Samuel Norris was born in Lancashire on 11th July 1875. Largely self-educated, he moved to the Isle of Man at the age of 19 to work as a reporter on the Manx Sun
, before later becoming the Manx correspondent for various Liverpool- and Manchester-based publications. Despite his later prominence as a politician and businessman, he always described himself as a journalist.
Norris became an expert on Manx affairs and history, and was increasingly vocal about the need for political reform. In 1903, a Keys election year, he wrote a series of articles in the Liverpool Mercury
on the Isle of Man, criticising the arbitrary power of the Governor and Council, the weak role of the Keys, the archaic legal system, as well as the state’s reliance on indirect taxation rather than income tax. Later that year, he founded the Manx National Reform League, which had the aim of influencing candidates for the Keys. Most of the members of the new House of Keys that year supported Norris’ reform programme. Following a petition by the Keys, the MacDonnell Committee arrived on the Island in May 1911 to take evidence regarding constitutional reform. It made extensive use of Norris’ Manx Year Book
, which contained information on finances, salaries, and other aspects of national and local government, and it was probably this information that led the Committee to recommend that the post of Clerk of the Rolls be abolished.
The First World War brought with it a new set of challenges. The tourist industry collapsed, and the Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan, refused to offer any help to those affected. In response, Norris set up the War Rights Union, which demanded a two-thirds rebate on rates and grant aid. Throughout 1916 they staged protests, culminating in a mass demonstration on Tynwald Day. The crowds demanded ‘Redress, Retrenchment, and Reform!’ and that ‘Raglan Must Go!’, and a sod of earth was even thrown at the Governor.
Shortly after the demonstration, Norris was ordered to pay his rates; after he refused, his goods were seized by the coroner. Norris asked people to attend the sale but not buy anything as a way of showing their disapproval. After the failure of the sale, Norris was summoned before Tynwald, where he refused to apologise for his actions. He was imprisoned for an unspecified period to purge his contempt. After a month in prison, during which time Tynwald had attracted a lot of unfavourable publicity at home and in the UK, Norris apologised and was released. He emerged a local hero and a ‘symbol of resistance to arbitrary power’.
In 1919, Norris stood for the constituency of North Douglas, where he was elected at the head of the poll. He lost his seat in 1929, but was re-elected at a by-election in 1934. During his time in the Keys, he achieved a great deal of reform: he introduced old age pensions; organised a ‘Keys strike’ in protest at the wartime additions to government salaries that had not been declared to the Keys; passed the Married Women’s Property Act; and persuaded the Governor to revise prison regulations. He continued to campaign for the redistribution of seats in proportion to population, and he argued consistently in favour of increasing the power of the Keys and reducing the power of the Governor and other appointed officials. He was later elected in 1943 to the Legislative Council, where he remained until 1946.
The 1959 MacDermott report effectively summarised much of Norris’ work, and led to significant changes in the structure of the legislature. In fact, Norris is unique in that almost all of his campaigns were successful. His campaigning work was the catalyst of what was at the time described as ‘a new era in Manx affairs’.