Street Tales: Shelford Tommy

Words: Joe Earp
Illustrations: Eva Brudenell
Sunday 20 August 2017
reading time: min, words

Nottingham has always boasted its fair share of local characters, legends and eccentrics. People like Benjamin Mayo, and more recent contenders like Frank Robinson, affectionately known as Xylophone Man, will go down in Nottingham history...


But there’s one from the eighteenth century who, although quite a local celebrity in his day, is generally forgotten in 2017.

His real name was James Burne, though he was nicknamed “Shelford Tommy.” In 1931, J Holland Walker described Tommy as “an itinerant ventriloquist [who] earned a precarious existence by giving exhibitions of his capabilities with an ill-made ventriloquial dummy.”

Tommy was recorded 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 to see this wooden baby and hear it speak, and its speeches were often deceived. “Nothing but the movement of the ventriloquist’s lips, which he endeavoured to conceal, lead to the deception.”

Again, in 1931, Walker wrote “many amusing stories are told of his powers. One of which was that upon 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.”

There’s another tale told by John Throsby in his revised edition of
The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire by Robert Thoroton, from 1797. He said Tommy was in a stranger’s house, and “to his extraordinary powers, a servant girl was in the kitchen, 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 fish’s neck, uttered, in a plaintive voice, ‘Don’t 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 had a fit and Shelford Tommy was “seized by the constable and lodged in prison for his pains.”

The bogger died around 1796, but let’s not forget his playfully trickish ways, and raise a glass to his legend and tomfoolery today.

For more on Nottingham History check out the Nottingham Hidden History website.

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