Dereham-born George Borrow being honoured in Spain

A Norfolk-born author is being honoured on Saturday – hundreds of miles away in Spain – to mark the 175th anniversary of his arrival in the country where he was jailed for promoting the New Testament.

Author George Borrow was born at Dumpling Green in Dereham in July 1803 and was a physically formidable man, standing 6ft 2in in his stocking feet.

He spoke more than 16 languages and communicated with gipsies in their own tongue.

Borrow's amazing linguistic skills attracted the attention of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and in 1832, at the age of 29, Borrow walked 100 miles from his home town to London for an interview.

The society took him on and he went to the Spanish capital, Madrid, in January 1836 to print and circulate the New Testament. A foreign Protestant disrupting the Roman Catholic Church did not prove popular, and Borrow was arrested there. He spent 11 days in the city prison and then was incarcerated at Seville the following year.

Now, 175 years on from his arrival in Spain, a group of historians will unveil a plaque at 8pm on Saturday at the house in Calle Santiago, in Madrid, where he lived from 1836-40.

Borrow was educated in Norwich and later lived in the Lowestoft area where he died in 1881.

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The driving force behind the tribute is Stephen Drake-Jones, a historian and chairman of the Wellington Society of Madrid.

His younger sister, Alison Slater, lives in Bylaugh, near Dereham, and he visits her and her family each year.

In the 1990s, when he was teaching at a Madrid campus for American study-abroad students, Mr Drake-Jones gave a series of lectures on Borrow after being driven by his sister round Dereham and the relevant places, taking slide photos.

'I then did three months research on George Borrow in Madrid. I located his house in 16 Calle Santiago when, by chance, in the university's library I came across his letters to the British and Foreign Bible Society published just once in 1911,' he said.

Among them was an account of a meeting with the Spanish prime minister at the royal palace, at which Borrow asked for permission to print the New Testament in Spanish in Madrid.

In his letter, Borrow wrote: 'He [the prime minister] said he should not grant permission, for that the New Testament was a very dangerous book, especially in disturbed times.'

Mr Drake-Jones said: 'Spaniards still know George Borrow as 'Don Jorgito' (ironically, 'Little George!') and his house still stands near the city centre.

'He shall be remembered by a country he loved so much.'

Another of the historians involved is Don Adrian, a respected academic who lives in Madrid with his wife, the Countess Dalmau.

On Saturday, there will be short readings in both Spanish and English: 'then we will have Spanish wine and a toast to a son of Dereham from his followers in Spain,' said Mr Drake-Jones.

After his return to Norfolk, Borrow wrote The Bible in Spain, which was an instant best-seller in the 1840s and tells of his confrontations with both the Spanish authorities and the Catholic Church.

Among Borrow's other books were Lavengro – in which he describes Dereham as 'a beautiful town... where I first saw the light of day' – and The Romany Rye, which is the name that the JD Wetherspoon pub chain has given to the former Phoenix Hotel in Church Street.

In his letters, Borrow also wrote about his time in the Madrid jail.

He stated: 'I shall not at present detail the circumstances which occasioned my arrest, as doubtless the English newspapers will afford all the particulars, nor shall I dwell upon the situation in which I find myself, but content with observing that the violence, the preconcerted violence and atrocity which have been practised towards me, will prove the means of accomplishing not what my enemies hoped and wished, the destruction and disgrace of the Bible-cause in Spain, but its triumph, its pure and sublime triumph.'

In April the George Borrow Society held a rededication ceremony at St Michael's Church at Oulton, near Lowestoft, where Borrow's mother Ann is buried.

Borrow, his wife Mary and his mother had lived in Oulton Cottage on the Oulton Hall estate, which came from his wife's side of the family.

He died in the village.

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