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Norwich

George Borrow (1803-1881)
 
George Borrow was born at Dumpling Green near East Dereham. His father was a soldier in the West Norfolk Militia and the family moved frequently when Borrow was young - a pattern which may have contributed to his own restlessness in later life.

Portrait of George Borrow by Henry Wyndham Phillips

George Borrow's Birthplace

Borrow's Birthplace at Dumpling Green

After the Battle of Waterloo Borrow's father retired to a house on Willow Lane in Norwich - now known as 'Borrow House'. (The house is tucked away behind some modern flats. Look for the plaque on the wall and then go under the archway.)

At the age of 13 Borrow attended the Norwich School in the Cathedral Close where he was taught German by William Taylor. He was also flogged by Dr Edward Volpey the headmaster for his rebellious behaviour. Borrow was a contradictory youngster and liked to wander across Norwich - attending fairs in Tombland, watching bare-knuckle contests or talking to the gypsies on Mousehold Heath. (In those days the heath was much larger than it is today.)

Mousehold Heath by John Sell Cotman

Mousehold Heath by John Sell Cotman

Borrow was tall (6ft 3) and energetic, but he suffered from manic depression which brought him periods of deep depression which he referred to as 'the horrors'. Borrow was also a skilled linguist and taught himself Romany which enabled him to strike up a close relationship with Jasper Petulengro. The gypsies used to refer to Borrow as 'the word master'. In Lavengro (1851) there a passage where Petulengro passes on his wisdom to the narrator:
 

'There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?'


After leaving school Borrow became an articled clerk with Simpson and Rackham - a firm of solicitors in St. Giles Street. However, he soon found this intolerable and joined the Bible Society which enabled him to travel on the continent. He famously walked the 112 miles from Norwich to London for his interview in 27 hours. In 1843 The Bible in Spain was published and the book was an instant success.

Borrow was a striking looking individual - due to his height and his blonde hair. He was also fearless and thought nothing of spending time in the company of bandits and robbers. Ill at ease in polite society, he was constantly drawn towards wild places. He was also physically strong and, even at the age of 50, while living in Yarmouth, he entered 30ft waves to rescue a sailor whose boat had overturned.

In his poem Lines to Six-Foot Three Borrow described himself as follows:
 

A lad, who twenty tongues can talk,
And sixty miles a day can walk;
Drink at a draught a pint of rum,
And then be neither sick of dumb;
Can tune a song, and make a verse,
And deeds of Northern kings rehearse:
Who never will forsake his friend,
While he his bony fist can bend;
And, though averse to brawl and strife,
Will fight a Dutchman with a knife.


While working as a clerk in Norwich he also mastered Welsh which would inspire his later guide Wild Wales (1862).  But it is for his semi-autobiographical novels Lavengro (1851) and Romany Rye (1857) that he is best remembered.

In Chapter 14 of Lavengro there is the following famous description of Norwich:
 

'A fine old city, truly, is that, view it from whatever side you will; but it shows best from the east, where the ground, bold and elevated, overlooks the fair and fertile valley in which it stands. Gazing from those heights, the eye beholds a scene which cannot fail to awaken, even in the least sensitive bosom, feelings of pleasure and admiration. At the foot of the heights flows a narrow and deep river, with an antique bridge communicating with a long and narrow suburb, flanked on either side by rich meadows of the brightest green, beyond which spreads the city; the fine old city, perhaps the most curious specimen at present extant of the genuine English town.'

This view of Norwich if from Mousehold Heath and the 'antique bridge' is Bishop Bridge - which spans the River Wensum.

Borrow is usually credited with originating the term 'a fine city' - however he may have been influenced by William Cobbett's Rural Rides which contains this sentence: 'Norwich is a very fine city, and the castle, which stands in the middle of it, on a hill, is truly majestic.'

Modern readers may find Borrow's books rather unstructured, repetitive and meandering - but they are filled with poetic moments and worth delving into.
 

Plaque on wall outside Borrow House

Plaque outside Borrow House
 

George Borrow House Norwich

George Borrow House

 

Lavengro Road

Lavengro Road

Vinegar Pond, Mousehold Heath


After retiring from the Bible Society Borrow married Mary Clarke who he had met in Spain - and the couple eventually settled at Oulton Broad in Suffolk. It was here that most of his books were written. However, they also spent time in both Great Yarmouth and London.

Borrow's work received mixed reviews from critics and towards the end of his life he became a lonely figure - cut off from society and uncertain of his own literary standing. He died at the age of 78 at Oulton and is buried in the Brompton Cemetery in Kensington in London. There is a memorial to him inside Oulton Church.

In 1994 Borrow House was sold and the money was used to establish the George Borrow Trust which aims to preserve and promote Borrow's works.

See also Dereham and Earlham.
 

Links:

More George Borrow Location Photographs

George Borrow Trust

 

 

 
 

 

 

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