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How Tom Shufflebotham charmed 511 worms

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

World Worm Charming Championship
The World Worm Charming Championship in progress at Willaston, near Nantwich, Cheshire (UK).
The winners, Geoff and Davina Sandberg, are at right foreground. Photo Geoff Sandberg

Of all the world's weird and wondrous sporting events and pastimes, the gentle art of worm-charming surely takes the cake as the most bizarre.

I've often seen fishermen dragging hessian bags containing putrid offal or long-dead fish over mangrove swamps, to attract giant beach worms to the surface (I did it myself as a teenager). As soon as a worm pokes its head above the mud, the fisherman grabs it, and drags the wriggler (which may be 2.5 metres long) from its lair, to use as choice bait. But there's nothing charming about that.

They catch earthworms differently in Britain. Best results seem to be achieved by vibrating the tynes of a garden fork driven 15cm. into the turf, a method they call twanging. Some stamp on the ground, while others, emulating Indian snake charmers, play music to the worms (perhaps the 1966 pop song Good Vibrations).

"On Saturday 5th July 1980 local Willaston farmer's son, Tom Shufflebotham amazed a disbelieving world by charming a total of 511 worms out of the ground in half an hour," says an article on a British website.

"True, there had been rather dubious unsubstantiated reports of a similar activity in Florida, USA some 10 years previous, but this was the first time a true competition with strict rules had been held. The village of Willaston, near Nantwich, Cheshire has been the venue for the annual World Championships ever since.

"A regulatory body of control was formed to compile and enforce a total of 18 rules governing all aspects of Worm Charming. The International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes (IFCWAP) not only exists for Worm Charming, but will look after the interests of other zaney sports such as indoor hand gliding, underwater Ludo and ice tiddly-winks (similar to curling but the tiddles go further).

"The International Committee of IFCWAP is formed by Mike Forster, Chief Wormer, and Mr Gordon Farr, Former Headmaster of Willaston School, who now enjoys life long Presidency and meets only once a year and at other times of national crisis.

"For example, when the New Zealand flat worm was discovered a number of years ago in some parts of the country, the threat to the common earthworm was of great public interest in Willaston and volunteers from the village still regularly patrol the site of the Worm Arena for at least 8 weeks prior to the event leaving no stone unturned, for that is where this hideous creature preyed on Willy Worm."

Two years ago, according to a report in the Chester Chronicle, Tim Holmes flew from Sydney, Australia, to take part with his friend Phil Morris, of Chester.

"Their unique method of didgeridoo-playing, coupled with a samba drum-beat, yielded only three worms," the newspaper reported. It quoted Tim as saying, "We did appallingly. It was only when a neighbouring charmer came to help us with a pitchfork that we managed to get into double figures. It was still worth the trip though. I had a great afternoon."

Voice of a sceptic

SO... the so-called "Tom Shufflebotham" <cough> "charmed" 511 worms in half an hour? <cough> I've tried this several times on a nice damp loamy lawn and blanked, apart from one scrawny worm I'm convinced it's all a long-running April fool's prank.
-- GlennB, in a UK forum, Anglers' Net. April 10, 2006.

The 2006 championship was won by Geoff Sandberg and his daughter Davina , who captured 127 worms.

We emailed Geoff, congratulating him on his success, and asking him to describe his methods and background.. He kindly sent us the photo shown above, and wrote:

I won the competition this year with my daughter Davina, at (for me) the 21st attempt.

I just use the very ordinary twanging method to charm worms. You need a bit of luck with a good plot to work in as well, because the distribution of the worms seems to be entirely random.

I saw some very sceptical stuff from worm charming unbelievers. The competition is real, and the world record of 511 is in the Guinness Book of Records. A few years ago the winner got 487, so you can see that such a high total is not a complete fluke.

I am 57, half Dutch (hence the surname) and I live in Willaston with my wife Susan and currently also my eldest daughter who returned home last year to study to become a primary school teacher. Davina is my youngest daughter, aged 23 (yes I know she only looks about 16 in the photo) and lives in Leeds. I have another daughter who lives in Italy.

I took early retirement last year from a long career in various parts of Britain's railways; latterly working for Richards Branson's Virgin Trains company. I write rail timetables and deal with a lot of the rolling stock planning for them (the two are inextricably linked). At the moment I am back with Virgin ... As you can see, worm charming is a top qualification which probably helped me to get the job.

All that sounds a bit dry and boring, but I have got a sense of humour, essential in that kind of work. But all the same, I can look at a timetable and appreciate its structure in the same way that an engineer will love the way a machine has been designed and built.

Some Australian friends sent me photos they took of me and Davina in action and with the "Golden Worm" trophy afterwards. I think they were totally bemused that people in England spend their time doing such crazy things when they could have been in the pub.


We wondered how Tom Shufflebotham and the other contestants had managed to charm those English worms. We found the technique described by a British poet and environmentalist, Dr. Gordon J.L. Ramel, who obviously has a deep affection for worms. He wrote:

One of the strangest ways that humans relate to Annelids is in the hobby of 'Worm Charming'. This involves enticing earthworms from their holes (catching them), originally it was a means of acquiring worms for bait, but now-a-days it is a sport.

The world record as far as I know is held by Tom Shufflebotham who charmed 511 worms from their underground hideouts from an area of 3 square metres in only 30 minutes during the 1980 Annual Worm Charming Championships held in Cheshire UK.

The rules specify that the worms must be brought to the surface without using refreshment, stimulation, drugs or digging. Tom used a method called twanging which involves sticking a 4-pronged pitchfork into the ground and twanging it.

Annelids range in size from the Giant Earthworms, of which Michrochaetus rappi (Michrochaetus michrochaetus) is the largest, this magnificent animal has an average length of 1.36 m (54 ins) and a record breaking specimen has been recorded that measured 6.7 metres (22 ft) in length, it was 2cm (0.8 ins) in diameter. Larger worms have been reported but not scientifically proven. The smallest Annelid known to science is Chaetogaster annandalai which is full grown at 0.5 mm (0.02 ins)

Gordon J.L. Ramel, who lives in North Tawton, Devon (UK) is a well-published poet who also holds a Master's Degree in Ecology from the University of Exeter. A dedicated environmentalist, he has written marvellous parodies of Wordsworth's Daffodils and Blake's The Tiger.

* This story forms part of a longer article posted by OhmyNewsInternational,  the citizen reporters' newszine in Seoul, South Korea. A story about worm gruntin' in the US will be posted in the September edition of this e-book.


Story first posted August 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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