Portrait of George Borrow


On Friday the 28 July 1854 George Borrow, his wife and daughter, arrived at Chester railway station, having travelled from Peterborough via Birmingham.  After spending a few days in Chester, they would make their way to Wales.

The Borrows stayed at an “old-fashioned inn in Northgate Street” (The Pied Bull Inn), kept by an “old-fashioned gentlewoman with the assistance of three servants” (Frances Thomas).

Over tea (Mary Borrow and Henreitta Clarke having tea and bread and butter, and George Borrow ale and cheese), George Borrow finds that Chester cheese was much like soap, despite its reputation, and throws it into the street.  He expects the ale to be bad having read Sion Tudor’s englyn on it:

“‘Chester ale, Chester ale!  I could ne’er get it down,
   ’Tis made of ground-ivy, of dirt, and of bran,
’Tis as thick as a river below a huge town!
   ’Tis not lap for a dog, far less drink for a man.’

Wild Wales with introduction by Theodore Watts-Dunton, p. 13

George finds the ale “much the same quality as it was in the time of Sion Tudor” and spits it out into the street.  George then begs some tea from his wife, and bread and butter from his daughter.

On the morning of Saturday the 29 July 1854, George Borrow and his family went a walk around Chester, although his wife and daughter soon went into a shop and George left them to explore by himself.  George Borrow seems unimpressed by Chester cathedral, castle (then a prison), but is intrigued by the “rows”, which he described in depth (in Wild Wales)— taking care to point out the rows were created as a defence against the incursions of the Welsh.

George then walked once around the walls of Chester, pointing out “the northern wall abuts upon a frightful ravine”.  Whilst on the western wall of Chester, George gazed over to the Welsh hills, and asked the name of Moel Vamagh from a ragged Welsh beggar.  This then led George to recall Lewis Glyn Cothi (a Welsh bard), his plea for vengence against the citizens of Chester, and the fate of those citizens who were slaughtered at Mold (which was in the direction of Moel Vamagh, but hidden from view).

On starting a second circuit of the walls of Chester George encountered a forty year old black man from Antigua, who had been a blacksmith and a slave.  From George’s account the man now supported himself by speaking at anti-slavery meetings.  The encounter didn’t go well and George ends by telling him:

What a pretty set of knaves or fools must they be, who encourage a fellow like you to speak against negro slavery, of the necessity for which you yourself are a living instance

Wild Wales, with introduction by Theodore Watts-Dunton, p. 18

Leaving the ex-slave George made a second circuit of the walls of Chester then returned to the inn in Northgate Street.

In the evening George again walked forth, passed over the bridge in the direction of the Welsh hills, and noted Irish tinkers camped in tents, although he did not go near them.  He walked as far as a large factory, and then turned back.  Whilst walking through the streets he notes that he heard a good deal of Welsh spoken.

Over breakfast in the inn on Sunday 30 July 1854, the Borrows hear a group of Methodists singing in the street (i.e. evangelising for a camp-meeting that was to be held that afternoon), but chose to attend the 11 o’clock service at Chester cathedral instead.  A “venerable prebend” (Rev. James Slade) preached the sermon, on the parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  They returned to the inn afterwards and dined at 2 o’clock during which they discussed the sermon.

After dined Mary Borrow and Henrietta Clarke “repaired to a neighbouring church” and George went in search of the Methodist camp-meeting, which was held in a field near the railway station.  About 2,000 people were present and a number of Methodist preachers preached.  George found it “vulgar and fanatical”, and although he notes some listeners were deeply moved, claims “the generality evidently took little [interest] or none, staring about listlessly, or talking to one another”.  At length “a man of about fifty, pock-broken and somewhat bald” preached a temperance sermon which George disliked, although he defended the preacher when a man in crowd slandered him.

George left the Methodist meeting in the evening, and walking again over the bridge went to the Irish tinkers.  The eldest man and his wife, both around 40, mistake George for a minister or priest and demand “Give us God!”  During the conversation that follows they become increasingly insistent for God, and the man is referred to as “Tourlough”.  As dusk falls George Borrow gives up, throws the children some money, and returns to his inn.

On Monday the 31 July 1854 George took Mary Borrow and Henrietta Clarke to the railway station to catch the train to Llangollen; George intending to walk instead.

Returning to the inn George browses a Welsh bookseller’s stock in the rows, and sees a Welsh biography of Rev. Richards, published at Chester (Caerlleon), and when challenged by the bookseller to translate the couplet on the title page (itself by Edmund Price, archdeacon of Merion) does so, although the bookseller on finding George is not a Welshman doesn’t approve.

Back at the inn George dines and then speaks to a Welsh maid who works at the inn, who paints a picture of a well-established Welsh-speaking community in Chester, and who also points out that the Welsh don’t like the Church of England.

In the evening George, feeling his previous behaviour wasn’t Christian, determines to return to the Irish tinkers to “Give them God!”—but on crossing over the bridge he finds them gone, and returns to the inn “disappointed and vexed”.

On Tuesday 1 August 1854 George Borrow left Chester to walk the 20 miles to Llangollen, crossing for the last time the bridge, and taking the “broad and excellent road, leading in a direction almost due south”.


This all comes from Borrow’s book Wild Wales, and the page references are to the edition with the Theodore Watts-Dunton introduction.  The above is narrated on pp. 13–26.