Charlotte Norman Derbyshire well-dressing collection

Ref: 97-015

Title: Charlotte Norman Derbyshire well-dressing collection

Scope: The collection comprises manuscript, printed, photographic and audio items relating in the main to Charlotte Norman’s interest and academic research into the Derbyshire well-dressing custom. It also contains a number of academic folklore text books and journals, magazines, transparencies and photographs of corn dollies, canal boat art and Derbyshire calendar customs other than well-dressings.

Dates: 1834-1987
Level: Fonds
Extent: 69 boxes, audio-cassettes and volumes
Name of creator: Charlotte Norman

Administrative / biographical history:

The collection includes manuscript, printed, photographic and audio items relating in the main to Charlotte Norman’s interest and academic research into the Derbyshire well-dressing custom. It also contains a number of academic folklore text books and journals, magazines, transparencies and photographs of corn dollies, canal boat art and Derbyshire calendar customs other than well-dressings.

This substantial archive comprises items gathered during two periods of research into the Derbyshire custom of well-dressing (the decoration of a well or spring with pictures created from flowers and greenery and held in screens constructed of wood and clay). It was whilst visiting Buxton in the summer of 1972 that Charlotte Norman, an American by birth and at that time called Charlotte Johnson, first became acquainted with the well-dressing custom. Here she saw:

"An imposing structure about eight feet high that had been erected around and behind the well. This screen contained a flower mosaic of startling brilliance and surprising complexity. If this were a typical well-dressing, the custom might represent a little known form of folk art that would be worthy of further investigation."

Charlotte Norman left Buxton “convinced that the Derbyshire well-dressings offered a unique subject for a thesis.” During the remainder of that summer she returned several times to Buxton, making it the base from which she visited well-dressings in Derbyshire villages. This preliminary work indicated to her that “well-dressing as practised in some of the villages of Derbyshire is an art, craft and custom unique to that area.” Having been granted a three-month leave of absence from her position as Registrar at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, fieldwork and further research were conducted over a three-month period in the summer of 1973. This centred on the town of Buxton and village of Youlgreave, but also involved visiting twenty-three villages with an active well-dressing tradition at that time. Such work had three stated purposes:

  • To record by means of observation, participation, interview and photography the methods, materials and techniques used in the preparation of the Derbyshire well-dressing screens;
  • To attempt to trace the historical background of well-dressing in Derbyshire, to ascertain how it has been preserved in this restricted area and whether or not there is hope for its survival in the future;
  • To determine the religious, social and economic significance of the custom of well-dressing in the villages that practice it and in the county of Derbyshire as a whole.

This research contributed to a master’s degree in Folklore, for which she was studying in the graduate division of the University of California at Berkeley. Two photocopies of her completed thesis, ‘Derbyshire Well-Dressing: Folklore and Art’ (undated, but probably submitted to Berkeley in 1974/1975), are held in this archive.

Charlotte Norman’s interest in well-dressings continued beyond the completion of her thesis, and it is evident from the large number of colour transparencies in the collection (approximately 1800) that she continued recording photographically the Derbyshire well-dressing custom throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

It was during the early part of the 1980s that Charlotte Norman’s second major phase of collecting took place. This was fresh research, building on her earlier work, which she hoped would lead to a PhD degree. During this phase she undertook extensive research in the offices of Derbyshire newspapers, dictating onto audiocassettes articles relating to well-dressings and well-blessing ceremonies covering the period 1834-1963. She also undertook the creation of several indexes, relating to the geographical location of well-dressings and their subject and title. At this time she was collecting printed material relating to the custom, including contemporary newspaper articles, pamphlets, posters, postcards and smaller ephemeral items. Charlotte Norman’s research was cut short by her death in 1988.

  • Source: By donation
  • System of arrangement: By category
  • Subjects: Well-dressing
  • Names: Norman, Charlotte
  • Conditions of access: Available to all researchers, by appointment
  • Restrictions: None
  • Copyright: According to document
  • Finding aids: Listed