Martha Norton, the Well Woman of Buxton

You may have seen the new apps that the Collections in the Landscape team are trialling. The Buxton Spa one tells of the historic spa and drinking well.

Historically, visitors to Buxton were encouraged to both bathe in the thermal waters (at 82 degrees Fahrenheit, hardly even warm!) and to drink the water, which was doled out by the well women. The Pump Room dates from 1894, and replaced a modest Georgian building placed nearer the Old Hall, at the foot of Hall Bank. The elegant vase was moved to the pediment of the university’s Dome, and is now on the well in the Market Place.

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Dr Granville visited Buxton on his tour of English spas in 1839. While having some good things to say about Buxton, he objected to the ‘venerable’ attendants who handed out the drinking waters, and to the penny tip which was expected, since the well women received no other payment. He suggested the attendants should be younger (but not that they should be properly remunerated!).

Well – he may have had a point. The museum has just purchased this hand coloured etching of Martha Norton, aged 90 in October 1820. For over 50 years she was one of the attendants at Buxton well, so she was young once!  Her name is recorded in the Vestry Book as an attendant at St Anne’s well in 1775. Was she the daughter of Dr Norton of Macclesfield who attended to visitors in Buxton?  

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The engraving is by Henry Robertson from a portrait by D. Orme which (according to the engraving) is in possession of the Duke of Devonshire. On the reverse in pencil someone has noted that you could buy copies from No 7 Hall Bank, The Well and Post Office in Buxton.

This is not the only image of Martha Norton in the museum’s collection. She was obviously a celebrity in the town. The water colourist John Nixon painted her towards the end of his own life – he died in 1818, at the relatively youthful age of 68! Here she is with a mug in one hand and a clay pipe in the other – water (or something stronger?) and tobacco. She obviously had a favourite hat and favoured wearing a scarf wrapped around her shoulders – necessary in the famous Buxton weather. She has sparkly blue eyes, and a more slender face than the engravings, but each image shows an unsightly growth on the side of her lip.

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The museum also has an engraving by Bottomley.  This was given to the collection over 80 years ago. On the back it someone has written that she was 88 and it shows that Martha Norton was  ”herself proof of Buxton’s salubrious spring”.

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And finally there is this miniature, which was given to the museum by HRP Lomas who ran the Buxton Spa Hotel in the early 20th century. He had a great interest in the history of the town and was a generous benefactor to the museum. Martha Norton still wears her linen bonnet with its frill, but has left off her hat. Again, her piercing blue eyes look out at us, an image of an active old age nearly 200 years ago.

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5 thoughts on “Martha Norton, the Well Woman of Buxton

  1. Pingback: Martha Norton, the Well Woman of Buxton | Enlightenment!

  2. Pingback: Done the app? Well, now see the objects! | Collections in the Landscape

  3. Pingback: Fortunate Finds | Uphilldowndale

  4. Pingback: Portraits of a lady | Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

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