By Haydn Brown.
Who in Norfolk has not heard of George (Henry) Borrow (5 July 1803 – 26 July 1881), the Georgian writer, linguist, traveller (horse-whisperer!) and one of the more idiosyncratic of many Victorian men of genius? He was the person who, it was said, conjured up the term ‘Norwich A Fine City’; now on local road signs and prominently in evidence when entering the City. However, how many know anything about his father, Captain Thomas Borrow (1759-1824)?
Well, Thomas Borrow was an eighth and youngest son and was born in 1758 of a yeoman family at an old homestead known as Tredinnick, in the parish of St. Cleer near Liskeard in Cornwall. He became a patriotic, pugnacious, but God-fearing Cornishman, as were his forbears who had settled in the kingdom well back before the 17th century – and possibly earlier. His family:
“feared God, honoured the King, and believed in ‘Piskies’ and Holy Wells!”
Thomas Borrow was handsome, tall and muscular; helped no doubt by having worked for some time on his brother’s farm. He was also very adept in the athletic sports for which Cornwall was famous, including boxing in which he displayed particular prowess. When, come the future, he was to have a family of two sons his youngest, George, became somewhat in awe of his father’s pugilistic reputation, and in later life, young George Borrow was to become an ardent admirer of “The Fancy”. He would be asked:
“What is the best way to get through life quietly?”
George would reply:
“Learn to box, and keep a civil tongue in your head.”
But now back to Thomas Borrow. In 1778, when nineteen years of age, Thomas was articled for five years to a maltster; but, just as that period ended, an argument occurred at the Menheniot Fair between two groups of lads, one of which included Thomas. His group triumphed over the other, at which point the local constabulary appeared and were promptly felled by the brawny Borrow. To crown this misdeed, he also knocked over the ‘head-borough’, who happened to be his maltster master! He wisely fled, and shortly afterwards enlisted as a private soldier in the Coldstream Guards, to be soon quartered in London. By 1789, and now a sergeant, he was transferred to the West Norfolk Regiment of Militia, with headquarters at East Dereham in Norfolk.
It was in that year when a company of theatre players from Norwich’s Theatre Royal, made one of its frequent visited that nice little town of Dereham; included as a supernumerary was an Ann Perfrement; she was the pretty daughter of a farmer of Dumpling Green (see image above), on the outskirts of the town, and of Huguenot descent. On this particular occasion Ann, a handsome dark-eyed young lady, was in the cast of a performance held in a barn which was next to the Kings Head Hotel – we do not know the name of the Play!
Although Ann had a small part. Sergeant Thomas Borrow, a smart figure in scarlet and yellow, now responsible for Recruiting new soldiers, not only noticed her, but was attracted to this young and attractive lady. Somehow, and it is amazing how smitten young men find ways, he managed to not only find out who she was but also managed an introduction. The Cornish soldier’s fascination was quickly enveloped in a shared love and the two were married at Dereham Church on 11 February 1793.
No sooner had the ink dried in the Church’s Register when Sergeant Thomas’s regiment began a wandering course over the highways of England – first to Colchester, then back to Norfolk before periods at Sheerness, Sandgate, and Dover, then to Colchester once more; in Kent; Essex again. During these wanderings, in 1800 to be exact, Thomas and Ann’s first child arrived; it was a boy and they named him John Thomas. It was said that he was “a beautiful child of rosy, angelic face, blue eyes and light chestnut hair,” John was to be his father’s favourite, entering the army, when of age, and becoming a lieutenant; but also, and especially after the end of the war, an artist, studying under B. R. Haydon and ‘Old Crome’.
Almost three more years of his father’s wanderings were to follow before the Regiment and the Borrow family were back at East Dereham. It was here, on 5 July 1803 and in the house belonging to his mother’s parents, where Thomas and Ann’s second son was born; his name would be George Henry. On 17 July young George Henry Borrow was baptised ; his given names being that of the King and of the eldest brother of the now ‘Captain’ Thomas Borrow.
NB: Whilst this account is aimed at being about what is now ‘Captain’ Thomas Borrow, it cannot be exclusively so since there remains little doubt that the father’s hands were full trying to contend with young George Borrow – of future fame! Nevertheless, further mention of him here will remain restricted to only such detail as is necessary to further reflect the experiences of his father. There is much written elsewhere about George Borrow; suffice to say at this point is that, as an infant, George was gloomy and fond of solitude, and in his own future words:
“ever conscious of a peculiar heaviness within me, and at times of a strange sensation of fear, which occasionally amounted to horror, and for which I could assign no real cause whatever.”
A maidservant thought him a little wrong in the head, but a Jew pedlar rebuked her for saying so!
Captain Thomas Borrow’s regiment travelled along the Sussex and Kent coast during the next four years. They were at both Pett and Hythe in 1806 where young George claimed he’d seen “the skulls of the Danes”. They were at Canterbury in 1807 but by 1809 and 1810 they were back at Dereham. By then, George had “increased rapidly in size and in strength,” but not in mind, and could read only imperfectly until “Robinson Crusoe” drew him out.
It was whilst living in East Dereham, that the Borrow’s attended the fine parish church twice every Sunday, There, from a corner of a spacious pew, they could all fix their eyes on the dignified High-Church rector, the Rev. F. J. H. Wollaston, B.D. no less:
“from whose lips would roll many a portentous word descriptive of the wondrous works of the Highest.”
Also, at East Dereham, the family would see, and no doubt pay their respects to:
“that exquisite old gentlewoman, Lady Fenn, widow of Sir John Fenn, editor of the Paston Letters, as she passed to and fro from her mansion on some errand of bounty or of mercy, leaning on her gold-headed cane, whilst the sleek old footman walked at a respectful distance behind.”
Leaving Dereham in April, 1810, Captain Borrow and his family were transferred to Norman Cross, in the parish of Yaxley, some four miles from Peterborough, to guard a large number of French prisoners in sixteen long casernes, or barracks within the prison there. It was somewhere around Yaxley where little George, now seven years old, made a friend, “quite to his liking, in a wild sequestered spot which was his favourite haunt for a time”; this was where he first became associated with gypsies and met with Ambrose Smith—the Jasper Petulengro of George’s future writings.
Between July, 1811 and July, 1814, the Borrows continue to lead a nomadic military life, yet at each place of residence, Captain Borrow made sure that his two sons, John Thomas and George, attended the best schools available. Early in 1813 the Borrow family were in Edinburgh, where the boys were sent to the celebrated High School and young and wild George willingly joined the faction fights between the old and the New Town.
Even better than this, he made friends with just such a wild character as he. This was a David Haggart, son of a gamekeeper and guilty of nearly every crime in the Statute Book under various aliases—John Wilson, John Morrison, John McColgan, David O’Brien, and “The Switcher.” Haggart later enlisted as a drummer-boy in Captain Borrow’s recruiting-party at the Leith Races in the July of 1813; he was just barely twelve years old. Soon, however, Haggart tired of discipline and scanty pay and obtained his discharge, thereafter embarking on a career of crime which culminated in his hanging at Edinburgh in 1821 – at the age of twenty.
In June, 1814, the West Norfolk Regiment was ordered south; some went by sea and some by land. Captain Borrow chose the latter, and on 18 July his Division entered Norwich, and the Earl of Orford, Colonel of the regiment, entertained the officers and their friends at the Maid’s Head Hotel.
At this time Captain Borrow and his family went to lodge at the Crown and Angel, an ancient hostelry in St. Stephen’s Street. From that convenient center, the recruiting -parties under Captain Borrow were very successful in obtaining men, by ‘beat of drum’ instead of by ballot, as had previously been the practice.
It was during this short interval in Norwich, when the family was lodging in St Stephens, that George went to the Norwich Grammar School, next to the Cathedral. However, having had all those wild experiences of the past, it was small wonder that this lad was not very adaptable, but he managed – at least on this occasion!
But troubles arose in Ireland, and in August, 1815, the West Norfolk’s were again on the move. They found themselves at Cork early in September, and marched on to Clonmel. Captain Borrow commanded a Division there, and George walked by his side, holding the stirrup-leather of his horse, while his brother, John Thomas Borrow, gazetted ensign in May and lieutenant in December, was also in his place in the regiment. At Clonmel the Borrows lodged with a handsome athletic man and his wife, who enthusiastically welcomed them:
“I have made bold to bring up a bottle of claret,” said the Orangeman, “. . . and when your honour and your family have dined, I will make bold to bring up Mistress Hyne from Londonderry, to introduce to your honour’s – a lady, and then we’ll drink to the health of King George, God bless him; to the ‘glorious and immortal’—to Boyne water—to your honour’s speedy promotion to be Lord-Lieutenant.”
In January, 1816, the regiment was moved on to Templemore, a charming town in mid-Tipperary, where the Borrows remained for a short time before returning to Norwich on 13 May, again staying at the Crown and Angel, until they settled at the historic little house in King’s Court, Willow Lane, which they leased from a builder named Thomas King. This is the time when the old soldier, with his pension of eight shillings a day, and his excellent and devoted wife, settled down with their two sons.
Now comfortably settled in Norwich, John Thomas and George were again sent to the Grammar School; George, still conditioned by his past wild experiences was to face new difficulties when he came under the rule of the Rev. Edward Valpy; “a severe master” …… “a martinet” ……whose principal claims to fame were his severity, his flogging – and his destruction of the School Records of Admission, which dated back to the sixteenth century!
Six years later, on Monday, 11 February 1822, Captain Borrow made his Will; and perhaps the date was not a mere coincidence – for it was on a Monday, 11 February in 1793 when he married his beloved Ann at East Dereham. Now, he bequeathed all that he had to her, his forthcoming widow, but with something for the maintenance and education of George during his minority.
Yes, the old soldier thought well of Ann as he wrote his Will; and clearly, he also thought about his son George, and it was not for the first time that the Captain had done so; his particular concern this time was for the fate of his son once he was out of his articles. It seems that the Captain had remained distinctly disheartened, ever since he was told about the young lawyer’s acquisition of the Armenian language, obtained from a book presented to him by a clergyman’s widow. She had taken a fancy to young George Burrow, and even drew his portrait – “his expression putting her in mind of Alfieri’s Saul”!
The worthy Captain died 28 February 1824, and was buried in St. Giles’s churchyard, Norwich on 4 March. In an obituary notice in the Norwich Mercury of 6 March 1824, Captain Borrow’s passing was described thus:
“He rose from his bed about four, apparently as well as he has usually been in the winter time; returned to it without the least assistance, and in less than a quarter of an hour was a corpse in the arms of his sons, leaving those who knew his worth and deeply lament his loss.”
Thereafter, Thomas’s sons went their separate ways, pursuing futures that were distinctly different; the youngest, George, eventually achieved fame as a writer, whilst John Thomas, as early as 1826, would depart for Mexico in the service of a mining company – only to die there in 1834.
There never appeared to have been any memorial stone to Captain Thomas Borrow at St Giles; now it is impossible to locate the exact position of his grave there. More so because some 50 years, or more, after his death, a corner of the St Giles’s churchyard was cut away, under the City of Norwich Act of 1867; the aim was to widen the road and to remove a dangerous corner. As a result of this work, it is highly probable that the Captain’s remains now rest either under the roadway itself, or the section of pavement that adjoins the perimeter wall of the surviving churchyard. So maybe, you should tread with thought as you pass by the church; you could be walking over Thomas’s grave!
‘Souvenir of the George Borrow Celebration’, Norwich, 5 July 1913 by
James Hooper. Published by Jarrold & Sons, London & Norwich.
‘George Borrow, The Man and his Books’, by Edward Thomas. Chapman & Hall Ltd, London, 1912.
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