William Alfred Norton, Anglican priest and accomplished philologist, studied at Exeter College, University of Oxford, where he was awarded the degrees BA, MA and B.Lit, the latter for a thesis on philology. It is possible that he first came to South Africa in or before 1892 and settled in Grahamstown, for in March 1892 "Reverend Mr Norton" was elected a member of the committee of the Albany Natural History Society, Grahamstown. The society had been re-established in 1890, but in October 1892 it became the Natural History Branch of the Eastern Province Literary and Scientific Society.
Norton was ordained in 1896 and worked in Cornwall until 1903, when he was sent to South and East Africa as a missionary. In 1907 "Father Norton" was a missionary of the Society of the Sacred Mission stationed at Modderpoort (10 km north of Ladybrand) in the Orange River Colony (now the Free State), where he traced and photographed some remarkable rock paintings for the South African Museum, Cape Town. That same year he became a corresponding member of the Philosophical Society of the Orange River Colony (Bloemfontein, 1903-1914). In that society's list of members, dated October 1908, his address is given as Thlotse, Basutoland (probably Hlotse, an alternative name for Leribe, Lesotho, some 60 km north-east of Modderpoort). However, the Modderpoort region was where his scientific interests were focussed. At the annual congress of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science held in Bloemfontein in 1909 he delivered no less than seven papers, though he was not a member at that time. All seven were published in the association's Report for 1909. Two of these papers dealt specifically with Modderpoort: "A description of the Modderpoort neighbourhood one hundred years ago" (pp. 114-117), and "Bushmen and their relics near Modderpoort" (pp. 242-244). His other five papers dealt with the Bantu-speaking people of South Africa: "Early geography of South Africa and its bearing on Bantu ethnography" (pp. 253-254), "Bearing of Bantu philology on early Bantu life" (pp. 302-305), "Native star names" (pp. 306-309), "Sesuto songs and music" (pp. 314-316), and "The South African natives as illustrating primitive European folk-custom" (pp. 406-417).
Norton left the Free State in 1910 and was stationed in East Africa for a year or two. Throughout his career he actively participated in the translation and revision of the Bible and other religious works in various local languages. Among the papers he contributed to the Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in later years were "The study of South African native languages" (1914), "Sesuto etymology" (1917), "Stenography as an aid to the phonetic analysis and comparison of African languages" (1917), and "A philological method of exhibiting classical declensions and conjugations" 1918). He became a member of the association in 1915 (after the Philosophical Society of the Orange River Colony had become a branch of the association the previous year) and served as president of Section E in 1918. That year he was appointed as lecturer in Greek at the newly established University of Cape Town, where he was appointed as its first professor of Bantu philology in 1920. Among his later publications was a paper on "Plants of Bechwanaland" in the journal Man (1923), dealing with plant names in use among the indigenous population. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1924.
Norton left the University of Cape Town in 1925 to become the principal of St Paul's Theological College in Mauritius. He returned to Cape Town in 1928 and remained there until his retirement in 1950. Then, at the age of eighty, he undertook a tour of England and continental Europe.
Collections of Norton's scrapbooks, letters and other documents are housed in the libraries of the University of South Africa, the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand, as well as in the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town.