the manuscript incomplete. According to Dan Telfair in the foreword of the 2002 publication, some of the themes in The Seafarers and Blind Understanding were incorporated in Shute's 1955 novel Requiem for a Wren.[10]

Post war activities

In 1948, after the Second World War, Shute flew his own Percival Proctor light aeroplane to Australia and back, with the writer James Riddell who published a book Flight of Fancy based on the trip in 1950.[11]

On his return home, concerned about what he saw as decline in his home country, he decided that he and his family would emigrate and so, in 1950, he settled with his wife and two daughters on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne.[12] In Slide Rule, quoting from the diary he kept during the R100's successful test flight to Canada, Shute had written in 1930, "I would never have believed after a fortnight's stay I should be so sorry to leave a country." In 1954 he introduced that quote, "For the first time in my life I saw how people live in an English-speaking country outside England," and said it was interesting in the light of his later decision to emigrate to Australia.[13] Although he intended to remain in Australia, he did not take out Australian citizenship, but at that time it would have been an unnecessary formality as he would have had the same rights as an Australian citizen because he was a British subject.[14]

In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the world's best-selling novelists, although his popularity has since declined in Australia.[15]

Between 1956 and 1958 in Australia, he took up car racing as a hobby, driving a white Jaguar XK140.[16] Some of this experience found its way into his book On the Beach .

Shute died in Melbourne in 1960 after a stroke.[17]


  • 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 US as The Mysterious Aviator, and written soon after the General Strike of 1926, 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: US 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.[18]
  • The Chequer Board (1947) ISBN 1-84232-248-6: A dying man looks up three wartime comrades, one of which sees Burma during Japanese occupation and in its independence period after the war. The novel contains an interesting 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. Interestingly, the Comet failed for just this reason several years later, in 1954.
  • A Town Like Alice (1950) ISBN 1-84232-300-8: US 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. A condemnation of British socialism and the national health service.
  • 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-monarchism democratic sentiment.
  • Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer (1954) ISBN 1-84232-291-5; (1964: Ballantine, New York)
  • Requiem for a Wren (1955; US title: The Breaking Wave) ISBN 1-84232-286-9. 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, is set in Melbourne, whose population is 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."[19][20]
  • 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 sailboat. Set in Britain, the Pacific Islands and the US northwest.


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.[21]

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.[22]


  1. ^ a b c d e Ryan, A. P. "Extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951–1960". Nevil Shute Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
  2. ^ "Photo Timeline: 1911–1920 page 2". Nevil Shute Foundation. Archived from the original on 19 April 2012. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  3. ^ Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer (1954) ISBN 1-84232-291-5 pages 44–45; (1964) p. 63.
  4. ^ Squires, Arthur (1986). The Tender Ship. Birkhauser. pp. 3–10.
  5. ^ Stead, Mark (26 October 2013). "New aviation museum planned for city centre". The Press. York.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Quote from Shute's autobiography Slide Rule, 2nd ed., London: Pan, 1969, p. 63
  8. ^ Murray, Scott (1996). Australia on the small screen, 1970-1995: The complete guide to tele-features and mini-series. Oxford University Press. p. 193.
  9. ^ Hensher, Philip (4 December 2009). "Nevil Shute: profile". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
  10. ^ Telfair, Dan (2002). Foreword. The Seafarers. By Shute, Nevil. Paper Tiger Books. ISBN 9781889439327.
  11. ^ "Nevil Shute Foundation—Title". Nevil Shute Foundation. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  12. ^ Croft (2002)
  13. ^ Slide Rule, (1964), pp. 113–114.
  14. ^ "Citizenship in Australia – Fact sheet 187". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 28 December 2012.
  15. ^ Meacham, Steve (25 July 2003). "Remaindered with little honour in his adopted land". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  16. ^ "Photo Timeline 1951–1960 page 5". Nevil Shute Norway Foundation. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
  17. ^ "Books: The Two Lives of Nevil Shute", Time, 25 January 1960. Retrieved 24 April 2011.
  18. ^ Milgram, Shoshana. "The Seafarers". Book Review. Nevil Shute Norway Foundation. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  19. ^ Haigh, Gideon (June 2007). "Shute the Messenger – How the end of the world came to Melbourne (6800 words)". The Monthly (24). Retrieved 12 September 2013.
  20. ^ Haigh, Gideon (1 June 2007). "Shute's sands of time". The Daily Telegraph. Australia. Retrieved 11 September 2013.
  21. ^ Alice Springs public library history Retrieved 29 April 2013
  22. ^ 100 Best Novels Retrieved 2 May 2013


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