The ring road hermit
By Dorota Bawolek
A war veteran. A prophet. A road sweeper. Just who is 'Fred', Wolverhampton's homeless mystery man?
If you've driven round Wolverhampton's ring road at any time over the last 50 years, you may have noticed an old shackle of a tent under some trees.
It houses Josef Stawinoga, a Polish immigrant who for the last half a century has lived the life of a hermit, emerging occasionally to sweep the nearby streets.
He is known locally as 'Fred' and is a readily accepted part of the Wolverhampton community.
"Josef always tells me how local people look after him," says his friend and fellow Pole Juliusz Leonowicz. "One day he was even given a chicken to keep him company!
"I think in his mind he is quite happy. I have to go home and pay the bills so sometimes I wonder who is smarter – me or him!"
So why on earth did a Polish immigrant set up home in a tent in the middle of Wolverhampton almost fifty years ago?
Local folklore holds several explanations…
Rumours abound suggest that Josef arrived in England in 1946 after spending part of World War 2 fighting for the Polish Army.
The horrors of warfare left a permanent mental scar on Josef and he opted for the life of a recluse, forever damaged by the horrors of war.
Juliusz Leonowicz, Josef's sole friend and link to his past, speculates that Fred's lifestyle is the result of a failed relationship, a love gone terribly wrong.
"He worked in a Bilston factory not long after coming to Wolverhampton," says Juliusz. "He met and married an Austrian woman but his wife left him after a year. One day he just didn't turn up for work. We didn't know his whereabouts.
"He went down hill when she left. He stopped shaving and washing himself."
Juliusz Leonowicz, Fred's friend
Josef never worked again and dossed down in different parts of the city, in run-down houses and on construction sites, but was always moved on by the police.
He eventually settled on the ring road, in a tent under some bushes. He's been there ever since…
Chairman of the Wolverhampton's Krishna Mandir Temple, Dershan Lalshadha says:
"In India we believe that people who live in jungles and outskirts, away from civilisation devote their lives to God.
Outside his home
"This man doesn't want any relation with the world, he is connected with God and so we believe he is a saintly person."
Many of Wolverhampton's Indian population believe Josef to be a saint.
A local lady has been taking flasks of hot tea to him every day for years.
"We take our children to see him," she says. "We want to show them the man who does not have anything on this world but his relation with God."
Other townsfolk bring 'Fred' gifts; but he rarely accepts them.
"Someone gave him a mirror once which he did keep," says Juliusz. "He was feeling every part of his face while looking at it, checking every wrinkle. It proved he hadn't seen his face for years."
When Josef does emerge from his haven, it's usually to pick up a brush and sweep the surrounding streets.
As Brian O'Leary from Wolverhampton Adult Care Services explains: "I think that in his world somewhere he thinks he makes some sort of contribution to the local community by sweeping the roads."
Whatever the true story behind Josef's background is, he's an accepted, albeit eccentric, part of Wolverhampton's community.
Sweeping the roads
"He doesn't have any negative effect on the local community, in fact he is seen as a local character" says Brian.
"In the past we tried to do social work assessments but he's made it very clear that he is not at all interested in anything other than living the sort of life he has chosen to live.
"So we've decided to respect what he wants and try to keep a 'quiet eye' on him while delivering his daily hot meals and replacing the tent every few years."
last updated: 29/10/07