Durham Count’s House – but never lived in the River Wear abode

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Today’s Object of the Week is a riverside idiot. Or is it a house? Actually both.

Located next to the River Wear in Durham, the Count’s House is named after the 3 ft 3 inch Polish dwarf Count Joseph Boruwlaski, who is said to have lived in this small abode.

The Count was a remarkable man in his own right, who had become famous in his city in the 1800s.

Read more about the Count here: Standing tall in European courts

He died in 1837 and was buried in Durham Cathedral under a slab marked with his initials “JB”.

But the Count’s House is a misnomer as it was never Boruwlaski’s house.

Northern Echo: CountCensus

In fact, he lived nearby, very close to the bank, in a solid, if not enormous, house of the sort that the less diminutive Durham residents could only dream of.

Boruwlaski may have frequented the place known as the Count’s House during his riverside walks, but this was never his home. In fact, the Count’s House wasn’t even built as a place to live.

Dating from about 1820, this intriguing little building, possibly designed by Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi, was erected by the Dean and Chapter as an idiot.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living in such a narrow and tiny house – but the remarkable fact is that people have lived here for many years.

Census records show it housed a family of seven in 1881 – the Wilsons, who had a 41-year-old gardener earlier that year, his wife Elizabeth, a 20-year-old son, and four other children.

It was called ‘Miss Wooler’s Garden Cottage’ at the time and the owner, Miss Charlotte Wooler, lived nearby at 9 South Bailey.

Garden Cottage was previously Shipperdson’s Cottage, named after Boruwlaski’s contemporary, Edward Shipperdson, who was listed among the city’s nobility and elite in the early 19th century. Like Wooler, Shipperdson lived at number 9.

Northern Echo: Day trippers from Newcastle visit the Earl's House in Durham, circa 1910Tribunes from Newcastle visit the Earl’s House in Durham, circa 1910

It is unlikely that anyone today remembers the Woolers or Wilsons, but in 1899 the Lee family moved into the Count’s House.

The head of the family was William Lee, a Yorkshireman from Stainton, near Middlesbrough, who was 75 years old in 1901 and described as a gardener.

Here, at the Earl’s House, he lived with his Scottish wife, Annie, 59, and their ten-year-old daughter, Eva. They paid rent to the Duncombe Shafto family, who until then lived at number 9.

As gardeners, it is likely that Lee and previous occupier Wilson were involved in preserving the peninsula’s gardens and riverbanks.

Mr. Perry firmly believes that William still works for the Dean and Division, which guards the riverbanks today.

It was probably William who founded the café in the Count’s house, which served tea, scones, and cakes to tourists and visitors who stroll along the riverbank on weekends. Eva helped and appeared in a 12-year-old photo with customers at the cafe.

Northern Echo: Eating at the Count's House cafe, circa 1913. Eva Lee is pictured standing at the door.Eating at the Count’s House cafe, circa 1913. Eva Lee is pictured standing at the door

William had a horse named Dolly, and the photos show him nagging and bagging money at various places where the cafe may have sold its products.

Welsh John Millman, William’s son-in-law who married Eva, would continue this activity.

Millman lived in the Count’s House and was often seen carrying scones and tea cakes in local villages.

John and Eva’s daughters, Doris and Lucy, were born in 1923 and 1928.

Although William had passed away, Eva’s mother Annie was still living in the house when Lucy was born, so the Count’s House was filled with a family of five.

Incredibly, there were also tenants, most of whom were students, living in the house.

It’s hard to imagine how they all got stuck. There was an extension now demolished, but it was small, a quarter the size of the house. It was next to the chimney and was probably the kitchen where cafe products were made.

The rest of the house was divided into two rooms where the family and the tenants slept on the floor.

And we must not forget the dog. The family rescued a sheepdog from the river with a brick tied around its neck.

They adopted the dog and named it Rover. This wasn’t the only rescue the family did.

In another case, Eva rescued a woman from the river.

The lady rewarded Eva with a necklace, but unlike the dog, the rescued lady did not go in.

The Millman family moved out of the Count’s home in 1933 when Doris was five years old. Since then they have lived by the river elsewhere in the city, notably on Lambton Walk on the riverbank near Framwellgate Bridge, as well as at Kepier Hospital Farm, where they lived on the arch.

The Count’s House became Robert Allan’s antique furniture store, but he chose not to live there.

Lucy remembered the children breaking into the house and throwing Allan’s furniture into the river.

Unfortunately, vandalism can still be a problem in this isolated spot as the Count’s House remains empty. An unsuitable house for modern times, and today it is nothing more than stupidity and curiosity, but of course that was exactly what was intended.

Today’s Object of the Week is a riverside idiot. Or is it a house? Actually both

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