Thursday, March 21, 2013

Website tribute to the memory of Liverpool high diver Professor Tommy Burns

It is 120 years since Liverpool-born athlete, swimmer and diver Professor Tommy Burns reached the high point of his professional career … diving 100 feet into a shallow tank of water at the Royal Aquarium, a lavish palace of Victorian entertainment in London.

The baker's son from Farnworth Street in the Kensington district of Liverpool honed his skills by diving 85 feet into the Mersey from Runcorn Bridge. Later he dived from the Tay Bridge, Forth Bridge, London Bridge and many other structures around the country where he attracted crowds of up to 20,000 spectators to marvel at his performances.

He was 26 when he was hired to take part in the Easter programme at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster where he arrived on Monday 20th March 1893 for a press preview dive which made headlines in newspapers at home and around the world. On that occasion he dived from 83 feet but for his public performances from 2nd April, the diving platform was raised to 100 feet.

One newspaper of the day (The Era) told its readers: 'The holiday programme at the Aquarium was forty inches long, and it was literally crammed full of good things – sensational performances, of course, claiming the greatest share of attention, and commanding enthusiastic acclamation for such daring entertainers as Professor Thomas Burns …'

Burns excelled at many sporting activities and by the age of 21, he was said to have collected 400 awards for diving, swimming, running, walking and boxing. And at the time of his death nine years later, he was reported to have saved 42 lives from drowning, bravery rewarded with medals and awards from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society and the Royal Humane Society.

In February 1895, times were extremely hard in Liverpool where unemployment was high, partly due to severe weather, and many people were destitute and starving. In the afternoons, hundreds gathered outside St George’s Hall in Lime Street where soup, bread and beef were handed out from vans. Burns decided to help the cause by pushing a wheeled collecting box on a 100-mile fundraising tour of Lancashire towns.

The Sheffield Evening Telegraph told how he started his journey after stepping out of a soup van wearing tight woollen pantaloons and a jersey with the words ‘For the Liverpool Unemployed’. It continued: 'He was preceded by a large crowd of the unemployed, one of whom carried a red banner, the words inscribed on which gave out to the world that the Liverpool unemployed “demanded work”. Thousands of spectators assembled in Lime Street, and for a considerable distance lined London Road, along which proceeded Tommy amid the cheers of the crowd.'

Burns drowned at the age of 30 when a simple dive witnessed by 3,000 spectators went badly wrong in North Wales where he had been booked to make a series of appearances in the 1897 summer season. A leader article in the following day's Liverpool Echo stated:

'The sensational method of Tommy Burns’s death yesterday at Rhyl was in unison with his dare-devil exploits all through his life. The ever popular Tommy was one of those erratic geniuses who are never content unless bent on extraordinary enterprises. Had he chosen the profession of arms his courage and coolness must have won him long ago the coveted honour of the Victoria Cross. He had all the rough material in his composition out of which heroes are made.'

The story of Burns's life is being told on a new website – – which will be launched on Wednesday 20th March, the 120th anniversary of his arrival at the Royal Aquarium.

The website has been compiled by retired journalist Les Powell who has been studying old records and newspapers to piece together the life story of the man who became known as  'The Champion Diver of the World'.

He says: “It is a fascinating story about a highly talented young athlete who captured the hearts of the nation.”

Tommy Burns factfile

In 1884, 17-year-old Tommy dived into the Mersey from the Rock Ferry steamer to rescue a passenger who fell overboard.  The Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society later awarded him a silver medal and 13s 6d (about £67 in today’s money) for damage to his clothes.

On 1st February 1893 he took part in Everton’s Grand Football Gala at Goodison Park in Liverpool to raise funds for the Royal Infirmary and Stanley Hospital.

On Saturday 19th October 1889 police were out in force in Lime Street, Liverpool, to control well-wishers who turned out to welcome Tommy at the end of a nine-day challenge which the Liverpool Echo referred to as ‘Burns’s Great Feat’.

He appeared at theatres around the country, demonstrating athletic talents from speed walking and running to comic boxing.

He became a master of disguise to outwit police and railway officials who tried to stop him diving from bridges. He dressed as a farmer, miner, newsboy, old woman, and a female market worker.

On several occasions, he made death-defying dives from moving trains into rivers and docks.

On Derby Day 1896 he dived into the Thames from three London bridges before jogging 14 miles to Epsom in time to see the big race.

He stayed underwater in the sea at Douglas, Isle of Man, for 4min 2sec. In a contest in Liverpool, he remained underwater for 3min 58sec.

He swam with an alligator in an exhibition tank at Liverpool and in 1892, he killed a shark which attacked him during his swimming display in the sea off New Brighton.

He appeared before the Lord Mayor of London in 1896 after being arrested for diving off London Bridge. He was let off after promising not to do it again.


Tony Jones said...

Killed a shark of New Brighton? any more detail please Louise? Kind Regards Tony Jones

Louise Baldock said...

Hi Tony, get in touch with Les here

Best wishes, Louise