Colonel/Professor Krystyn Lach-Szyrma

Stoke Damerel Parish Church

Our final article from Tony Barnard of Stoke Damerel Parish Church. Check out his earlier articles for more profiles and insights into the Church and its history. Today’s articles were all adapted from editions of the Church’s magazine, the latest editions of which are available on their website (under Church Magazine) with any donations to the rector. June’s edition will include an article about Tobias Furneaux who lived at Swilly House and was the first person ever to circumnavigate the world in both directions.

Poland was once the largest, and probably the most powerful, country in Europe. But between 1772 and 1918, the country virtually disappeared, being partitioned and shared between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

During the nearly 150 years of the ‘partitions’ a number of uprisings occurred. The ”Powstanie Listopadowe”, Polish–Russian War, Cadet Revolution, or 1830 November Uprising, began in Warsaw at the Officer Cadet School, led by Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki and other officers. Many others joined them, and the occupying Russian garrison was forced to withdraw north of the city.

During this rebellion, Polish forces achieved successes in the struggle against Russian occupying armies. Their incoming military supplies were blocked by Prussia and Austria, leading to the failure of what might have been a successful uprising. The end came in 21 October 1831, when Tsar Nicholas I of Russia declared that Poland would henceforth be a part of Russia. The Polish army was disbanded, Wilno University was closed, and the Polish language was no longer taught in schools. Estates were confiscated, and Russians were appointed to positions of authority. Thousands of Poles then fled in what later became known as the ‘Great Emigration’. They went to other Western European countries, mainly France, but also to Britain, Belgium, and Switzerland. One of the leaders of this uprising was Colonel Krystyn Lach-Szyrma.

The son of Adam Lach and Katarzyna Heydukowna, Krystyn was born Christian Lach, on 17th December 1791 in the village of Wojnasy, near to Olecko, on the border of Poland and Prussia. Young Christian was educated at Königsberg, and altered his name when he went to the University of Vilnius. There he obtained an MA, followed by a PhD in Philosophy at the Royal University of Warsaw.

From 1820 to 1824 he travelled around Britain. During this time he studied at Edinburgh University, and journeyed around Scotland and England accompanying the Princes Adam and Konstanty Czartoryski, and their cousin Prince Sapieha, on the Grand Tour, under instruction from the head of the family, Prince Adam Czartoryski Jr. (later to be declared the ‘unofficial’ King of Poland). They attended lectures at Edinburgh University, studying medicine, philosophy, rhetoric and economics. Whilst in Scotland, Krystyn also travelled to Glasgow, Dumfries and the borders, and visited friends in the Lothians. He attended supper parties and balls, and was interested in British Government, the British Penal System and courts, as well as prisons, lunatic asylums and gas works! He walked to Oban and sailed around Mull, and eventually published a book “From Charlotte Square to Fingal’s Cave: Reminiscences of a Journey through Scotland, 1820-1824”.

Whilst in Edinburgh, he invited a friend called Joseph Crabtree to visit him for a prolonged stay. Crabtree had been employed at Wilno University in 1808 when Krystyn was 18 years old, probably studying there. Crabtree helped Krystyn to publish another book entitled “Letters Literary and Political on Poland”. Yet another of his publications was “London Observed: A Polish Philosopher at Large (1820-1824)” which was published in English as recently as 2009. This recorded in detail his early travels to England, as well as his time in Calais.

His journey across the English Channel by packet boat, in rough weather, made him very seasick. Crossing the channel by sailing boat cost one guinea, and could take up to 18 hours, depending on the tides and wind direction. He wrote the following:

“The ship was rolling on the waves more and more, causing the unbearable suffering called seasickness and those who are used to sailing are spared. Even to describe the symptoms is not pleasant…The most unpleasant feeling is when a huge breaker, having raised the ship high, brings it crashing down. Your whole body feels numb. The weakness is so tormenting, that it almost makes you lose interest in life. In case of a violent storm, it must make people insensitive to danger, thus mitigating the horror of a shipwreck.”

He also witnessed the use of some of the first steamboats, reporting that:

“…a steamboat owner in Calais inviting a few members of the municipal council for a short sail in his steamer. “They agreed to his request, but when it was time to go on board, they got frightened and each of them looked for an excuse not to take part in this trip. Such an important invention aroused people’s anxiety in those days!”

Professor Krystyn Lach-Szyrmam, about 1830

Krystyn returned to Poland and married Jozefa Dzierzgowska in Warsaw in September 1824. They are known to have had two children, although there may have been another daughter. From 1824 until 1831 he was a Doctor and a Professor of Moral Philosophy at Warsaw University, and became one of the leaders of the 1930 November uprising. When it came to an end he was exiled from Poland for life, along with his patron, Prince Adam Jerzy. The Prince went to Paris to be with other exiled Poles. Krystyn did not accompany him.

Instead, during that ‘Great Emigration’ of 1831, Krystyn made Edinburgh his ultimate destination, and he grew to love the city. It appears that he already counted the famous Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, and other prominent Scots amongst his friends.

Some years later, when visiting his friend, Joseph Crabtree, in Devonport, he met the daughter of Philip Somerville, a local Royal Navy Captain. Krystyn and Sarah Frances Field Somerville fell in love and married in July 1840 at Stoke Damerel Parish Church. They subsequently settled in Devonport in 1841 and had two sons in 1841 and 1844.

Krystyn intended to remain in Britain, and took up British citizenship in September 1846, six years after his marriage to Sarah. He became a prominent member of Devonport society during the 26 years that he lived here, and was also active in London as part of the Polish literary and diplomatic community, working as a translator and journalist.

So, what does all of the above have to do with Stoke Damerel Parish Church? At the beginning of December 2019, one of the Churchwardens received a call, out-of-the-blue, from the Polish Embassy in London. One of the Polish Diplomats was about to return to Poland after three years in London. He had been asked by an author in Poland to visit the grave of Colonel Lach-Szyrma and, if possible, to take a photograph of the gravestone. The exact location was not known but the grave was recorded as being somewhere in Stoke Damerel Churchyard. 

Location of Lach-Szyrma’s Gravestone
Photograph: Tony Barnard

That area of the churchyard was inspected, but it is now very overgrown with weeds and brambles. This photograph of the gravestone, taken in 2009, shows what hides beneath. The text on the gravestone reads: –


Gravestone of Colonel Krystyn Lach-Szyrma
reproduced with permission of Plymouth City Council

The Lach-Szyrma story does not stop there. His son, Władysław Somerville Lach-Szyrma, was interested in religion from an early age, and became a priest, perhaps inspired by Reverend William John St. Aubyn of Stoke Damerel Parish Church. His interest in Cornish history led him to become an advocate of all things Cornish, including the language. His life story can be downloaded here.

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