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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

George Borrow

George Borrow, Traveller and Writer, 1803-1881

Although some may not be familiar with the life of George Borrow, one way in which Norwich remembers Borrow is in the words 'Norwich - A Fine City' inscribed on all the signs leading into the city. These words are taken from his 1851 book, Lavengro (leaving out the word 'old'), 'A fine old city, truly is that, view it from whatever side you will; but it shows best from the east ...'

George Henry Borrow was born in his maternal grandfather's farmhouse in Dumpling Green near East Dereham on July 5, 1803 when his Cornish father, an army officer was recruiting in Norfolk for the West Norfolk Militia. George had an older brother, John. The Borrow family moved about a great deal with the regiment. In 1816, after the French war, the family moved to Norwich from Edinburgh where George had attended Edinburgh High School for two years. In Norwich the Borrow family rented a house, number 15 Willow Lane. This property in King's Court, near St. Giles' Street, belonged to Thomas King, a carpenter. The house still survives and has been named 'Borrow House.' There is a wall plaque in Willow Lane commemorating Borrow; another can be seen through a modern archway by Borrow House gate.     

An aptitude for languages

Once in Norwich, George attended the King Edward VI Grammar School in the Cathedral Close for two years. A contemporary of his remembered him as 'tall, spare, and dark-complexioned.' In 1818 Borrow was articled to Norwich solicitors Simpson and Rackham off St. Giles Street. He went to live with Simpson; the head of the firm, in the Upper Close near the Grammar School. Because he had a natural aptitude for languages Borrow spent more time studying foreign languages than law. He was taught German by William Taylor (1765-1836), one of the few German scholars of his time. Aided by a remarkable memory, young Borrow had a working knowledge of at least twelve different languages including German, Welsh, Latin, Erse and Greek. Taylor wrote that Borrow had the 'gift of tongues ... though not yet eighteen.'

Borrow studied philology (the science of language) and began to consider literature rather than law as a profession. During this time, he made friends with English Romany Gipsies (Chals) who often encamped on the hills of Mousehold Heath, Norwich, and learned the Romany language. When his legal apprenticeship finished in 1824, the same year in which his father died, Borrow went to spend a year in London; then 'wandered' (his own description) for most of his life. From 1825-32 there are only fragmentary details of his life. In 1832, after having learned the Manchu-Tartar language in six months as a condition of his employment, the British and Foreign Bible Society sent Borrow to St. Petersburg to supervise the printing of the New Testament in Manchu. Until 1840 he was an agent for the Bible Society in Spain, Portugal and Morocco. In all this time, his widowed mother remained living in Willow Lane and Borrow faithfully visited her whenever he could.

The Bible in Spain

On his return to England in 1840 Borrow married a moneyed widow, Mary Clarke and went to live with her and her daughter at Oulton Broad. In 1842 he wrote The Bible in Spain, which met with instant success. By 1843, six editions of the book had been published, thousands of copies had been sold in America and in 1844 it was translated into French, German and Russian.  Borrow's mother went to live near George at Oulton in 1849, after living in Willow Lane for thirty-three years. Borrow's later books Lavengro, published in 1851, and Romany Rye, published in 1857, received a hostile reception. Wild Wales, published in 1862, although now regarded as one of his best works, was also coolly received. The Borrow family moved to Yarmouth in 1853 and in 1860 to London where he lived in Brompton for fourteen years. Borrow was widowed in 1869 and in 1874 moved back to Oulton where he died in 1881. He was buried beside his wife in the cemetery at West Brompton, London.

In 1913, the house in Willow lane was purchased freehold for £375 by A. M. Samuel, Lord Mayor of Norwich who generously gave it to the City of Norwich in order to establish a Borrow Museum. The house has been restored but the museum no longer exists.

The George Borrow Society was formed in July 1991 to promote knowledge of the life and works of the author.

Further reading.

  • Earwaker, J., and K. Becker, Literary Norfolk: An Illustrated Companion, Chapter 6 Publishing, Ipswich, 1998
  • Meeres, Frank, A History of Norwich, Phillimore, Chichester, 1998.
  • Pevsner, N and B. Wilson, The Buildings of England: Norfolk 1. Norwich and North-East, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1997.
  • Shorter, Clement King, George Borrow and His Circle, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1913. (This book can be found at Project Gutenberg on the Internet)
  • Stephen, G. A, Borrow House Museum, Norwich Public Libraries Committee,Norwich, 1927.

 

Shirley Wigg

August 2007.