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- The Life of George Borrow - 1/90 -


THE LIFE OF GEORGE BORROW

by Herbert Jenkins

PREFACE

During the whole of Borrow's manhood there was probably only one period when he was unquestionably happy in his work and content with his surroundings. He may almost be said to have concentrated into the seven years (1833-1840) that he was employed by the British and Foreign Bible Society in Russia, Portugal and Spain, a lifetime's energy and resource. From an unknown hack-writer, who hawked about unsaleable translations of Welsh and Danish bards, a travelling tinker and a vagabond Ulysses, he became a person of considerable importance. His name was acclaimed with praise and enthusiasm at Bible meetings from one end of the country to the other. He developed an astonishing aptitude for affairs, a tireless energy, and a diplomatic resourcefulness that aroused silent wonder in those who had hitherto regarded him as a failure. His illegal imprisonment in Madrid nearly brought about a diplomatic rupture between Great Britain and Spain, and later his missionary work in the Peninsula was referred to by Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons as an instance of what could be achieved by courage and determination in the face of great difficulties.

Those seven rich and productive years realised to the full the strange talents and unsuspected abilities of George Borrow's unique character. He himself referred to the period spent in Spain as the "five happiest years" of his life. When, however, his life came to be written by Dr Knapp, than whom no biographer has approved himself more loyal or enthusiastic, it was found that the records of that period were not accessible. The letters that he had addressed to the Bible Society had been mislaid. These came to light shortly after the publication of Dr Knapp's work, and type-written copies were placed at my disposal by the General Committee long before they were given to the public in volume form.

A systematic search at the Public Record Office has revealed a wealth of unpublished documents, including a lengthy letter from Borrow relating to his imprisonment at Seville in 1839. From other sources much valuable information and many interesting anecdotes have been obtained, and through the courtesy of their possessor a number of unpublished Borrow letters are either printed in their entirety or are quoted from in this volume.

My thanks are due in particular to the Committee of British and Foreign Bible Society for placing at my disposal the copies of the Borrow Letters, and also for permission to reproduce the interesting silhouette of the Rev. Andrew Brandram, and to the Rev. T. H. Darlow, M.A. (Literary Superintendent), whose uniform kindness and desire to assist me I find it impossible adequately to acknowledge. My thanks are also due to the Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Grey, M.P., for permission to examine the despatches from the British Embassy at Madrid at the Record Office, and the Registers of Passports at the Foreign Office, and to Mr F. H. Bowring (son of Sir John Bowring), Mr Wilfrid J. Bowring (who has placed at my disposal a number of letters from Borrow to his grandfather), Mr R. W. Brant, Mr Ernest H. Caddie, Mr William Canton, Mr S. D. Charles, an ardent Borrovian from whom I have received much kindness and many valuable suggestions, Mr A. I. Dasent, the editors of The Athenaeum and The Bookman, Mr Thomas Hake, Mr D. B. Hill of Mattishall, Norfolk, Mr James Hooper, Mr W. F. T. Jarrold (for permission to reproduce the hitherto unpublished portrait of Borrow painted by his brother), Dr F. G. Kenyon, C.B., Mr F. A. Mumby, Mr George Porter of Denbigh (for interesting particulars about Borrow's first visit to Wales), Mr Theodore Rossi, Mr Theodore Watts-Dunton, Mr Thomas Vade-Walpole, who have all responded to my appeal for help with great willingness.

To one friend, who elects to be nameless, I am deeply grateful for many valuable suggestions and much help; but above all for the keen interest he has taken in a work which he first encouraged me to write. To her who gave so plentifully of her leisure in transcribing documents at the Record Office and in research work at the British Museum and elsewhere, I am indebted beyond all possibility of acknowledgment. To no one more than to Mr John Murray are my acknowledgments due for his unfailing kindness, patience and assistance. It is no exaggeration to state that but for his aid and encouragement this book could not have been written.

HERBERT JENKINS. January, 1912.

CHAPTER I: 1678-MAY 1816

On 28th July 1783 was held the annual fair at Menheniot, and for miles round the country folk flocked into the little Cornish village to join in the festivities. Among the throng was a strong contingent of young men from Liskeard, a town three miles distant, between whom and the youth of Menheniot an ancient feud existed. In days when the bruisers of England were national heroes, and a fight was a fitting incident of a day's revelry, the very presence of their rivals was a sufficient challenge to the chivalry of Menheniot, and a contest became inevitable. Some unrecorded incident was accepted by both parties as a sufficient cause for battle, and the two factions were soon fighting furiously midst collapsing stalls and tumbled merchandise. Women shrieked and fainted, men shouted and struck out grimly, whilst the stall-holders, in a frenzy of grief and despair, wrung their hands helplessly as they saw their goods being trampled to ruin beneath the feet of the contestants.

Slowly the men of Liskeard were borne back by their more numerous opponents. They wavered, and just as defeat seemed inevitable, there arrived upon the scene a young man who, on seeing his townsmen in danger of being beaten, placed himself at their head and charged down upon the enemy, forcing them back by the impetuosity of his attack.

The new arrival was a man of fine physique, above the medium height and a magnificent fighter, who, later in life, was to achieve something of which a Mendoza or a Belcher might have been proud. He fought strongly and silently, inspiring his fellow townsmen by his example. The new leader had entirely turned the tide of battle, but just as the defeat of the men of Menheniot seemed certain, a diversion was created by the arrival of the local constables. Now that their own villagers were on the verge of disaster, there was no longer any reason why they should remain in the background. They made a determined effort to arrest the leader of the Liskeard contingent, and were promptly knocked down by him.

At that moment Mr Edmund Hambley, a much-respected maltster and the headborough of Liskeard, was attracted to the spot. Seeing in the person of the outrageous leader of the battle one of his own apprentices, he stepped forward and threatened him with arrest. Goaded to desperation by the scornful attitude of the young man, the master-maltster laid hands upon him, and instantly shared the fate of the constables. With great courage and determination the headborough rose to his feet and again attempted to enforce his authority, but with no better result. When he picked himself up for a second time, it was to pass from the scene of his humiliation and, incidentally, out of the life of the young man who had defied his authority.

The young apprentice was Thomas Borrow (born December 1758), eighth and posthumous child of John Borrow and of Mary his wife, of Trethinnick (the House on the Hill), in the neighbouring parish of St Cleer, two and a half miles north of Liskeard. At the age of fifteen, Thomas had begun to work upon his father's farm. At nineteen he was apprenticed to Edmund Hambley, maltster, of Liskeard, who five years later, in his official capacity as Constable of the Hundred of Liskeard, was to be publicly defied and twice knocked down by his insubordinate apprentice.

A trifling affair in itself, this village fracas was to have a lasting effect upon the career of Thomas Borrow. He was given to understand by his kinsmen that he need not look to them for sympathy or assistance in his wrongdoing. The Borrows of Trethinnick could trace back further than the parish registers record (1678). They were godly and law-abiding people, who had stood for the king and lost blood and harvests in his cause. If a son of the house disgrace himself, the responsibility must be his, not theirs. In the opinion of his family, Thomas Borrow had, by his vigorous conduct towards the headborough, who was also his master, placed himself outside the radius of their sympathy. At this period Trethinnick, a farm of some fifty acres in extent, was in the hands of Henry, Thomas' eldest brother, who since his mother's death, ten years before, had assumed the responsibility of launching his youngest brother upon the world.

Fearful of the result of his assault on the headborough, Thomas Borrow left St Cleer with great suddenness, and for five months disappeared entirely. On 29th December he presented himself as a recruit before Captain Morshead, {3a} in command of a detachment of the Coldstream Guards, at that time stationed in the duchy.

Thomas Borrow was no stranger to military training. For five years he had been in the Yeomanry Militia, which involved a short annual training. In the regimental records he is credited with five years "former service." He remained for eight years with the Coldstream Guards, most of the time being passed in London barracks. He had no money with which to purchase a commission, and his rise was slow and deliberate. At the end of nine months he was promoted to the rank of corporal, and five years later he became a sergeant. In 1792 he was transferred as Sergeant-Major to the First, or West Norfolk Regiment of Militia, whose headquarters were at East Dereham in Norfolk.

It was just previous to this transfer that Sergeant Borrow had his famous encounter in Hyde Park with Big Ben Bryan, the champion of England; he "whose skin was brown and dusky as that of a toad." It was a combat in which "even Wellington or Napoleon would have been heartily glad to cry for quarter ere the lapse of five minutes, and even the Blacksmith Tartar would, perhaps, have shrunk from the opponent with whom, after having had a dispute with him," Sergeant Borrow "engaged in single combat for one hour, at the end of which time the champions shook hands and retired, each having experienced quite enough of the other's prowess." {4a}

At East Dereham Thomas Borrow met Ann {4b} Perfrement, {4c} a strikingly handsome girl of twenty, whose dark eyes first flashed upon him from over the footlights. It was, and still is, the custom for small touring companies to engage their supernumeraries in the towns in which they were playing. The pretty daughter of Farmer Perfrement, whose farm lay about one and a half miles out of East Dereham, was one of those who took occasion to earn a few shillings for pin-money. The Perfrements were of Huguenot stock. On the


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