Portrait of George Borrow

Celebrated Trials

On 2 April 1824, George Borrow, then a young man of 23, arrived in London to seek his fortune through literary pursuits, only to be confounded: the publisher Richard Phillips, from whom he had expected assistance, had retired from publishing.

Phillips invited George Borrow to Sunday dinner, on 4th April 1824, and to help Borrow financially, proposed that George Borrow compile a book for him:

you could earn more money for me, sir, and consequently for yourself, by a compilation of Newgate lives and trials. [src: Lavengro, p. 204]

From this point on Lavengro keeps the title of the work as Newgate Lives, but in reality the work was published as Celebrated Trials, and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence, from the earliest records to the year 1825.  Richard Phillips went on to explain what would be expected of George Borrow:

I expect you, sir, to compile six volumes of Newgate lives and trials, each volume to contain by no manner of means less than one thousand pages; the remuneration which you will receive when the work is completed will be fifty pounds, which is likewise intended to cover any expenses you may incur in procuring books, papers and manuscripts necessary for the compilation [src: Lavengro, p. 204]

Borrow, having no other options, accepted the work, and after initial misgivings found he enjoyed it:

Of all my occupations at this period I am free to confess I liked that of compiling the Newgate Lives and Trials the best; that is, after I had surmounted a kind of prejudice which I originally entertained [src: Lavengro, p. 216]

In particular, he developed his own style as he read the various accounts he compiled:

What struck me most with respect to these lives was the art which the writers, whoever they were, possessed of telling a plain story.  It is no easy thing to tell a story plainly and distinctly by mouth; but to tell one on paper is difficult indeed, so many snares lie in the way.  People are afraid to put down what is common on paper, they seek to embellish their narratives, as they think, by philosophic speculations and reflections; they are anxious to shine, and people who are anxious to shine can never tell a plain story.  “So I went with them to a music booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin, and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand,” says, or is made to say, Henry Simms, executed at Tyburn some seventy years before the time of which I am speaking.  I have always looked upon this sentence as a masterpiece of the narrative style, it is so concise and yet so very clear [src: Lavengro, p. 217]

An advertisement for Celebrated Trials appeared in the Monthly Magazine (1 July 1824, 557), where Borrow is cited as “the editor”, and that it would appear in October 1825.

However, Richard Phillips didn’t leave George Borrow to get on with the work:

they became regular trials to me, owing to the whims and caprices of the publisher.  I had not been long connected with him before I discovered that he was wonderfully fond of interfering with other people’s business ... I was exposed to incredible mortification, and ceaseless trouble, from this same rage for interference [src: Lavengro, p. 227]

Volume 1 of Celebrated lives was in print, when Richard Phillips changed the scope of the work:

he materially altered the plan of the work; it was no longer to be a collection of mere Newgate lives and trials, but of lives and trials of criminals in general, foreign as well as domestic [src: Lavengro, p. 228]

This lead to increased difficulties for George Borrow:

What gave me the most trouble and annoyance, was the publisher’s remembering some life or trial, foreign or domestic, which he wished to be inserted, and which I was forthwith to go in quest of and purchase at my own expense: some of those lives and trials were by no means easy to find [src: Lavengro, p. 228]

Nevertheless the work progressed.  William Knapp thought that George Borrow wasn’t an editor of Celebrated Trials in the literary sense:

For Borrow had edited the Celebrated Trials—with the scissors, it is true, and a little pen-work here and there, and at the beginning and end of each article, to make it fit in its place, or to adapt it to his purpose; but he wrote nothing, not even the introductions, which are brim-full of the ideas and style of his sulphurous chief and patron [src: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 1, p. 228]

Michael Collie and Angus Fraser are less dogmatic:

The question remains unsettled and may prove may insoluble ... Celebrated Trials is in some sense, perhaps in several, a Borrow book.

source: George Borrow, A Bibliographic Study, p. 129

Celebrated trials, in six volumes, 3,600 pages in total, was published on 19th March 1825.  In the Lavengro account it appears that George Borrow didn’t make a profit on the work, only covering his expenses.


The George Borrow Bulletin has a number of items about Sir Richard Phillips: 9, 13; 17, 6; 22, 48; 23, 67; 26, 45; and similar about Celebrated Trials, 8, 30-33; 9, 31-33; 10, 52-53; 14, 44f; 23, 67.

Various Borrovians have pointed out differences between their copies of Celebrated Trials, presumably caused by the confusion of using five printers.

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 1, pp. 91–93, 100.

source: George Borrow, A Bibliographic Study, pp. 128–131