The Count’s House: a history of the landmark

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It’s a winter afternoon. If it weren’t for the odd couple lazily strolling, or the river song of oar strokes and the cox’s loud calls, you could dream yourself into a fairytale or, at least, that medieval Durham which never seems too distant. 

You walk along the peninsula riverbank towards Kingsgate Footbridge. Just after the river’s bend, you encounter a small Grecian temple. It’s neoclassical in style, with four ionic columns straining to hold up the worn and mossy pediment. There’s a door and two windows, each barred by a black, metal grate. This naïve fresher imagines the building’s slight angle behind a nearby tree could half-obscure it in the summer.

You go closer and a placard tells you that this is ‘the Count’s House’ and relates his story. It’s the tale of a famous dwarf who frequented the European courts at the height of their opulence, shortly before they disguised themselves under threat of revolution. It is for this reason that Jozef Boruwlaski is often known as the last of Europe’s court dwarves. 

You could dream yourself into a fairytale or, at least, that medieval Durham which never seems too distant

Boruwlaski was born in 1739 to a family of the landed gentry who had recently fallen on hard times. There is no evidence to suggest that he was actually a ‘Count’ since there is no record of a previous Count Boruwlaski. So it is thought his title might be related to the practice of giving performing dwarves titles: remember General Tom Thumb in The Greatest Showman

At fifteen years old and 2ft 1 tall he was taken on by Countess Humiecka. The Countess took him to Vienna as a talented musician where he performed to Empress Maria Theresa. He was deemed so entertaining that one of the Empress’ daughters gifted him a diamond ring; in his autobiography, he would later claim that this was Marie Antoinette. 

He travelled around Europe for several years, ending up in Britain in the early 1780s. On arrival, he immediately obtained the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire, who would introduce him to the Prince Regent. Yet what endeared him to the British public was his meeting with Daniel Lambert: the so-called largest man in England. Having heard rumours that Lambert’s weight wasn’t true, Boruwlaski famously squeezed his leg to prove it. “It was Sir John Falstaff and Tom Thumb, which have afforded a double treat to the curious”, The Times reported. 

Jozef Boruslaski, the Wilson family, the Lees, and Robert Allan, the antiquarian, will all be remembered

Money problems forced him to perform several subscription-based concerts for the public. The courts could no longer sustain such entertainers. In his later years, he was invited to live in Durham by Thomas Ebdon, the Cathedral’s organist. He moved into Bank Cottage, and never lived at the Count’s House. He died in Durham on the 5th of September, 1837. A fitting place, I think, since he famously remarked, “Poland was my cradle, England is my nest; Durham is my quiet place where my weary bones shall rest”. 

This all invites the question of why it’s called the Count’s House. It seems likely that it’s due to historical misattribution, or, perhaps, the City’s desire to capitalise on the memory of one of its most famous residents. The glamour, magic, and romance of the Count’s story deny the limelight to its real inhabitants: the Wilson family and later the Lees. The fathers of each family most likely maintained the bailey’s riverbanks. It might have been the Lee family, then, who set up a café in the building’s portico. It later became an antique shop, although it was eventually abandoned due to children breaking in and throwing the antiques into the river.

The interest the Count’s House inspires with its many histories and fables tells us something more about our own local history. Fact is yet to infringe on folklore. So much of any small area’s history is often passed on orally; it becomes fabulous, misattributed and flawed as a result. Yet, I feel, more than anything, it allows you to inhabit the distant past. It also means Jozef Boruslaski, the Wilson family, the Lees, and Robert Allan, the antiquarian, will all be remembered. 

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