John Norton was born in Birmingham on 26 November 1801. At the age of 14, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and sailed to Saint Helena, reaching the island in mid-1816, when Napoleon was in residence. Norton was chosen, with two others, to do some work in the emperor’s garden and on one occasion Napoleon sent his guards to give him and his fellow workers wine and biscuits. Returning home, he enlisted in the Honourable East India Company's Artillery as a mechanic, sailing for Bombay in December 1819 where he was appointed to the gun carriage factory. His evenings were often spent at a Mrs King’s house. A young lodger there was Anne MacKenzie and the couple married on 18 June 1822.
In 1825, new Mint equipment had arrived in Bombay from Birmingham, made by Boulton and Watt of Birmingham. When a man who was employed in the assembly of the Mint died, Norton was offered the position. He was eventually promoted to a position where he managed all the native workmen. A die multiplier at the Mint then died, and Norton was proposed to fill the vacancy, for which he would have to be discharged from the Army. His wife, Anne, died in 1830. He married his second wife, Margaret, in April 1831.
Norton could not get on with the new manager of the mint and, on 4 January 1834, he and his family left for England. Meanwhile, in Lisbon in February 1834, an agent from London encouraged the Portuguese government to purchase a steam-powered Mint like that used by the Royal Mint in London. A year later a contract was signed between the Portuguese Government and the British company of Willcox & Andersen, to establish the Mint in Lisbon. The equipment was to come from the same company that had supplied the Bombay Mint, and Norton was chosen as one of those to go to Lisbon to install it, even though, according to his diary, he was quite happy in England. It was only the high salary offered that persuaded him to go.
After a month in London and 21 days at sea, he arrived at Belém with his family, only to discover that the accommodation proposed by the local agent was of very poor quality. He eventually found a place he considered suitable, run by an Englishwoman, but had to go out to buy his own beds.
Installation of the Mint ran into numerous problems and the work was much criticised by the government. In the end, all of those recruited to do the work left Lisbon, apart from Norton, described as “among all the English who came in that great import of workers and machinists, the only one who had practice, and who knew his trade”. His skills were soon recognised and he was often called on to provide advice to other sites with steam engines, where the technicians had run into difficulties. He also taught over thirty naval apprentices. This led to a contract with the government in 1837 specifying his role as an installer and repairer of mechanical equipment and as a trainer. In 1841 he also managed to obtain a job for his 14-year-old son, William, as a machinist.
All was not plain sailing, however. A Portuguese rival tricked Norton to join a ship waiting to sail to England so that he could say farewell to a friend. The rival then sailed off leaving Norton stuck on the ship with no means of returning to the banks of the Tagus. It was only with difficulty that he persuaded the pilot to allow him to join his vessel. Norton arrived home to find his wife in tears as she had been told he had sailed for England.
The family returned to England in 1838 but shortly after Norton was offered a contract to return to Lisbon to direct the coin production. He worked on successive two-year contracts but in 1849 resolved to return home for good. However, the government gave him a permanent contract and made him a Captain in the Navy in 1852 because of his service in the armoury. This both ensured he would have a pension and gave him authority over those he worked with. He became Inspector-General of Machinery in Portugal
Margaret Norton died in April 1862. Norton died in Lisbon on 27 June 1876. They were buried in the same plot at the British Cemetery. In addition to William, from his first marriage, he had several children with Margaret. Their son, John, became a Captain in the Portuguese Navy. Several other children stayed in Portugal.
Main source: Extracts from a Contemporary Englishman’s Unpublished Autobiography. Mrs E. Watson. Historical Association, Lisbon Branch. Sixth Annual Report 1942
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