The dragon clock and the refugee

Originally written for ‘Save the Coal Exchange’

In the beautifully preserved hall of Cardiff Coal Exchange is a clock. Flanked either side by strikingly carved dragons it has the words Tempus Fugit (time flies) underneath and in the centre is the word Spiridion. It is a word which sums up so much – fleeing refugees, determination to overcome adversity and a tale which has as much resonance today as when it began in 1819 when Wladislaw Spiridion Kliszczewski was born.

Wladislaw was born in the small Polish town of Iłża on 26 December 1819. His father Peter was a landed proprietor and something of a hero fighting for Polish independence. One evening as the thirteen year old Wladislaw was going home he met a travel-stained, bearded man with his arm in a sling. The stranger asked about the boy’s family and on hearing that Wladislaw’s mother had died promptly burst into tears. Taking him into the house to recover Wladislaw discovered this was none other than his elder brother who had limped and begged his way home from the battlefield. Peter promptly hid him but put it about the local area that his son had died. But the Russians had introduced a new mandate demanding the names of boys attending schools in order to conscript them. Rather than turn Wladislaw over to the Russians Peter decided to send both boys to Kraków which at this time was a free city under the Treaty of Vienna.

Disguised as peasants the two boys walked 188km (116 miles) – about the same distance as recent refugees who walked from Hungary to Austria. However once there they found the city surrounded by enemy forces and decided to split up. The eldest brother would head for Volhynia in the hope of making it to Turkey but was unfortunately captured on the way. But Wladislaw, dodging the enemy, managed to make it into Kraków.

He stayed for two years amongst the Polish refugees studying at a school founded by Jesuits. For a time Peter sent him money but it became too dangerous as letters were being intercepted. Following his father’s example Wladislaw joined the Polish resistance fighters and did some spying for them but was betrayed by one of the school professors. He was arrested and beaten with a knout, a type of vicious whip, which nearly killed him. He recovered and was released but just as the Treaty of Vienna was being breached. Austria now controlled Kraków and demanded that all inhabitants prove they were natives – those unable to do so would be arrested. Friends tried to conceal the boy for as long as they could but it soon became necessary to surrender him to the Austrian authorities.

Sometime later Wladislaw managed to escape disguising himself as a cook’s boy. Several times he was arrested for not having a passport and several times he escaped but was finally recaptured and imprisoned at Trieste as a “state prisoner”[1]. Asked if he would like something to do rather than sit around all day Wladislaw applied to be a watchmaker and was allowed out of prison one day a week under military escort.

An English visitor managed to befriend the boy and with the aid of a bribe acquired his freedom. He sent Wladislaw to join Captain Elliot the master of a British ship and Elliot took the boy charging him £6 passage to Britain. But he liked the young refugee so much that on arriving home he gave him the money back. The route however was not a direct one and took a year. Wladislaw had to be dropped off at various locations, where he made his living as a watchmaker, before being collected by the ship again. Parts of the voyage were fraught with danger. Spending some time in Africa he caught a fever and once again nearly died and was then was involved in skirmishes with Algerian pirates. He finally arrived in Britain in 1837 – at eighteen years of age.

Settling into London Wladislaw joined the society ‘Friends of Poland’ of which Lord Dudley Couttes Stuart, the great-uncle of Lord Bute, was patron. Lord Stuart, at his own cost, apprenticed Wladislaw to a London watchmaker but once qualified he left for Cardiff. Possibly this was on the suggestion of Bute who owned substantial estates in South Wales. In Cardiff Wladislaw went to work for jeweller Henry Grant in Duke Street – eventually marrying his boss’s sister. When Henry retired in 1856 Wladislaw who was nearing forty bought the business and decided to use his middle name, Spiridion, rather than the harder to pronounce surname Kliszczewski.

The business thrived and he soon acquired a wide reputation as an expert optician, watchmaker and jeweller. He supplied timepieces throughout south Wales and was the custodian of the clock on Cardiff City Hall. There was a thermometer outside the shop which journalists read every day and reported temperatures in the south Wales newspapers. He made bronze medals and won awards at eisteddfodau for his designs and he supplied barometers for use in coal mines.

In 1885 Wladislaw’s son Joseph met a young Polish sailor called Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski who had recently docked in Cardiff. Józef had got their address from another Polish sailor, Andrezej Komorowski who, in order to avoid military service, had left Poland as a refugee in 1880/1. Finding his way to Cardiff Andrezej arrived penniless and unable to speak a word of English. He was rescued by Joseph who gave him a pound[2], some new clothes and got him a job aboard a ship. When Andrezej later heard that Józef intended to visit Cardiff he asked him to visit Joseph and thank him for his support.

The two Joseph’s became good friends for they had much in common. Both families had fought for Polish independence and suffered accordingly and both Wladislaw and Józef had fled as refugees. Józef later wrote to Joseph facing the bitter truth that it was unlikely he would be able to return to Poland and that he should look to Britain to offer him refuge. And, possibly adopting Wladislaw’s idea of simplifying his name he signed himself J. Conrad the first time he had used the pen name with which he would become so famous.

A few years later Józef, or Joseph Conrad as he was now calling himself, returned to Cardiff and spent several days at the Spiridion home. He had by then given up the sea and turned to writing although he had struggled to get his second novel published. The publisher had required Conrad to pay a £60 deposit but he was £10 short – so his friend lent him the money. Whilst staying with the family Conrad began his third novel and Joseph went to the trouble of preparing him a quiet room to write at 78 Cathedral Road. Joseph Conrad went on to be regarded as one of the greatest English language novelists and was granted British citizenship in 1886.

Meanwhile thespiridion aging Wladislaw was pining for his beloved Poland. He had applied many times for visas to return but they were always denied. Eight years before his death he managed to visit Kraków in order to catch a far-off sight of surviving relatives and friends. But suffering from Bright’s disease he died aged 72 in February 1891.

Time flies – refugees still cross borders in search of safety, freedom from wars and the chance of a good life. And refugee journeys are still often long and fraught with danger. But how we benefitted from these particular refugees. South Wales had a wonderful watch and clock maker in the Spiridion family and Joseph Conrad found peace and stability in Britain to become a renowned writer.

Tempus fugit indeed.

[1] Then a city under the Austro-Hungarian Empire now in Italy

[2] About £100 in today’s money

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