“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Durham Dwarf

The portrait below shows a man called Józef Boruwlaski. Boruwlaski was a diminutive entertainer who was born in Poland in 1739 into a family that ultimately consisted of 6 children, three of whom were unusually small. Boruwlaski was said to have been 64cm tall at 15 years old, 71cm at 22 years old, 89cm at 25 years old and finally reaching his maximum height of 99cm by the age 30. One of Boruwlaski’s elder brothers was reported to have been only a few centimetres taller than him, and his sister who was three years his junior, was reported to have been only 66cm in height (whether this was her ultimate height is unclear). However, it seems that Boruwlaski’s other three siblings were of a more normal stature, and he even had one brother who grew to be six feet and four inches in height. Boruwlaski and his two vertically challenged siblings may have been of a small size but they were also said to have been built in proportion to their height and to not have suffered any of the deformations or disabilities associated with typical dwarfism.

Boruwlaski's small stature gave him the problem of finding a suitable way to make a living, and many potential avenues of employment such as the clergy or military service were out of the question given his physique. This predicament led him to look for a wealthy sponsor and he eventually became adopted by The Starostin de Caorlix, and was then subsequently taken into the care of Countess Humiecka. This adoption kicked off Boruwlaski’s career as an entertainer and curiosity for European high society, a career that saw him touring Europe and meeting such influential people as the Queen of Hungary, the King of Poland, the King of England and the Queen of France. Even though Boruwlaski mingled with such important people, his real purpose was to essentially be an interesting diversion for the courts of the day and his travels saw him being taught to dance and play the guitar by some of the best professionals of the day. He was also often made to dress up in small copies of military uniforms and sometimes even posed in purpose built miniature doll’s houses. Some people may have classed Boruwlaski as a sideshow freak, and it must have been an interesting sight when he met a couple of prominent sideshow freaks of the era. He met Patrick Cotter (The Irish Giant) a man who stood 8 feet tall, and he also met the famously obese Daniel Lambert, who in his prime weighed in at massive 50 stone.

As Boruwlaski’s touring career came to an end he needed to find a new way to make a living. His later years saw him trying to make a living for himself and his wife (a woman of normal stature) from playing music, and eventually he had to resort to displaying himself in public and writing an autobiography to try to make ends meet. Eventually however, an organist of Durham Cathedral (Thomas Ebdon) offered Boruwlaski  a place to live, and Boruwlaski lived out his days in Banks Cottage in the company of the unmarried daughters of Thomas Ebdon. Boruwlaski eventually died in Durham in 1837 at the grand old age of 98.

It seems that the city of Durham fondly remembers its diminutive Polish resident and clues to his time in Durham can be found in a number of places. Durham Town Hall is home to a life-sized statue of Boruwlaski, as well as an oil painting of Boruwlaski as an old man. There is also a display of some of his personal effects, which includes a suit, hat, cane, chair and violin.

Durham Cathedral is also home to a tribute to Boruwlaski, his tombstone. Just inside the entrance to the cathedral on the right hand side a small stone slab (approximately 15cm x 15cm square) can be found set into the floor bearing the initials “J B”. It seems that Boruwlaski was interred in the cathedral, close to one of his influential friends (Stephen Kemble).

Following the riverside footpath that skirts the peninsular on which the cathedral resides brings the walker to a riverside folly. The folly is a mock Greek temple which is referred to locally as The Count’s House. It seems that during his touring days Boruwlaski used the title Count Boruwlaski, even though he had no formal right to the title, and as such, people incorrectly assume that the folly is where Boruwlaski once lived. The truth is less exciting however, and it seems that the folly was probably just an ornamental feature in the garden of the property where Boruwlaski saw out his retirement years.

For any readers who are interested in the Count’s life and travels a version of his autobiography can be found here.

A portrait of an elderly Józef Boruwlaski in Durham Town Hall.
A life size Józef Boruwlaski in Durham Town Hall.
A collection of Józef Boruwlaski's possessions in Durham Town Hall.

Durham Cathedral.
Józef Boruwlaski's tombstone inside Durham Cathedral.
The Durham folly known as The Count's House.

Inside The Count's House.

Pictures, County Durham (June 2014).

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