by Joe Earp
Nottingham has always boasted it’s fair share of local characters, legends and eccentrics. People like Benjamin Mayo and more recently Frank Robinson who was affectionately known as Xylophone Man, will go down in Nottingham history as some of the best known.
However there is one who during 18th century life in Nottingham was quite a local celebrity. He is today rather generally forgotten.
His real name was James Burne, nicknamed “Shelford Tommy”. J Holland Walker (1931) describes Tommy as “an itinerant ventriloquist and earned a precarious existence by giving exhibitions of his capabilities with an ill-made ventriloquial dummy”.
Tommy was described as “carrying in his pocket, an ill-shaped doll, with a broad face, which he apparently exhibited at public-houses, on fair days, race days and market days”. The gazing crowd would gather round him to see this wooden baby and hear it speak. Its speeches were often deceived. “Nothing but the movement of the ventriloquist’s lips, which he endeavoured to conceal, lead to the deception”.
Walker (1931) states “many amusing stories are told of his powers, one of which was that seeing a waggoner with a load of straw he imitated the crying of a baby so naturally that the waggoner thought there was a child buried under his load and in all haste proceeded to unload his cart lest he should smother the child”.
Another tale told by John Throsby in his revised edition of ‘The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire’ by Robert Thoroton (1797) talks of Tommy being in the house of a stranger. Thorosby writes “to his extraordinary powers, a servant girl was in the kitchen, she was about to dress some fish, not long taken from the river; but apparently dead. When she was about to cut off the head of one of them, Tommy, at the instant she laid her knife on the fishesþ neck, uttered, in a plaintive voice, dont cut my head off. The girl, upon this, being much alarmed, and knowing not whence the voice proceeded, hastily drew the knife from the little fish and stood for some time in motionless amazement. At length, however, recovering herself, and not seeing the fish stir, had courage to proceed to her business, and took up the knife a second time, to sever the head of the fish from the body. Tommy, at that moment uttered rather sharply, but mournfully, “what you will cut my head off”, upon which the frightened female threw down the knife on the floor and positively refused to dress the fish”.
Apparently the fish incident so alarmed the maid that she was seized with a fit and Shelford Tommy was “seized by the constable and lodged in prison for his pains”.
James Burne, aka Shelford Tommy, died around 1796.