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The History of the Book

In the 31st edition, the "story behind the Guinness book" is told for the first time. Whilst this story is often repeated, we have no way of knowing if it is entirely accurate or a slightly romanticised version of events. Nevertheless, it explains how the books came into being, and gives some clues as to the character of the founder editors:

"On an unknown date in November 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver (1890-1967) was out shooting on Slob Hill, by the river Slaney in County Wexford in the south-east of Ireland. Some golden plovers were missed by the party. That evening at Castleford House it was realized that it was not possible to confirm in reference books whether or not the golden plover was Europe's fastest game bird. It occurred to Sir Hugh, managing director of the Guinness Breweries, that there must be numerous other questions debated nightly in the 81,400 pubs in Britain and in Ireland, but there was no book with which to settle arguments about records."

"On 12 September 1954, Sir Hugh invited Norris and Ross McWhirter to see if their fact and figure agency in London could help. An office was set up at 107 Fleet Street and intense work began on the first slim 198 page edition. The printers bound the first copy on 27 August 1955. Well before Christmas the Guinness Book was No. 1 on the bestsellers list."

The 32nd edition gives the day of the hunting party as Saturday 10th November 1951, the location as "The North Slob", the name of the house as "Castlebridge House" and adds, "In August 1954 argument arose as to whether grouse were even faster".

So which is faster? Given that the question was the reason for the creation of the book, it is odd that a partial answer isn't given until the 36th edition in 1989 (some 35 years later): "Britain's fastest game bird is the Red Grouse (Lagopus l. scoticus) which, in still air, has recorded burst speeds up to 92.8-100.8 km/h 58-63 mph over very short distances. Air speeds up to 112 km/h 70 mph have been claimed for the Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) when flushed, but it is extremely doubtful whether this rapid-flying bird can exceed 80-88 km/h 50-55 mph - even in an emergency".

In the 39th edition, it states that, "On 12 September 1954, Norris and Ross McWhirter, then running a fact finding agency in London, were invited to the Guinness Brewery at Park Royal in north west London to discuss the proposition that a collection of records should be published, and they so impressed the Guinness Board that they were immediately commissioned to follow it through".

The 42nd edition further expands the story by noting that, "Chris Chataway, the record-breaking athlete, was then an underbrewer at Guinness' Park Royal Brewery. When he heard of Sir Hugh's idea, he recommended the ideal people to produce the book - the twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, whom he had met through athletics events, both having won their Blues for sprinting at Oxford".

Guinness Time staff magazine, Autumn 1953

More details of the book's beginnings can be found in the Christmas 1955 edition of the Guinness Time staff magazine (Volume Nine, Number One), which includes an article written by Norris McWhirter :

"My first intimation that a book of this kind was contemplated was a 'phone call from Chris Chataway ..."

Dr. A. H. HughesW. E. Phillips"My twin brother (20 minutes younger) and myself were summoned to lunch at Park Royal. As a result, it was decided that an ad hoc subsidiary was to be set up with a view to collating all the data required, compiling, printing, publishing, publicizing and distributing a book to be called 'The Guinness Book of Records'. E. L. Kidd was made responsible for getting things started. Dr. A. H. Hughes (left) who had been made a Director during an absence in the United States, was made Chairman and W. E. Phillips (right) also joined the Board. Offices were taken in Fleet Street and Peter Page and Miss Anne Boulter joined me as Manager and Secretary, while G. W. Tewkesbury ably attended to the formation side of the new Company."

Norris McWhirter"Letters began to pour forth addressed to astrophysicists, physiologists, zoologists, meteorologists, vulcanologists, botanists, ornithologists, microlepidopterists, concologists, virologists, economists, numismatists, criminologists, etimologists, incunabulists, campinologists, gemmologists, metrologists, pryphologists, toxicologists, spelæologists, malocologists, herpetologists, hagiologists, horologists, mycologists, and gerontologists."

Norris goes on to say that after the information gathering phase, the book was written in "thirteen-and-a-half 90-hour weeks which took in Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays". The copy date was 30th June, with a publication date of October 3rd 1955.

"By dint of prodigies of work by Gordon Brooke, our good friend of F. Howard Doulton & Co. Ltd., the printers, the first impression of 50,000 copies, weighing 44.7 tons, was delivered on schedule."

In another account, Norris McWhirter noted in the second Guinness Gold Club Newsletter that:

"Like so many things in life The Guinness Book of Records began with a phone call. It was early in September 1954 when Christopher Chataway made a call to the Fact and Figure Agency, McWhirter Twins Ltd., on the top floor of 15 Great James Street, London WC1."

He goes on to say, "The reason for his call was that his first job after graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford was with the Guinness Brewery at Park Royal on the western edge of London. He had just had breakfast in the staff house[1] there with the Managing Director who, being a widower for more than 20 years, often stayed at Park Royal during the week before going down to Luxford in Sussex for weekends with his two daughters and grandchildren. This was Sir Hugh Beaver KBE (1890-1967) who was twice renowned - first as the wartime Director-General of the Ministry of Works who built the famous floating Mulberry Harbour of the D-Day landings, and secondly as the Chairman of the Royal Commission on Air Pollution."

[1] Known as "Bodiam".

"It was Sir Hugh who wanted a book to settle arguments in Great Britain's and Ireland's then 84,000 'pubs'. That is why my late twin brother Ross and I were summoned to a boardroom lunch at Park Royal. It was there that the plan for The Guinness Book of Records was hatched. I remember the date was Tuesday, 14th September, 1954 because it was our father's last birthday. At the lunch I recall that Sir Hugh ate only an apple and a few nuts."

From the 1st edition of Sterling Publishing's Guinness Magazine (and Norris McWhirter's book, "Ross" [SBN 902782-24-X Churchill Press 1976], which he wrote shortly after his brother's death), we get a slightly different account:

"On 12 September 1954 Ross and I drove together to Park Royal, an impressive 54-acre layout which even had level crossings and traffic lights within a complex dominated by three massive brick-built buildings. We were met by the directors' messenger and taken along to the board dining room where there was a considerable turn-out of directors but no other guests. Sir Hugh seemed to be gently but firmly in command...."

"I soon noticed that Sir Hugh ate only an apple and chewed a few nuts, and did not even partake of the velvet-smooth draught Guinness served in silver tankards. He seemed intrigued with the gusto with which I attacked a delicious piece of steak."

"Ross and I were asked the records for a number of what to us were fairly simple categories, such as filibustering and pole-squatting."

After some more questions and discussions:

"Sir Hugh seemed to decide that he had discovered people with the right kind of quirkish mind for producing the book, which he now resolved should be published under the Guinness imprint. Quite suddenly he said: 'We are going to set up a publishing subsidiary. Which one of you is to be Managing Director?' Ross explained that he had a job in Fleet Street and I would be better placed to take on the assignment. Sir Hugh, who was by now anxious to get off to another appointment, merely added: 'Before you leave go up and see the accountant and tell him how much money you need' "

Suddenly faced with a monumental task, the twins decided on an unusual approach to gathering enough accurate data for the first edition:

"When writing to an expert they did not ask for a direct bit of information, but stated a fact that they figured might be close enough to being right and asked the expert to correct it. 'We found that people who have a total resistance to giving information often have an irresistible desire to correct other people's impressions' "

Guinness Superlatives Limited was incorporated on 30 November 1954. The first copy of the first edition was in their hands on August 27th, 1955. Despite its low price (5 shillings), it was not an immediate success: some 50,000 copies had been printed and the first call to W. H. Smith produced an order for a mere 6 copies. However, the response from others was far better and within two hours W. H. Smith rang with an order for 100 copies. Later in the afternoon, this was increased to 1,000 and then to 10,000 by the end of the first week.

The book was reprinted 3 times and when sales reached 187,000 Guinness called a halt so that an updated and more realistically priced edition could be published the following Autumn. The second edition was priced at 9 shillings and sixpence, sold over 100,000 copies in rapid order and was sold out by Christmas.

In an entry in The Guinness Book of Guinness, Norris McWhirter gives "the various homes of Guinness Superlatives" as follows:

1954-56 Ludgate House, 107 Fleet Street, EC4
1957-58 1 Temple Gardens, The Temple, EC4
1958-63 22 Chancery Lane, EC4
1963 55 St. James's Street, SW1
1963-67 Berk House, Baker Street
1967-69 24 Upper Brook Street, W1
1969-85 2 Cecil Court, London Road, Enfield
1985- 33 London Road, Enfield

Norris and Ross McWhirter edited the book from 1955 until Ross's death on 27 November 1975. Norris McWhirter continued to edit the Guinness Book of Records until he handed over the editorship to Alan Russell on 31 March 1986. Norris finally "retired" from the book in 1996, and died of a heart attack on 19 April 2004. Further information is available at http://www.norrismcwhirter.com/.

Guinness Superlatives Limited changed its name to Guinness Publishing Limited on 17 September 1990, and then to Guinness World Records Limited on 1 July 1999. Diageo (the owners of Guinness) sold the Guinness World Records book publishing business to Gullane Entertainment in 2001. Gullane was itself sold to HIT Entertainment in 2002.

In December 2007, Guinness World Records was again up for sale, and was bought by the Jim Pattison Group for £60 million in February 2008.