MEMORIALS OF MR GEORGE NORTON,
OF BARTON FABIS
George Norton's Headstone, Barton in the Beans
© Copyright & Courtesy of Derek Meller, 2004
"The memory of the just is blessed." To record the worth, and perpetuate the excellences of the pious dead, is a duty which survivors owe both to them, and to the living. It renders a just and affectionate tribute to the memory of the former, and supplies the latter with the advantage of useful examples. One of the most interesting and edifying chapters in the history of the church is that which describes the holy lives, the patient sufferings, and happy deaths of the servants of the Most High.
George Norton, one of these faithful servants, was born Jan. 31, 1797, at Cauldwell, near Burton-on-Trent, the native place of his father and grandfather. The Nortons were a numerous and excellent family, and, under God, were the means of extending the cause of Christ considerably in their neighbourhood. A hundred years ago, or less, it did not possess those religious privileges with which it has since been blessed. Many of the people went to Melbourne and Packington, to hear from the mouths of Francis Smith, and other distinguished Baptist preachers, that gospel which they thirsted for in vain at home. Nor did they go for naught: numbers heard to the saving of their souls, and were baptized, and added to the church. Among these was Joseph Norton, the father of the subject of this notice. Feeling concerned for the spiritual welfare of his neighbours, he opened his own house for preaching, and many soon found the gospel to be "the power of God" to salvation, of whom one was his own father. The grace of God in his heart produced the same solicitude for the spread of the gospel it had done in his son, so that he gave a piece of land for a chapel and burying ground. Here forty persons, chiefly of Cauldwell, who had previously belonged to the society at Melbourne, were formed into a church, and Mr Charles Norton, uncle to our departed friend, was the first minister. To Joseph and Anne Norton were born eleven children; of these George was the sixth son and the seventh in order of birth. Two of these died quite young; most, if not all the rest, became members at Cauldwell except George, and some of them became distinguished among the Baptists of that district. William Norton, one of George's brothers, after an interval of some years, succeeded his uncle in the pastorate; and Thomas, another brother, was the instrument of commencing and establishing the church at Burton.
When a child, George did not enjoy many educational advantages; but he possessed a fondness for learning which he displayed through life. Wordsworth's famous line was certainly verified in him, "The child is father to the man." Beyond the trifling cost of a dame school, his education did not cost his father a shilling. Until the age of ten or twelve he was much employed in domestic duties: but then waking up to a sense of his backwardness, deploring his want of education, and feeling certain that if he remained at home his condition in this respect would not improve, he left the parental roof to seek his fortunes in his own industry. With his earnings he put himself to school. After this he had several situations in farm or other service; but having little opportunity for mental and spiritual improvement, and having to spend his Sundays in a way he disliked, he adopted the trade of a shoe-maker, learning it from his uncle Thomas at Cauldwell.
Towards the close of 1817 he removed to Market Bosworth to pursue the same business with an uncle living there; but he soon came to Barton; here he stayed; and here he lived and laboured for 54 years. He had not been at Barton long before he was baptized and received into the church. This event took place in June, 1818. His conversion was a gradual one. From a child he was well disposed. To the instructions and influence of his mother he was largely indebted. Considering the piety of his family, the conversion and baptism of his grandfather and uncles, father and mother, brothers and sisters, it would have been singular if the heart of George had not opened to the same divine influences which had produced a saving change in them. If his actual conversion had not taken place before he left Cauldwell, the seeds had been there implanted in his soul, which ripened into fruit under the religious influences he found at Barton.
Here he worked at his trade for a time as a journeyman. There are still living a few who worked with him then, and they report that he was pious and industrious; bent on raising himself, not only in business, but also intellectually and spiritually.
In the course of two or three years he married, and assumed the cares of housekeeping and business for himself. Seeing the destitute condition of the village and neighbourhood, and encouraged by his friends, he now commenced a school, his pupils meeting in the shop in which he plied his trade. Some of his first scholars still survive, who relate amusing stories connected with his pursuit of the conjoined occupations of making and mending shoes, and teaching children the arts of reading, writing and arithmetic. But all speak of him with the greatest respect and affection. The blessing of God attending his industry; in a few years he bought a piece of ground and built for himself a small house, in which he pursued both his vocations, patiently, diligently, and successfully, until the year 1842.
That year and 1841 are memorable years in the history of Barton. In 1841 the original meeting-house, erected in 1745, gave place to a new, handsome, and commodious chapel. It still stands, but in point of convenience and comfort, it is now left far behind in the race of chapel improvement; but it is hoped the time is not far distant when it will receive the repairs and alterations so necessary for the comfort of both preachers and hearers. 1842 was distinguished by the commencement of the day school, and Mr Norton found a congenial situation in the post of master. Before he was fully settled in it, he was sent to the Borough Road training school, London, an event to which he looked back as one of the most interesting and important in his life. It proved of great and lasting benefit, fitting him more fully for that work of tuition to which he was now devoting himself.
The Barton school still exists, and has proved a very useful institution. Combining the advantages of elementary and middle class schools, its curriculum has included grammar, history, geography, and at some periods drawing and Latin. When formed it was much needed: for there were but few schools in the neighbourhood, and those which did exist were in no great repute; and such was the intolerance of those times that no children were received into them whose parents had not taken them to be sprinkled and named at the church font! Its establishment was hailed by numbers as a place of refuge, and it rapidly became, and long continued, a large and flourishing school. Its annual examinations grew in interest and attractiveness, and were attended by extraordinary numbers, so that it acquired a celebrity which drew pupils from places far and near. This necessitated our friend to take in boarders, of which he had for years a considerable number. Owing to the formation of new schools, and the improved character and more tolerant spirit of the old ones, the number of pupils is diminished, yet the school retains its popularity, and forms no unimportant contribution to the educational resources of this district. In this useful and honourable vocation Mr N. laboured for twenty-one years with unabated diligence and success, having, more or less, educated nearly a thousand pupils.
Nor were his labours restricted to the day school; he was for many years a Sunday school teacher and a preacher of the gospel. The Barton, church is a large and scattered one, meeting in different divisions, in many different chapels, and all of them being opened on the Lord's days and week-days too, there is ample employment for willing hearts and able hands. Brother Norton possessed these, happily, to a very good degree; so that there were few Sundays when he was not engaged in proclaiming the words of eternal life; moreover he was a frequent and acceptable preacher in many other places, and in some a regular supply.
In these congenial, laborious, and useful vocations, Mr N. spent the greatest part of his life. But in the sixty-seventh year of his age he began to feel himself physically unequal to his work. He had not lost his interest in teaching, or his aptitude to teach, or his fondness for children, but what he had lost was the constitutional ability which had distinguished him; therefore, in the summer of 1863, he resigned his mastership of the school. Having saved a small competency, he determined to retire and enjoy, during his remaining years, his well-earned repose. It was now thought by his friends that his useful life deserved some grateful recognition from those who had received the benefit of his work, and an appeal was forthwith made to his old pupils with the view of presenting him with a testimonial. Generously and warmly they responded to it, and he had the pleasure of receiving a handsome gold watch and chain, the former bearing the inscription, "Presented to Mr G. Norton, as a token of esteem by the scholars of the Barton Day School, August 10th, 1863." This token of esteem was highly prized by him, not only for its inherent worth, but as a proof that his endeavours to serve his generation had neither been ineffectual nor unappreciated.
While released, however, from his scholastic engagements he was not idle. He continued to preach. And God had further work for His willing servant. In the spring of 1867 the day school at Desford (a branch of the Barton church) being without a teacher, Mr N. was solicited to fill the office till a fitting master should be found. With his accustomed readiness and cheerfulness he undertook this employment, though at the sacrifice of much personal and domestic comfort. Here his staid demeanour, his cheerful and kindly manner, his humility and diligence, gained him the confidence and esteem of his friends, and the respect of all. He continued in the discharge of his duties of teacher, preacher, and pastor at Desford with occasional intermissions, from two to. three years. The school flourished, and the congregations wore never so good as while they had the advantage of his presence, example, and efforts.
The last two or three years of his life were spent at Barton in peaceful, though not inactive, repose. Preaching most Lord's days, and aiding on the week-day in pastoral visitation, performing the duties of home, and enjoying the pleasures of the garden, he passed his last days with comfort to himself, advantage to others, and in the esteem of all. But he was not wholly without anxiety. Over-exertion, some years before, had so excited and disturbed the action of his heart, that for some hours the result was doubtful. This event, and other symptoms, gave him the impression that he should probably die suddenly. In the autumn of the last year he had another alarming attack, whereupon he consulted a medical gentleman at Leicester, who encouraged him to hope that he was only suffering from indigestion, and might live for years.
Following his directions he did seem better; but in less than three months that heart suddenly stopped, to beat no more. On Friday, Nov. 22, he seemed as well and cheerful as ever, if not even more so, and sang before going upstairs to bed a verse or two of his favourite hymn, "Just as I am," &c. He soon went to sleep: but about midnight woke and asked Mrs N. if she were awake; in a few minutes he was perceived to turn over: was heard at the same time to make a little noise in his throat or nose: instant attention was given to him, but he was gone! What a sudden and unexpected decease! Unexpected, for though ailing, no one looked for his immediate departure: sudden, for he died in a moment, "in the twinkling of an eye." What force such a removal gives to our Lord's admonition, "Therefore, be ye also ready; for in such an how as ye think not, the Son of man cometh." The intelligence of his death quickly spread, and everywhere called forth expressions of surprise and regret. His funeral, on the following Wednesday, was attended by a large concourse of sorrowing friends; and his "funeral sermon" drew crowds from far and near, anxious, by their attendance, to give this last proof of their respect for one who had lived among them so long, and of their regret at his removal. Our departed friend was twice married, and had one child, that died in infancy. He has left behind him his second wife, with whom he lived happily and usefully for sixteen years, and who now mourns her great loss in his great gain.
Mr Norton had a handsome and commanding personal appearance. Not above the average height, yet he had a large and well-formed frame, surmounted with a noble and well-developed head and face, indicating intelligence, firmness, reverence, and caution; qualities which particularly characterized him. To the last his mien was not without a certain dignity; and years ago, when in his prime, he must have been a man of commanding presence, to which circumstance some of his influence is probably to be attributed.
He possessed a sound mind in a sound body. His constitution was usually good. Even at his decease it was not worn out. To the very end he appeared to enjoy a considerable amount of vitality and energy. Like Moses at his death, "His eye was not dim, nor big natural force abated." And his mind was as sound as his body. Though not a man of shining talents, he was the possessor of good mental parts, combined with an uncommon degree of resolution, power of application, and steadiness of purpose and aim. When he first came into this neighbourhood his opportunities for improvement had been small and his attainments were not great; but by degrees he procured books on grammar, history, theology, and other subjects, and by dint of patient industry, he gradually improved his mind, and worked his way up to a position of influence and usefulness. He is a fine instance of what a man of average powers may become if he will industriously and perseveringly try. He was, to use a common expression, under God, a self-made man, and is an encouraging example to all placed in similar circumstances.
While not perfect, Mr N. was a good man. Of his piety no one could doubt. He maintained a consistent course for half a century or more. He was a sincere, growing Christian. The gospel was the object of his profound admiration. He gloried in it. He loved a sound gospel ministry. To the Lord Jesus he entertained the most glowing affection, and exulted in his interest in His salvation. His peace was rarely disturbed, and his joy was sometimes great. His path was the path of the just, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day: and never had his sun appeared more beautiful and brilliant than at its setting. On the Wednesday evening of the week in which he died he heard a discourse on "Whom having not seen ye love," &c. It was observed how deeply he was interested; and in offering the concluding prayer he repeated, with marked emphasis and deliberateness, the text on which his attention had been fixed. On reaching home, expressing his enjoyment of the service, he exclaimed with passionate ardour, "I do love Him." That night he slept little; but he said he had spent hours in holy communion with his God and Saviour. In allusion to the increasing pleasure and joy he experienced in prayer and meditation, and in the anticipation of the glory of heaven, he said, "I never used to feel so."
Few men have been distinguished by deeper attachment to the doctrines of the gospel, and greater conscientiousness and fidelity in their maintenance of what they conceived, they taught and required, than our departed brother. A decided Arminian, he was also a strict Baptist: and both from conviction. He had studied the question, and was well able to hold his own against any ordinary assailant. And hold it he did: he would not yield an iota in what he conceived to be "the truth as it is in Jesus," and the practice of the apostles. Mourning over the departure from what he considered the gospel taught and required of all those who believed in Christ, in some of the churches of that body of which he was an attached member, he rejoiced that the church at Barton held its original faith and practice.
Like most men, he had his peculiarities, which sometimes occasioned him to be misunderstood, and laid him open to unwarranted suspicions. But whatever failings might in the estimation of some disfigure him, he possessed not a few excellences, which rendered him truly exemplary. He was a lively, cheerful Christian; a faithful friend; an instructive and agreeable companion; ever ready to do one a kind action; and a constant attendant on the means of grace. Nor was he less regular in the duties of private and domestic devotion. He endeavoured, also, to train his family in a reverent regard for Holy Writ, by the daily practice of reading it with them, and commending its truths to their serious consideration. No one could have much to do with him without soon discovering his punctuality in appointments, fidelity to promises, and conscientiousness in the fulfilment of engagements. Prudent and cautious, exercising great command over himself, he rarely offended with his tongue; and was preserved from committing such mistakes in the conduct of life as have marred the character and usefulness of some of the best of men.
We may well regret the departure of such a man from us. Not soon do we expect to see amongst us his like again. Such men are scarce. He was exceedingly useful; not only in the various offices he filled, but in the success which in a good degree attended him. For more than fifty years he was an active member of this church, a deacon for thirty, and its secretary nearly as long. Possessing one of the finest bass voices in the county, he consecrated it to the service of the sanctuary, being for fifty years a member of the choir. Few things were done without him. He was oftentimes doctor, lawyer, and minister. Many people looked up to him with the greatest reverence, and regarded him almost in the light of an oracle. Most attached to the cause of Christ, and anxious for its prosperity, he shrank from no duty whatever on its behalf, from preaching the gospel down to offices almost menial. He rejoiced in the conversion of sinners; nor did he labour and pray for it in vain. Baptism days were high and holy days with him. Frequently he baptized; and greatly admiring the ordinance, took infinite pleasure in the service. His visits to the sick and dying were frequent and useful: in some cases blessed, apparently, to their salvation. To the last he was very solicitous respecting the young. Several of his pupils he had the happiness to see "walk in the truth." One of his last acts was writing to some of his young friends, affectionately urging on them the claims of religion. But he is gone, and his varied and useful services here are ended. Yet he is not gone from our memory and heart. "He being dead yet speaketh," in the recollection of his holy life and useful labours. May we who survive emulate the piety and devotedness of our friend, and of all the faithful servants of the Lord Jesus, and when we have finished our course, share with them in the blessedness of those "who die in the Lord," who "rest from their labours, and their works do follow them."
- WILLIAM JARROM
"The General Baptist Magazine"
September 1873. Pages 96 - 99