The Polish dwarf who fell in love with Durham City

CIVIC PORTRAIT: Painting of Count Boruwlaski in the Town Hall, where clothes and items that belonged to him, right, can also be found

CIVIC PORTRAIT: Painting of Count Boruwlaski in the Town Hall, where clothes and items that belonged to him, right, can also be found

First published in News by

Count Joseph Boruwlaski was a man of endearing qualities. He had great wit and intelligence, was a talented dancer and musician, but most remarkably he was never more than 3ft 3in tall.

Born in Chaliez, Poland, in 1739, he was eight inches long at birth and his origins were humble for a man described as a count.

His father, who died when Joseph was nine, held land near their home town, but the estate was lost through some misfortune.

Joseph's mother was left with six children, Joseph being the third, with two elder brothers. The second, according to Joseph, was 6ft tall, the eldest, like Joseph, a dwarf.

The others were of normal height, except Anastasia, the youngest and the only girl. She was 21 inches at the age of six and lived to only 20.

Boruwlaski's mother struggled and, with regret and relief, allowed her friend, the Lady Caorlix, to adopt and educate Joseph.

Unfortunately, this woman subsequently married a count and fell pregnant. Joseph was out of favour.

A friend of the count, the Countess Humiecka, took Joseph under her wing and would have a profound influence on his life.

Boruwlaski, now 15 years old became a companion to the countess on her journeys. She called him Jou-Jou or "plaything", and he was known by this name to many women.

She took him to Vienna where he remained six months. He was presented to the Empress Maria Theresa, who sat him on her lap and was utterly charmed.

He kissed her hand and remarked upon her beautiful ring. She offered it to him as a gift but, being too large for Boruwlaski's fingers, the empress called upon a young princess to give her ring instead.

This princess was the six-year-old Marie Antoinette, the future queen of France, who ultimately lost her head to the guillotine.

The countess was instrumental in encouraging Boruwlaski's musical talents and ensured he was taught by the best.

The ballet master of Vienna taught him dance, and violin lessons at Paris came from Gavinies. These lessons proved useful and ultimately provided a means of living.

It was love that forced Boruwlaski to seek independence. On returning to Warsaw with the countess, he found a new young lady-in-waiting. Her name was Isalina Borboutin. She was of French parentage and normal height. Boruwlaski was in love.

Isalina shared his feelings, but their clandestine meetings came to the attention of the furious countess. She ordered an end to the romance and Isalina was sent home.

Boruwlaski was locked in his room for a fortnight and the countess employed a footman to keep watch.

Fortunately, the footman sympathised and allowed love letters to slip through.

In one letter, Boruwlaski, declared that if he lost Isalina "he would renounce life itself".

The countess, jealous of losing influence, thought Boruwlaski could not survive without financial support and demanded he renounce love or quit her house. His feelings for Isalina left him no choice.

He acquired a pension of 100 ducats from the Polish king, who may have made Boruwlaski a count, but sources disagree to the title's authenticity.

With the king's blessing, Boruwlaski and Isalina were married, but Joseph realised the pension would not support a wife.

Friends suggested he become a professional entertainer, so Boruwlaski began his travels across Europe. His memoirs recall the people, places and strange events he encountered.

According to his tall tales, he travelled to France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Syria and all Scandinavia. He crossed Siberia as far as the Bering Sea and in Paris, Vienna and Munich achieved fame, drawing people from miles around. Received at the courts of Europe, kings and queens were charmed by his presence.

At Vienna, he met Robert Murray, a British ambassador who encouraged him to visit Britain, where Borruwlaski arrived in 1782.

He toured Ireland and Scotland, where the Scots called him "Barrel of whisky", and, during a visit to Newcastle, was encouraged to visit Durham. He instantly adored the place.

He acknowledged that Durham was small and that, other than the cathedral, contained "not many buildings of fine architecture" but he declared that this was "abundantly compensated by the hospitality and kindness of its amiable inhabitants and occasionally by brilliant assemblies, which give us so favourable an opportunity to admire the elegant and beautiful features of the ladies".

Ladies were never far from Boruwlaski's thoughts and admiration was often mutual.

In a letter to one lady friend, Boruwlaski included a short poem explaining his love for Durham.

It read: "Poland was my cradle, England is my nest; Durham is my quiet place where my weary bones shall rest."

His main friends in Durham were the Ebdon family, of The Bailey, with whom he resided for a time. Just down the riverbank from The Bailey is the so-called Count's House, a folly that was never his home, though he did live in a cottage, now demolished, that stood nearby.

When Boruwlaski retired to Durham in 1791, he was long separated from Isalina and was not sorry to hear of her eventual death.

He claimed she humiliated him and recalled with bitterness to Northumberland friends that she sat him on the mantlepiece and treated him like a child.

Throughout his life, he was at pains to demonstrate that, despite his size, he was like any other man and, as he reached old age, was used to those who saw him as a curiosity.

However, his friendship with Stephen Kemble, an enormous, oversized actor and Durham resident, caused much amusement as they strolled the riverbanks together.

Boruwlaski's Durham days were the quietest of his life, but his memoirs praise Durham and Mr Ebdon.

In his words, Durham was happily adopted to his wishes for a retired life, "not only from its romantic situation but from being the abode of a friend whose manners were so congenial with my own and whose society afforded me such heartfelt delight".

Boruwlaski resided in Durham for the last 47 years of his life, and here he died on September 5, 1837, aged 97.

He was remembered with great affection in the city and his clothes and personal artefacts may still be seen in the Town Hall.

Indeed, so well loved was this little man that he was given the honour of burial in the cathedral. His little grave can be seen near the main door, marked by a tiny stone slab 15 inches square. It simply reads "JB".

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