Hensleigh Carthew Marryat Norris, known as Car, was born in Hunterville, Rangitikei, on 12 March 1893, the son of land agent John Hensleigh Norris and his wife, Ida Helen Carthew. He was educated at Hunterville School and New Plymouth High School, where he was dux in 1909. Joining his parents on their farmlet at Te Rapa, near Hamilton, he worked as a law clerk at Gillies and Gilfillan, and qualified as a solicitor in 1915. He served in France as a gunner with the 1st Brigade, New Zealand Field Artillery, from 1917 until the end of the First World War. Back in Hamilton he joined the Regiment of New Zealand Artillery, Territorial Force, becoming a lieutenant in 1925.
Norris hung up his shingle in Hamilton in 1919. Two years later he was admitted to the Bar, and was joined in practice by his cousin Alec Meldrum for a decade. He gradually built up business, partly by making contacts through his involvement in community affairs. He was honorary secretary of the Waikato RSA (1922–44) and president (1945–47), and his energetic committee work was recognised in 1944 by his receiving life membership. He acted, often at no charge, for many of those members who were settled on farmland. In 1938 he was appointed secretary of the Hamilton District Law Society, a position he held until 1957, when he began a two-year term as president.
His dedicated service to the Anglican church had begun with election to the vestry of St Peter’s in 1922, and appointment as its secretary four years later. He participated, as acting solicitor, in the creation of the diocese of Waikato before being appointed chancellor by Bishop C. A. Cherrington in 1927; he was to hold the position until 1971. A stalwart supporter of the controversial high-church bishop in a low-church diocese, Norris successfully arbitrated when differences of opinion arose.
During the Second World War Captain Norris served in the Home Guard as group signals officer and then in the Hamilton Battalion. After the war he invited a returning wartime intelligence officer, A. G. (Joe) Ward, to join him in a legal partnership. While Norris, a notary public from 1936, was described as the brains behind the business, the outgoing Ward was primarily responsible for obtaining clients and appearing in court. Increasing business prompted the admission of further partners: Ross Jansen in 1958, John Webb in 1962 and Murray Bindon in 1970. Norris eventually retired in 1972.
In 1954 Norris founded the Waikato Historical Society, and was president for most of its first four years. He frequently addressed monthly meetings, commentated at slide shows, guided field trips and gave talks to visitors. Reward came with honorary life membership and the office of joint patron. He was closely associated with moves by the historical society, Waikato Museum Society and others to set up a museum in Hamilton. A room in the historical society’s folk museum, Hockin House, is named after him. On 30 April 1955, at the age of 62, he married children’s home matron Miriam Isabella Makgill at Bishopscourt Chapel, Hamilton.
In 1956 Norris helped establish the Waikato regional committee of the National Historic Places Trust, which he chaired until 1975 (when he was made honorary life member). One of his numerous projects – to research the site of the signing of the covenant of peace between Wiremu Tamihana and Brigadier General George Carey in 1865 – finally came to fruition when a noticeboard was unveiled at Tamahere in 1991. On his death the H. C. M. Norris Memorial Trust was set up to support lectures, research and publications on Waikato history.
His crowning achievement, the two books Armed settlers (1956) and Settlers in depression (1964), remain the standard authorities on Hamilton history between 1864 and 1894. They were meticulously researched and the details carefully selected. The principal sources (albeit incompletely referenced) were newspapers and personal informants (including some Maori), along with official archives for the earlier chronicle. They were plainly and precisely written, and, unusually for local histories of the time, devoid of myth and rhetoric. He also wrote two booklets which combined his church and historical interests, History of the Anglican Church at Hamilton, 1843–1964 and A history of the diocese of Waikato, 1926–1976 .
Norris’s other interests included the New Zealand Founders’ Society, The Elms Trust, the Polynesian Society and tennis, and he regularly relaxed at the Hamilton Club on Friday nights. A reserved and unassuming man of the highest integrity, he possessed a dry sense of humour and enjoyed a drop of whisky. Sensitive and considerate, he generously obliged enquirers with historical information but could exhibit strong powers of persuasion. He was made a QSO in 1975. Car Norris died at home in Hamilton on 3 September 1980, survived by his wife, Miriam. He was cremated at Hamilton Park cemetery, Newstead.