PROFESSOR George Norton – who do you think you are?

He said he was a magician, a sign-writer, an army officer, a multi-linguist, a tattooist, an inventor and even a killer. He said he was born to live in a castle, but he ended his days in 1953 in a council house in Crook.

“There’s a lot of mystery behind him and it is difficult to find out what is true,” says his grandson Geoff Carter, “but he was certainly a man of many parts.”

Memories 239 called him “a magical man of mystery”. But a fortnight later, we know much more, courtesy of his many descendants who tell a story which has been handed down with amazing consistency.

But how much of that story is another of his illusions is difficult to say.

The illusion begins with Millom Castle, a romantic 13th Century ruin on the west Cumbrian coast near Barrow-in-Furness, which was owned for hundreds of years by the Huddleston family.

Professor Norton was a Huddleston, but he said his upper class family disowned his father after a lowly marriage in the 1870s. Then, when his father died of TB, the professor and his mother were left alone – until she remarried Mr Norton, who was apparently the Lord Lieutenant of Liverpool.

But the Lord Lieutenant was violent towards the boy, so George ran away to the circus.

Not any old circus, mind, but Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus. He taught himself magic, and became so good that he toured with Buffalo Bill around Europe and then the US. He was over there when the First World War broke out, so he joined the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia, stationed in Archangel. He became fluent in Russian, to go with the French, German and Arabic that he was already able to converse in.

After the war, he returned to Britain and joined Sir Robert Fossett’s circus in Ireland.

His first wife was a tattooed lady from the circus, and one night while they were walking in a park, they were set upon by ruffians. The professor bravely came to the tattooed lady’s aid, killing her assailant.

The local police accepted it was self-defence, but the dead man was in the IRA. The police advised George to leave Ireland at once for his own safety, and so he fled. There wasn’t even time for him to collect the tattooed lady as he rushed to County Durham to start a new life.

Or so the story goes...

Much of the story, as fantastical as it sounds, has elements of truth to it. The Huddlestons did once own Millom; Buffalo Bill was the hottest ticket in Europe in the late 1880s; Sir Robert Fossell’s circus did have connections to Buffalo Bill; the professor was, by all accounts, a brilliant magician and linguist.

But there are holes – for example, there never has been a Lord Lieutenant of Liverpool.

Now, following our appeal for help a fortnight ago, genealogist Margaret Hedley, of Wheatley Hill, has been searching for facts amid the fantasy.

Her research so far suggests that the professor was indeed a Huddleston – but without any upper crust connections. His father, John, was a humble iron dresser from Blackburn, and rather than being kicked out of a castle for a lowly marriage, he appeared in court in 1880 for deserting his wife and five children, the youngest of whom was two-year-old George.

This family break-up may explain why in the 1891 census Margaret found George Huddleston living as an “inmate of The Bolton and County of Lancaster Certified Industrial School”.

Industrial schools were set up by 19th Century social reformers to keep vulnerable children away from a life of crime. Boarders were often orphans, and may already have committed an offence.

After the 1891 entry, though, George Huddleston seems not to have bothered the official record-takers for 40 years until he got married in 1929. Now calling himself George Norton, he re-appeared living in Freville Street, Shildon, when he tied the knot at Bishop Auckland Register Office to Martha Phyllis Oakes, who came from Rotherham, and was 20 years his junior.

Where had he been for 40 years? Could he have runaway to the circus and become an internationally renowned magician? Could he have fought in Siberia? Could he have killed a man in Ireland, forcing him to lie low and change his name?

Can anyone fill in the blanks?

After his marriage, George’s life was no less entertaining and nearly as exciting. To support Phyllis and their seven children, by day he worked as an artistic sign-writer and by night as a magician and illusionist.

“He was a clever but eccentric man,” remembers Reg Tallentire of Tow Law, whose father employed George in 1933 at his Bishop Auckland coachworks, and gave him a caravan at Toft Hill.

“His children lived in there, too,” says Reg. “He wanted them to be named after aristocracy, and he managed to get his son christened Lord John Norton. He tried to get his daughter named Lady somethingorother, but the registrar refused.”

Another of his sons was christened Barron Huddleston, and went through life known as “Barry”, and one of his daughters is called Ladye Gloria – she still lives in Richmond, in North Yorkshire.

Reg remembers that George was a brilliant signwriter – but not so good at spelling. “We built a mobile shoeshop for Halsteads of Richmond, to go round the farms. We finished it in maroon and George had painted ‘C Halsteads & Sons, Richmond’ on the side in gold leaf and it looked great,” he says. “My brother, who was still at the King James school in Bishop Auckland, came home and said: ‘Isn’t there an h in Richmond?’

“George was never allowed to forget it.”

At night, “Professor George Norton” performed as a magician at private parties at big houses.

“He was engaged by Lady Chaytor at Witton Castle and did an illusion in a corner of the cellar,” remembers Reg. “He had a woman standing there, and before your eyes, as you watched, she changed into a skeleton and back again.”

After five years, George left the Tallentires and took his family to Poplar Terrace in Roddymoor, and he worked as a signwriter in Crook.

Harry Wailes, of Howden-le-Wear, says: “I’m 87, and I remember a new pupil started at Crook school called John Norton. He said his dad was a professor who did conjuring tricks. We didn’t believe him, so he took us down to where he was painting.”

At the start of the war, a travelling fair became stranded in Crook when its wagons were requisitioned by the Government. The professor was employed to jazz up what was now a static fairground.

“He was painting those galloping horses, dodgem cars, shuggy boats, waltzers and all the canopies around them,” says Harry. “He was very good.”

Trevor Carroll of Roddymoor remembers: “He asked my uncle if he had a picture of a horse to paint on the back of a cart. Uncle told him to buy a packet of Bar One cigarettes, which had a horse looking through a horseshoe. He did, and when the painting was finished, the horse looked so real you could even see the hair on its mane.”

Another of the professor’s lucrative sidelines was tattooing – he, apparently, invented an electric tattooing machine. Soldiers came to him from Brancepeth Castle camp.

“A county councillor, Len O’Donnell, told me that he had tattoos done by Professor Norton,” says Trevor. “You selected the design from a book and he drew it freehand with ink.”

As the war wore on, prisoners of war were stationed at Harperley camp, and the professor was drafted in to communicate with them, thanks to his ability to speak German.

And then there were his tricks. “American soldiers came into a pub in Crook and started to hand out cigarettes,” says Trevor. “When they got to Professor Norton, he asked if he could have two.

“‘Sure, buddy,’ the Yank replied.

“Professor Norton then began to pull cigarettes out of their ears, their noses, their collars and other places. The Yanks did not know what had hit them.”

The professor died in 1953 and is buried in Crook cemetery with “Norton” on his headstone.

“The family never knew how old he was,” says his grandson Paul Carter. “My mother said that when he went to draw his pension, he was told he should have had it ten years earlier.”

His widow, Phyllis, moved to Darlington where she died in 1983. She too is buried in Crook, only with “Huddleston” on her headstone.

Clearly, Professor Norton told some fantastic stories and lived an extraordinary life – whoever he really thought he was.

BLOB With thanks to everyone who has been in touch, particularly his grandsons Geoff and Paul Carter in Blackpool, and to researcher Margaret Hedley. Does anyone know if a mural the professor painted in his hall in Poplar Terrace still exists? Any more professor stories?