Dr John Norris: GP who survived a kidnap ordeal

 

Twenty-five years of being a family doctor could hardly have prepared John Norris for the ordeal he went through on 30 July 1974. But his cool, calm personality saved his life and another man's.

A call to Witherington Farm outside Salisbury, Wiltshire, a few miles from his surgery at No 16 Harcourt Terrace in the city centre at four in the afternoon, was to leave the 51-year-old GP manacled by his hands and feet to the floor of a caravan, his head immovable beneath the sharpened blade of a home-made guillotine. At his side was a terrified social worker, Martin Mottram, also manacled and with his head beneath the lethal steel. In the caravan lived the man Mottram had in his care, Peter Wilson. Wilson had prepared the caravan for his attack with bolts, bars, weapons and explosive, then asked the social worker to pay him a visit, and having taken him prisoner, called the doctor.

Norris found himself on this, the day after his birthday, bludgeoned with a rifle-butt, knocked to the floor, stunned, gagged, and tied up before being dragged under the guillotine. As the two men lay helpless, Wilson alternately brooded and raved, setting out grievances against the social services and the health service. He had the power to behead them both at once at the touch of a cord, which he could operate from any corner of the caravan.

The two hostages learned from their captor as the long summer evening ticked on that the caravan was wired to explode, with a makeshift bomb using a Calor gas cylinder and electric wires only just held apart. If these were to touch, the spark would set off the gas and the caravan and its three occupants would be blown to pieces.

Wilson also kept his rifle loaded and had ammunition for an airgun. Behind the barred windows, and through a raised aperture he had cut in the caravan's roof, he could see police officers approaching as word of the incident spread. He could also see Norris's wife Joan, a GP at another practice in the city, who arrived hoping at least to alleviate the hostages' thirst and hunger with some oranges.

Mrs Norris threw the oranges in through the open upper half of a two-part door, which was becoming the focus of police efforts to resolve the crisis. The bottom part was held by a bolt, and Chief Superintendent Frank Lockyer, commander of the Wiltshire constabulary's southern division, spent some time surreptitiously trying to release this as he negotiated with Wilson. The bolt proved out of reach, and the door had, besides, been battened from the inside.

When Chief Supt Lockyer looked inside, putting his head over the door's edge to where he could see the guillotine and Norris could see him, Norris told him: "He's not joking, Frank."

During the night that followed the news of the siege was broadcast around the world. The experience was a new one for the police. "None of us had been trained as negotiators," Chief Supt Lockyer, since retired, explained. "We were all just country coppers."

Chief Supt Lockyer heard of a parson known to Wilson who might be able to help, and the RAF delivered the clergyman by helicopter from North Devon. Through the hours of darkness Lockyer and his officers, now surrounding the caravan, took the advice of a psychiatrist from Basingstoke. This was to keep Wilson awake and get him tired, while not getting tired themselves.

Lockyer, whose family doctor Norris was, persevered at the scene until 4am, when he decided he had better get some sleep, and handed over to Detective Chief Superintendent Harry Hull, specially brought from the Wiltshire police headquarters.

Through the night Norris had been working his way into Wilson's confidence, and saw the opportunity of offering more of the one thing Wilson wanted, which was publicity. The caravan contained a radio, and Wilson showed pleasure on hearing the BBC's bulletins describing what he had done. By 10am Dr Norris had persuaded his captor to let him out to put his grievances to those waiting there, who included the local and national press. Wilson took off the battens and unbolted the bottom half of the door.

In his moments of freedom, Norris agreed a plan with police officers while appearing to put Wilson's case. Then the doctor returned inside the caravan, letting Wilson believe he still retained control. Norris had a limp from a rugby injury at school, and wore a built-up shoe. Nevertheless with perfect timing he charged Wilson, pushing him out through the door and into the arms of the police.

For his exemplary bravery in returning inside the caravan, Norris was awarded a new decoration instituted that same year, the Queen's Gallantry Medal, which he received at Buckingham Palace in August 1975.

A lasting legacy of the siege was a lifelong friendship between Norris and Lockyer, who woke from his snatched slumbers to find the nightmare situation resolved. "The incident had no after-effects on him," Lockyer said of Norris."He was a very balanced character, very calm. He didn't panic."

Norris's son William, who had been in London and had learned of the incident as it happened when he read the Evening Standard newspaper. "He was very proud," he recalled.

Wilson, whom Lockyer described as "a very sick man, not a criminal", was sent to Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospital. Norris resumed his quiet pace of life as a GP in the cathedral city, supporting causes including the Red Cross until he and his wife retired from medical practice in the 1980s.

Only from the doctor's favourite hobby, sailing, might a stranger have deduced his deep draught of courage and resourcefulness. The Royal Cruising Club elected Norris a member, and he spent many holidays taking his yacht out from Poole or Lymington. With his family on board, he enjoyed the challenge of crossing the Channel to Brittany or negotiating the West country coast.

John Norris was born in Taunton, Somerset, and educated at Queen's College before studying medicine at Bristol University. He became president of the Students' Union and met his future wife, Joan. They qualified as GPs and in 1949 married at Bemerton Church, Salisbury, moving to the city to be near Joan's parents, who ran the Mill Race Hotel. Joan died in 2004, and Norris married Barbara Hare.

Anne Keleny

John Phillips Norris, general practitioner: born Taunton, Somerset, 29 July 1923; Queen's Gallantry Medal 1975; married 1949 Joan Barnes (died 2004; two sons), 2005 Barbara Hare; died Salisbury 28 November 2012.

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