Shelford Tommy

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.

shelford-tommy, c 1790

Shelford Tommy, c 1790


About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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