Shelford Tommy


Compiled by Steven Connor. as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
The former, James Burne, commonly called Shelford Tommy, is a native of that place; and although a bird of passage, he is most frequently to be seen at Nottingham, where, by his extraordinary natural powers he has, in a great measure, subsisted for some years. He carries in his pocket, an ill-shaped doll, with a broad face, which he exhibits at public-houses, on fair days, race days, market days, &c. as giving utterance to his own childish jargon. The gazing croud, who gather round him to see this wooden baby, and hear, as it appears, its speeches, are often deceived; nothing but the movement of the ventriloquist's lips, which he endeavours to conceal, can lead to the deception. I will notice one or two of his exploits in this way. 

Tommy was one day at the week-day cross, at Nottingham, and there so much surprized a country girl, in a frolicsome moment, by her hearing, as she thought, a child speak to her and seeing none, that her astonishment was wrought up to such a pitch as to bring on a succession of alarming fits, by which the poor girl suffered for some time. This wanton exercise of his talents got Tommy a lodging, for a little time, in Bridewel, by the order of the magistrates. 

Another of his jokes, but of a less serious nature, is told thus: Tommy, following a carrier's waggon, on a certain day, imitated, at times, the crying of a child, so naturally, that the waggoner stopped his horses several times, on the road, to examine the waggon, conceiving that the cries of the child came from within his carriage; but on examining the straw, at the tail of the waggon, he could discover no child, and consequently proceeded on his journey, the wily ventriloquist at his side. A little before the waggon entered the next village upon the road, Tommy repeated the crying of a child so effectually and so naturally, as proceeding from within the waggon, that the driver, fearing that he might be accessary to the death of an infant, was determined to unload his waggon at the village, which, by the help of some people, to whom he had told his story, he effected; but found therein no child living or dead. Tommy, we are told, in this search, asssisted, who doubtless secretly enjoyed the joke, for which, had it been found out, he would most likely, got a severe threshing. 

Our ventriloquist was, at another time, in the house of a stranger to his extraordinary powers, where a servant girl, in the kitchen, 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. 

This man appears to be about the middle age of life. 

I have read somewhere of one of these rare beings, being produced in the Emperor's dominions, and of another exercising his extraordinary talents, in London, about the beginning of this century. 

Thoroton's History of Nottinghamshire: Republished, With Large Additions, 3 Vols (London: B. and J. White, etc., 1797), Vol 2, pp. 149-50.