He toured the world and made friends with the rulers of Europe - but Polish dwarf Joseph Boruwlaski made his home in Durham.

In the first part of a two-part story, David Simpson look back on the life of the city's smallest celebrity.

JOSEPH BORUWLASKI was one of the most remarkable men ever associated with the city of Durham. His memoirs, running to hundreds of pages, read like a travel companion to late-18th Century Europe.

They recall the many people, places and strange events that he encountered during his 97-year life.

His travels took him to France and Italy, to Germany and Croatia, to Turkey and the Syrian desert.

He journeyed across Ireland, visited every Scandinavian country and even crossed the inhospitable stretches of Siberia as far as the Bering Sea, visiting small towns and cities where he could make friends and entertain.

In cities such as Paris, Vienna, Strasbourg, Brussels and Munich, Boruwlaski achieved great heights of fame, drawing people from miles around to see him in person.

He was received at the court of several European rulers and made friends with kings, queens, princes and princesses. All were charmed and delighted by his presence.

It was a great compliment to Durham that a man so widely travelled should choose the little city as his place of retirement.

He admired the situation of the city and, in his own words, was "much struck with the River Wear, which runs round it in the shape of a horseshoe".

He acknowledged that the city was small and praised its cathedral, but recognised that it "contains not many buildings of fine architecture". This disadvantage, he declared, was "abundantly compensated by the hospitality and kindness of its amiable inhabitants and occasionally by their brilliant assemblies, which give us so favourable an opportunity to admire the elegant and beautiful features of the ladies."

Lady friends were never far from Borruwlaski's thoughts and the admiration was often mutual.

It was in a letter to one of these many lady friends that Boruwlaski included a poem explaining his love for Durham.

Poland was my cradle,

England is my nest;

Durham is my quiet place

Where my weary bones shall rest.

Borruwlaski's endearing qualities are not difficult to understand. He was a man with a great wit and intelligence that often surprised the aristocratic personalities he entertained. He was a talented dancer and a master of the violin, but his most remarkable feature was undoubtedly his height.

Count Joseph Boruwlaski, as he was perhaps erroneously known, was a dwarf, and throughout his life never grew more than 3ft 3in tall.

Born in Chaliez, the capital of Pokucia, in Poland, in 1739, Boruwlaski was 8in long at birth, growing a further 3in in his first year.

His origins seem to have been relatively humble for a man who described himself as a count. His father held land near their hometown, but the estate was lost through some misfortune that Boruwlaski does not relate.

Joseph had few, if any, memories of his father, as he was only nine when he died.

His mother was left to look after six children, Joseph being the third oldest with two elder brothers. The second brother was, according to Joseph, more than 6ft tall, but the eldest was also a dwarf.

The other children were of normal height, except for the youngest, Anastasia, the only girl.

She measured 21in at the age of six and only lived to the age of 20.

Boruwlaski's mother struggled to bring up the children, and with a mixture of regret and relief she allowed her friend, the Lady of Caorlix, to adopt Joseph and help with his education.

Unfortunately, when this woman subsequently married the Count of Tarnow and fell pregnant, Joseph found himself out of favour.

It was left to a friend of the Tarnows, the Countess of Humiecka, to take Joseph under her wing. She would have a profound influence on his life.

He was now 15 years old, and as a travelling companion to the countess on her many European journeys, Boruwlaski's lifetime adventures had truly begun.

The countess called him Jou-Jou meaning "plaything", and he was universally known by this name to the many woman he encountered during his life.

On one of his early foreign visits accompanying the countess, Boruwlaski travelled to Vienna where he remained for six months. Here he was presented to the Empress Maria Theresa.

He sat on her lap and delighted her with his charm and wit.

It was a situation that would be repeated again and again with high society ladies across the length and breadth of Europe.

However, this was a particularly memorable occasion. As he kissed the hand of the empress, he remarked upon her beautiful ring. She was so charmed that she offered to present it to him as gift.

Unfortunately, it was too large for Boruwlaski's little fingers, so the empress called upon one of the young princesses, who presented her ring instead.

This princess was the six-year-old Marie Antoinette, the future queen of France, who would ultimately lose here head at the guillotine for betraying French secrets to Austria.

All of this would happen during Boruwlaski's lifetime, and his encounter with the princess was no doubt a tale that he would recall as he walked through Durham in the later years of his life.

* North-East poet Keith Armstrong will tell the story of the life of Count Boruwlaski using poetry and narrative at the Clayport Library, Durham City, on Wednesday, September 10.

The show is based on the count's memoirs, with poems and lyrics written by Keith.

Tickets for the show, which starts at 7.30pm, are £2, and are available from Clayport Library on 0191-384 2214.

* If you have memories of Durham, including old photos or stories of people and places you would like to share with The Northern Echo, write to David Simpson, Durham Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF. All photos will be returned.

Published: 22/08/2003

If you have any memories of Durham City, Chester-le-Street, Derwentside or the Durham coast, including old photos or stories of people and places you would like to share with readers of The Northern Echo, write to David Simpson, Durham Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF or email David.Simpson@nne.co.uk. All photos will be returned.