Son of Elijah (b1851) and Bridget Ellwood (nee Boyle b1850. Family tradition has it that she was the Champion Clog Dancer of Ireland). They were married on 4th September 1869 when living at Maryport in Cumberland and it seems that James was born there a few weeks later in 1869. Elijah was, at that time, a coal miner. The family are recorded 2 years later, in 1871, living at Ince, Lancashire. By the date of the next census, Bridget having died probably in 1875, the family, are now eight in number including Elijah’s new wife, Ellen (b. Brenkside, Northumberland in 1849) who he had married in late 1876. Consideration of the original census return suggests that James’ sister Ann (b.1874) was Bridget’s daughter, John, the same age as himself, was Ellen’s son (and thus James’ half-brother). Two of the remaining children were born in Dipton, Co Durham and the date suggests that the family were living there as early as 1876. The family clearly had connections with Durham, Elijah’s father, Thomas Ellwood being born in Coundon, Co. Durham in 1807.
By 1890 James was living at Grangeville, Pelton, Co. Durham. On 24th November of that year, at the age of 21, he married Elizabeth Robinson, aged 19, at the Register Office, Chester-le-Street, Co Durham. His occupation is given as coal miner. They had 5 children, not all of whom survived childhood: Eleanor Ellwood (b1895), Elijah Ellwood (b1897), Johnson Robinson Ellwood (b. 4th August 1899), Jenny Ellwood (b1907) and John Thomas Ellwood (b1910). Census returns always describe Jimmy as a coal miner.
Jimmy is the first clog dancing member of the family of whom we have any concrete knowledge. It is not known from whom he learnt to dance, although his mother, who was reputed to be the clog dance champion of Ireland, may have had some influence. It is interesting however to note that the family originally came from Cumberland. Another clog dancer with the name Ellwood is known from Cumberland. Ellwood (sometimes Elwood) is a fairly common name in Cumberland and Westmorland and it is very possible that he was no relation.
So, Jimmy was living in Co. Durham in 1888, that being the year he claimed to have won his first competition. This was held in Foster’s Concert Room. Stanley Hotel, Stanley, Co. Durham. Jimmy won a purse of twelve silver three penny pieces. He seems to have begun teaching the following year and in his long career as a clog dance instructor taught pupils from all over Tyneside.
By 1900 Jimmy was working at Twizzell Colliery, Co. Durham and was teaching at his house nearby. Pupils would come, sometimes several at a time, to his house for lessons. He would take a door off its hinges and lay it on the floor for his pupils to dance on. His method of teaching involved showing his pupils a step or two and then making them practice while he either ate his supper or went down to the Jingling Gate public house nearby for a drink. He was a very strict teacher, and it was often difficult to even get through a single step without being stopped for corrections.
Jimmy also danced in, and occasionally arranged, charity concerts for injured miners. These concerts were a not infrequent occurrence in the North-East in the days before National Insurance. One of these was held at the West Pelton Store Hall, Co. Durham in 1906 for a man who had lost his leg in an accident at the Twizzell Pit. On this occasion the Colliery Manager was the Concert Chairman and about £10 was raised for the injured man. It was at this concert that Jimmy’s son Johnson danced for the first time with his father.
In addition to charity concerts, Jimmy is also known to have performed at a type of competition known as a “go-as-you-please”. This involved short performances by amateurs or semi-professionals of whatever type of entertainment they were able to provide. Singers and musicians were most common, but almost any type of music hall act seems to have found its way on to the go-as-you-please stage, including the clog dance. Frequently the winner would be the performer who got the most applause, the prize ranging from a sum of money to a piece of beef! The competitions took place in local working mens clubs, village halls and occasionally as an interlude in professional stage shows.
Jimmy seems to have been well-known for his participation in these competitions, certainly he was marked down as a man to beat by other dancers in the area.
Jimmy also had an association with the Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers. In 1908, the sword team visited Alnwick Castle to dance on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales (later King George V). This team had been in the habit of visiting Alnwick Castle each year at the invitation of the Duchess of Northumberland in order to dance at the annual Christmas party which she organised for local poor children. This resulted in the Earsdon Sword dancers being invited to dance for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Alnwick during their visit to the North East on 10th July 1906. It was after this performance that the team added the “Royal” to their name. In addition to the sword dance, one of the members of the team, George (Geordie) Osborn, who was a clog dancer, gave a performance. By 1908 however, Osborn was in the sword team and it seems that Jimmy was imported as a clog dancer for the occasion. Whether he danced with them at other times is unknown.
In 1923 Jimmy and his son Johnson teamed up as a double act for a short period and travelled around local theatres. Jimmy was offered a full-time professional engagement in London, but decided that this was too far away and so continued to dance in his spare time whilst carrying on his job as a miner. Jimmy also performed as a double act with various of his pupils, one of whom, Sammy Bell, was able to recall a particularly unusual “party piece” involving dancing on the backs of two boot brushes. The format of these performances was almost certainly very variable but would typically involve both dancers entering together and performing a few steps. Jimmy would then dance a few more complex steps as a solo, the performance ending with both dancers together once more.
Competed in the Northumberland and Durham Championship held in Stanley in 1935, being placed 6th. Prior to the competition he prepared lists of the dancers entering with his views on their chances of success. He was obviously something of a self-publicist and a report of his competition entry appeared in the local press before the event. Jimmy was very dissatisfied with the way the competition was organised and the result. Details of his dispute about the result s are available here.
Jimmy listed his pupils as including the following, although it is likely that many of these were dancers to whom he taught occasional steps rather than individuals who learned all their dancing from him:
Johnson Ellwood – son of Jimmy
Thomas Ellwood – son of Jimmy
Bobby Surtees – brother of John Surtees and Joss Surtees
Joss Surtees – brother of John Surtees and Bobby Surtees
Information on this page derives from census an registration records, an interview with John Surtees on 14/9/1980, reports in the Stanley News for 24/5/1935 and 21/6/1935 and an MSS list of pupils and an MSS list of competing dancers, both in Jimmy Ellwood’s handwriting, shown to the IRT by Angus Catanach.