Thomas ‘Tommy’ Burns was born in Liverpool around 1867 and in the next 30 years, he achieved worldwide fame for his sensational feats of skill as a high diver, swimmer and athlete.
He was a showman and entertainer and at the height of his professional career, he was the star attraction at the Royal Aquarium in London, thrilling Victorian audiences by diving 100 feet into a shallow tank of water.
By this time, he was regularly referred to as ‘Professor’ Tommy Burns, a non-academic title often bestowed on entertainers considered to be experts in their field.
Tommy’s love of water blossomed from the age of nine when he learned to swim in a clay pit at Cabbage Hall – now known as Walton Breck – in Liverpool. In his teens, he became captain of Sefton Swimming Club and at one time was an attendant at Margaret Street Baths and a swimming teacher at Lodge Lane Baths.
He excelled at many sporting activities and by his 21st birthday he had collected 400 awards for diving, swimming, running, walking and boxing. He was reported to have saved 42 lives from drowning and held medals and awards from the Liverpool Humane and Shipwreck Society and the Royal Humane Society.
Thousands flocked to see ‘world champ’
He was fearless and honed his skills by diving from bridges where crowds of up to 20,000 would gather to marvel at the breathtaking performances of the man known as the ‘Champion Diver of the World’.
In 1889 he made his first recorded bridge dive at Runcorn about 18 miles upriver from Liverpool where he plunged 85 feet into the Mersey. In the next few years he gave at least four repeat performances at Runcorn and also dived off the Forth Bridge, Tay Bridge, Jamaica Bridge in Glasgow, London Bridge, O’Connell Bridge in Dublin, and a string of other structures.
He went to elaborate lengths to outwit police and railway officials who often tried to stop his antics. As a result, he became a master of disguise, dressing as a farmer, miner, newsboy, old woman, and a female market worker to avoid the attention of the authorities. Sometimes, he succeeded in diving from bridges only to be arrested as he left the water, and on other occasions, he would manage to dodge his pursuers.
He appeared in court many times and it wasn’t unusual for cases to have their lighter moments. One such hearing took place in Dublin in August 1890 when Tommy was arrested after diving off O’Connell Bridge into the Liffey. His ‘manager’ Harry Montague told the court that the police had treated Tommy ‘very kindly and allowed him to take brandy’.
The magistrate commented:’Indeed, I think he must have required it after being ten minutes in the Liffey.’ There was laughter in court and Tommy was let off after promising not to do it again!
Tragic end of ‘courageous genius’
Tommy died at the age of 30 when a simple dive witnessed by 3,000 spectators went badly wrong in North Wales where he had been hired to make a series of appearances in the summer season. The following day, a leader article in the 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 touching epitaph prompted a reader’s letter from D. F. Jackson, chairman of Liverpool Gymnasium Swimming Club, thanking the Echo for ‘your able leader which told of the many good qualities of the deceased athlete’. He wrote:
I know of numerous brave actions of the ill-fated diver, and herewith remit you 10s 6d [about £57 in today’s money] towards a subscription for Tommy’s widow, and I feel confident that if you will accept contributions many will be sent to you for the widow of the unfortunate swimmer, who had no knowledge of fear, and who by many sterling and manly qualities had endeared himself to numbers, he being always ready to give a hand in any good cause.
In a letter to the Dundee Courier on 9th July 1897 a reader regretted that Tommy’s services as a lifesaver ‘have evidently been entirely forgotten’ in newspaper coverage of his death, and added:
It is surely only fair that this is kept in mind. Many a man has got a monument for less.
But for Tommy, there was to be no monument or memorial to honour his achievements and memories of the one-time local hero faded.