George Borrow was born in 1803 to a military family in East Dereham, which frequently moved around the country and this set the pattern of his life as a contradictory and restless soul. He was unusually tall and strong, as well as a good horseman and swimmer but, he was at times, subject to depression. He was an egotist, but was shy, cold and rude with the upper classes, but generally got on well with servants, workers and gypsies. He was gifted as a linguist and had knowledge of 16 languages, which prompted the gypsy community to give him the title, Lavengro, which meant, Word Master.
George Borrow had intended to enter the legal profession, but he gave this up in 1824 to become a writer, which at first brought him little fame or money. He later worked for the British and Foreign Bible Society, which enabled him to travel widely in Europe. This was an ideal vehicle for his passion, communication skills and enthusiasm. It also brought him success as a writer, when his book, The Bible in Spain, was published in 1843. He went on to write Lavengro in 1851 and Romany Rye in 1857, both about gypsy life and his travels. These were not universally popular with Victorians, as it was felt that they were not entirely factual. However, the naturalistic writing style is the basis of Borrow’s literary reputation today.
Borrow travelled widely in Britain, writing and translating, but was always an outsider in respectable Victorian society. He spent time in Great Yarmouth staying in Camperdown Place, at 169 King Street and at 24-25 Trafalgar Road. Being beside the sea he could indulge his love of swimming, rarely missing a day throughout the year, and it is recorded, that he was responsible for a daring lifesaving exploit in the high seas.
His later life was clouded by the death of his wife, Mary, in 1869 and he died alone in Oulton Broad in 1881.
Borrow still has a broad following today and there is a George Borrow Society, which prompted the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to place a plaque in Camperdown, where he had lived. A dozen members of the George Borrow Society travelled to Great Yarmouth for the occasion. The plaque was unveiled in October 2003, by Dr Ann Ridler, OBE, the Oxford poet, anthologist, and librettist.
George Borrow’s most famous phrase was adopted by the Norwich Union Insurance Company in an advertising campaign, before it took on the title of Aviva. This was, Norwich, a fine city.
Borrow also resided at 38 Camperdown for a period of time.
The present site in 2020