The ventriloquist who made dead fish ‘speak’

Let me introduce you to James Burns, better known to all as ‘Squeaking Tommy’.

So, what do we know about this character?

We can see from the picture of Tommy that he carried around with him a doll with a broad face, wrapped in a piece of linen cloth which he exhibited at pubs on race days, at fairs, such as the famous Nottingham Goose Fair. He would use the doll as his assistant and projected his voice through it.

It is reported that in June 1789, at Week Day Cross in Nottingham, he used the doll to project his voice and it was so convincing that a child watching believed that the doll was actually talking to her. The child apparently became hysterical and caused her to have fits. The authorities were not impressed by this and Tommy was sent off for a spell in the House of Correction.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British, Newark - upon - Trent, ca. 1796. Yale Center for British Art
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British, Newark – upon – Trent, ca. 1796. Yale Center for British Art

Undeterred however, Tommy continued to use his ventriloquists skill around the county.

In early 1790, Tommy called at Mr Barton’s grocers shop just outside Nottingham city centre. He purchased an ounce of tobacco, nothing odd about that, except, as he was leaving, he spotted a young employee with his hand in a large cannister on the opposite side of the shop. The young man was getting tea out of it and putting it into a smaller cannister. Tommy immediately threw a sound into the bottom of the container, imitating the sounds of a dying animal.

So, as you expect, the young man and Mr Barton stood aghast at the noise and were just about to start rummaging around in the container to find the source. Eventually, Tommy confessed that he was the real cause of the sound but not before enjoying this spectacle.

Wheatley, Francis; The Hay Cart; Government Art Collection

Another of his pranks is said to have taken place in August 1792. Tommy was travelling with a John Badderly, who was at the time servant to farmer from Car Colston, just outside Nottingham. John was driving a waggon which was full to the brim with hay. Tommy was so skilled at imitating the cry of a child that he was able to project his voice into the middle of the hay waggon causing John to stop several times between Bingham and Newark.

John was so convinced he could hear this sound in the hay that eventually he stopped and began to examine the hay more closely to find out where the sound was coming from and enlisted Tommy’s help to unload the waggon as he could bear this child’s crying no longer.  But as you can imagine, there was no child, leaving poor John to reassemble the contents of his waggon, much to Tommy’s amusement and John’s annoyance at being deceived.

Another prank took place in the house of a Mr Hogg, who kept the Milton’s Head Inn, Cow Lane, Nottingham, and who knew nothing of Tommy. A servant girl in the kitchen was about to dress some dead fish, not long having been caught in the river Trent, but obviously dead. Tommy, at the moment she laid the life knife on the fish’s neck, uttered ‘don’t cut my head off’. The girl as you can imagine was extremely startled and quickly removed the knife from the fish and just stood there in shock.

She eventually managed to compose herself, and as the fish didn’t move, she plucked up courage to continue with her work and remove the fish’s head. Tommy uttered rather sharply, but mournfully, ‘what, you will cut of my head?’ The girl was now terrified and threw down the knife and refused to dress the fish.

Kidd, William; The Fish Stall; Museum of London

Tommy eventually settled in Shelford, Nottingham, where, despite being extremely reluctant to settle, found himself a wife and married Elizabeth Munks, on Boxing Day 1794 at the parish church. According to his marriage entry, he was said to have been from King’s County, now County Offaly in Ireland. As to how accurate that is we will probably never know.

But marriage didn’t settle him too much and his travels continued, albeit quite locally, along with his pranks and the final one I have details of, took place in September 1795.

Tommy visited a fish stall in Sheffield and asked the price of a tench. The fish woman gave him the price of the tench, at which point he picked it up in his hand, crammed a finger into its gills and opened its mouth, at the same time asking whether it was fresh, to which the fish woman replied it certainly was, it was in the water yesterday.

Tommy immediately threw his voice into the fish’s mouth and it said,

it’s a damned lie, I have not been in the water this week, and you know that very well’

The woman, now aware that she hadn’t exactly been telling the truth, was aghast by this outburst, but she struggled to dispute it. She was said to have been much more careful in the future about the freshness of her fish – just in case!

I’m sure there must have been many more, similar tales, but they don’t seem to have survived into history.

Sadly, Tommy’s marriage was to be short lived as he died just two years later on 7 January 1796 and was buried in the parish church where the couple had recently married.

Sources

Stamford Mercury – Friday 22 January 1796

Kirkby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum

Featured Image

Goodacre, William, 1803-1883; Nottingham Market Place

George John Scipio Africanus

You may not be familiar with the name George John Scipio Africanus, neither was I until I recently saw his name on a Blue Plaque in Nottingham and wanted to find out more about his life and family.

George arrived in England from Sierra Leone, aged about three and was raised by the affluent Molineux family. Baptised in Wolverhampton, George was given to one of the family as ‘a gift’.

31 Mar 1766 AFRICANUS George John Scipio-a negro boy of Benjamin Molineux’s

He was well liked by the family who arranged for him to be educated and then sent to complete an apprenticeship in the family town of Wolverhampton.

An Alphabetical List of the Burgesses and Freeholders who polled June 1826
An Alphabetical List of the Burgesses and Freeholders who polled June 1826

After completing his apprenticeship, John moved to Nottingham, a county where the Molineux family had connections. There he met a Nottingham girl, Esther Shaw, who, according to the marriage certificate, unlike George, was unable to write, simply signing her name with the usual mark X.

Marriage Licence 3rd August 1788
Marriage Licence 3rd August 1788

Despite the obvious issues of Esther being unable to write and George being non-white, at a time before slavery had been abolished, the couple settled down to produce seven children – Elizabeth, Samuel, Sarah, Hannah, Ann, Samuel and George. Tragically, only one child was to survive into adulthood – Hannah.

British (English) School; Nottingham Castle from the Meadows; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries
British (English) School; Nottingham Castle from the Meadows; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

In spite of the tragedy in their lives, George and Esther were hard workers, Esther ran a milliners and then together they ran an employment agency, employing servants for the wealthy which they set up early 1793. George had been a servant in the Molineux household, so understood what an employer would be looking for from potential employees. The couple remained in Nottingham for the remainder of their lives, continually expanding their business.

24th February 1793
24th February 1793

In 1834 George died, leaving Esther to continue the family business until her death in 1853, which was quite something for a woman to do alone at that time.

Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties 30 May 1834 Obituary
Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties 30 May 1834 Obituary

Esther was clearly not someone to be trifled with as we’ll shortly discover; on 7th April 1838, she was convicted and fined two shillings and six pence, plus twelve shillings and sixpence, for assaulting George Smith, a sweep, aged 9, with a brush.

Their daughter, Hannah, it would appear married unwisely, and clearly not really with her father’s blessing. Her husband was a watch and clock maker from Boston, Lincolnshire, one Samuel Cropper. They went on to have three children, Sarah who died in 1842 and was described as ‘sickly and infirm‘.  George Africanus, named in honour of Hannah’s father, who died at just one year, and Esther Africanus Cropper who was born 1840.

George, having become something of an entrepreneur and businessman was to leave a will, in which he left his wife Esther well provided for and also a bequest to his daughter Hannah – for her use only, under no circumstances was her husband to have any control of it. To say he didn’t approve of her choice would be putting it mildly. There could be absolutely no misunderstanding of his views in his will whatsoever.

A couple of years or so after George died, Esther, being a canny business woman took Hannah’s husband to court requiring back payment of maintenance for her daughter and her children. Apparently, Samuel had left the family home around 1825, when their youngest eldest child, Sarah was around three months old. Sarah required nurses to care for her, which presumably Esther funded. When Samuel eventually returned, he said he’d been working in France, Austria and Switzerland during that time. Esther decided it was payback time, and sued him for ten shilling per week for the time he had been away, which amounted to around £290 over the 10 years!

Samuel and Esther met again in the courtroom, this time due to Samuel becoming insolvent.

I would have thought it highly likely that George would have been impressed by his wife for her actions. Samuel’s behaviour clearly explains George’s will and George, it appears was ‘spot on’ with making sure his daughter benefited from his will to the exclusion of Samuel.

Whether Samuel sorted his debts remains unanswered, but for some reason Hannah and Samuel were reunited and produced their second and third children in fairly quick succession.

We now step very much out of our usual era but having disappeared down this proverbial rabbit hole, I wanted to know what became of George’s one and only granddaughter Esther Africanus Cropper, named after her grandmother, and whether any of George’s descendants are still alive today, so the hunt continued.

Esther and her husband to be, Charles Edward Turnbull, the son of a pianoforte maker from London, had their marriage banns read over the three weekends commencing 27th August 1865 at St Paul’s, St Pancras, London. The couple didn’t marry in London, but instead returned to Nottingham and married the following year, choosing however, to settle in London, where Charles was a toy merchant and ran a very successful business, founding Charterhouse Toys in 1872 (probably best known for their doll houses and miniature furnishings and toys).

On his death in 1929, he left Esther extremely well provided for with around £32,000 (just over £2 million in today’s money).  The couple had two boys, who worked in the family firm, but who never married, and a daughter, Margaret Hannah (George’s great granddaughter).

Margaret married in 1899, in Surbiton, Surrey and the couple had one son, Charles John Stuart Allen, who emigrated to Canada in the 1920’s, where he married Mary Georgina Stewart Williams in 1925. They had at least two children who, it seems feasible are either still alive today or who may have living descendants.

Charles died in 1960 in New York. It would be fascinating to know if this is the case and whether they know how important their ancestor George John Scipio Africanus was in both Nottingham and British history.

There is a black and white image of a portrait of George in existence, but it would be lovely to know where the original is, but I’ve had no luck as yet, tracking it down.

Descendant Chart for George Africanus © Sarah Murden (Click image to enlarge)
Descendant Chart for George Africanus © Sarah Murden (Click image to enlarge)

To find out more about George and to see some of the original documents visit MyLearning

To find out more about Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s brother who had connections with slavery and Sierra Leone click on this link

Sources

Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties 30 May 1834

Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties 17 March 1837

Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties 17 November 1837

Nottingham Journal 13 April 1838

Wolverhampton St Peter’s Parish Registers Index, baptisms (1538-1875)

Featured Image

Nottingham Market Place. William Goodacre. Nottingham Castle Museum and At Gallery. c1827.

The wheelwright of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire

Wollaton Hall, situated in parkland close to the city of Nottingham in the English midlands, dates from the Elizabethan period. It is now home to Nottingham’s natural history museum.

Wollaton Hall and Park, Nottinghamshire c.1697 by Jan Siberechts Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Wollaton Hall and Park, Nottinghamshire c.1697 by Jan Siberechts
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In the 1820s and into the 1830s William Burton, a wheelwright by trade, was working at the Hall while renovations were being carried out by the then owner Henry Willoughby, 6th Baron Middleton (1761-1835). William Burton left a letter for a future generation of craftsmen to find, hidden in the fabric of the Hall. His letter, which admittedly falls just outside our remit of writing about the Georgian Era, but only just as it was written less than three months into the reign of William IV, is given below.

Wollaton Hall, Nottingham by Hendrik Frans de Cort, c.1795 Nottingham City Museums and Galleries
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham by Hendrik Frans de Cort, c.1795
Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

September 8th 1830

William Burton Wheelwright, the Son of John & Hannah Burton of the Kings Head Public House Wollaton whose ancesters came from London when Wollaton House was first Built as Blacksmiths.

Born March 4th 1798 having now worked 8 years for Henry Lord Middleton as wheelwright he is now in his 70th year of age at Birdsall.

The Panneling of the top of the Great Hall now Put up & the Arches Repaired & Strengthened by Iron Rods &c the job was done in a Great Hurry upwards of 40 Hands Employed. We got Plenty of Beer & I hope your not short.

I found no Monney nor non I can Leave.

God bless you & I hope hee has got mee when you find this.

The Wollaton estate encompassed Birdsall House near Malton in East Yorkshire, originally a Tudor building which was remodelled in the Georgian Era, and Lord Middleton was obviously living there while his workmen renovated Wollaton Hall. William hid his letter under the beams of the ceiling of the three-story high Great Hall of Wollaton Hall, and God did indeed have him by the time the letter was found, for it remained in its hiding place until 1954 when further renovations to the building discovered it.

Plan of Wollaton Hall, Notthinghamshire, c.1811, by John Bucker FSA and John Chessell Buckler Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Plan of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, c.1811, by John Bucker FSA and John Chessell Buckler
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

A note from the past

Workmen repairing the roof of the Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, have found a letter written to them 124 years ago by a workman employed on the roof the last time it was repaired.

In a large clear hand, William Burton, a wheelwright, address the letter to the workmen who next repaired the building. It was dated September 8. 1830, and he put it under the beams in the roof. In it, he mentioned having worked eight years for Henry, Lord Middleton (the sixth Lord) then living at the Hall… The letter has been framed and will hang in the museum.

William was baptised three days after his birth, on the 7th March 1798 at St Leonard’s in Wollaton, the son of John and Hannah Burton. The portraits of his parents, John and Hannah Burton, who ran the nearby Kings Head public-house, hang at Wollaton Hall. Hannah was the daughter of Micah Gelding, a Justice of the Peace.

Mrs Hannah Burton by an unknown artist Nottingham City Museums and Galleries
Mrs Hannah Burton by an unknown artist
Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

John Burton is possibly the same man who is recorded as dying on the 20th November 1842 at Wollaton, aged 73 years and ‘universally respected’.

Mr John Burton by an unknown artist Nottingham City Museums and Galleries
Mr John Burton by an unknown artist
Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

We’re ending with one little non-Georgian piece of trivia regarding Wollaton Hall, lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia and because we just couldn’t resist passing it on. In 2011 the Hall featured as Wayne Manor in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, and it is located five miles north of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, the Nottinghamshire village which gave its name to Gotham City.

South East view of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, the Seat of the Right honourable Lord Middleton by John Buckler FSA and John Chessell Buckler, 1812.
South East view of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, the Seat of the Right honourable Lord Middleton by John Buckler FSA and John Chessell Buckler, 1812. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Acknowledgements:

Nottingham Hidden History Team, where you can see an image of the actual letter.

Other sources:

Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, 25th November 1842

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 3rd September 1954

Birdsall Estates