Sir John Norton-Griffiths, 1st Baronet

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John Norton-Griffiths

Also Known As: "Empire Jack", "Hell-fire Jack"
Birthdate: (59)
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Husband of Gwladys Norton-Griffiths
Father of Ursula Thorpe; Sir Peter Norton-Griffiths, 2nd Baronet; Phoebe Joynson and Captain Michael Norton-Griffiths

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:

About Sir John Norton-Griffiths, 1st Baronet,_1st_Baronet

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Norton-Griffiths, 1st Baronet KCB DSO (13 July 1871 – 27 September 1930) was an engineer, soldier during the Second Boer War and World War I, and later a British Member of Parliament.

Early life

John Norton-Griffiths was born in Somerset on 13 July 1871. The son of John Griffiths, a clerk of works at St Audries Manor Estate, West Quantoxhead.[1] He had an unsettled youth and left home at the age of 17. After a generally wasted education he spent a year, in 1887-1888, as a trooper with the Life Guards.

Military career in Africa

On the outbreak of the Second Matabele War in 1896 he immediately enlisted in the in British South Africa Police and, presumably on the strength of his year with the Life Guards, he was given the rank of sergeant and command of a troop of scouts. He served in the Second Boer War, rising to Captain Adjutant to Lord Roberts' bodyguard.

Marriage and family

In 1901, Norton-Griffiths married Gwladys Wood. Together they had four children:

Ursula, who married John Thorpe, and was the mother of Jeremy Thorpe

Peter, who succeeded his father as 2nd Baronet


Michael, killed in action in World War II.

Engineer and MP

After the war, Norton-Griffiths was awarded contracts to carry out major engineering projects in Africa and South America. These included work on the first 197 km of the Benguela Railway in Angola between 1903 and 1908. He was elected to Parliament in 1910 and was until 1918 the Conservative Party's MP for Wednesbury, Staffordshire. From 1918 until 1924 he was the Conservative MP for the Wandsworth Central constituency, London.

World War I

In 1914 at the start of World War I he raised the 2nd King Edward's Horse at his own expense and was commissioned Major in the regiment. Using the experience from a successful engineering career, Norton-Griffiths built many fortifications for the Entente on the Western Front. An enigmatic figure, Norton-Griffiths took to touring the trenches in a battered Rolls-Royce loaded with crates of fine wines.

Early mine warfare, started in 1915 by the blowing or 'lifting' of two tunnels under British trenches, causing psychological turmoil and burying surprised tommies under then weak trenchwork. Norton-Griffiths immediately recruited all 'clay kickers' from mines in the north of England, using his carte-blanche to cull such skilled men from regular infantry. Forming the first units of the Royal Engineer tunnelling companies resulted in a method to dig tunnels at a rate of 8m per day compared to the Germans' 2m. This led to a massive campaign in the Ypres salient culminating in the 7 June 1917 3:10 am detonation of more than ten tonnes of Ammonal under the German high ground at Hill 60. The effect resulted in an earthquake that split the ground under the entire hill with white flames shooting into the sky, while the concrete pillboxes and occupying soldiers came down for hundreds of yards in all directions. The explosion resulted in a 70 ft deep crater, with surrounded trenches sandwiched shut so fast soldiers were crushed still in the standing positions. The resulting terror caused the Germans to retreat and the castigation of Tunnelmaster Otto von Fusslein. Following this 'Empire Jack' was sent elsewhere.

Perhaps his most-important contribution came when he was sent to sabotage the Romanian oil fields ahead of a German advance early in the war. Colonel Norton-Griffiths used such techniques as dumping cement down the wells, filling tanks with nails, and emptying storage wells and then setting them on fire. He was able, almost single-handedly, to destroy seventy refineries and 8,000 tons of crude oil. General Ludendorff of the German army was later quoted as saying, We must attribute our shortages to him. German efforts later got some of the Romanian fields back online for the war effort, but they were never able to recover fully. This difficulty led to their priority of securing Romania as an ally of Adolf Hitler in World War II.

He was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel in 1918 (although he had temporarily also held the rank in 1916), awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916 and made a baronet in 1922.

Sir John was a keen supporter of Liverpool football club and was a director of Arsenal Football Club between 1928 and 1930.

Last years in Egypt

In Egypt in 1928 he became involved in the scheme to heighten the Aswan Dam, at which point his good fortune deserted him and funds ran out.

On 27 September 1930, Sir John donned his bathing costume as he did every morning, and took a rowboat from the beach of the Casino Hotel near Alexandria, Egypt. Sometime later, the boat was found empty, and a search party was launched. They soon retrieved Sir John's body, floating in the water, with a bullet wound through the temple. No weapon was found, but the coroner's court gave a verdict of suicide, although suggestions of murder (possibly by Romanians) also circulated. His body was brought back to England and he was buried at Mickleham Church, Surrey, on 18 October 1930. He was just over 59 years of age.

His widow Gwladys survived him until her death, aged 101, in 1974.

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Sir John Norton-Griffiths, 1st Baronet's Timeline

Age 32
Age 34
November 16, 1906
Age 35
Age 37
Age 59