Tommy’s story

Les Powell
Les Powell

My interest in the life of Tommy Burns began after reading of his foiled attempt in 1891 to dive off the Nine Arches railway viaduct in Earlestown on Merseyside, close to where I was born.

Research of old records and newspaper archives has provided a fascinating insight into the action-packed life of the charismatic young man who became a household name. I believe it’s a story worth sharing.

By today’s standards, it may seem odd to highlight the activities of a daredevil who regularly attracted the attention of the police for trespassing on bridges, diving from moving trains, and causing mayhem by attracting huge crowds that brought towns and cities to a standstill.

But in Victorian times, things were very different and Tommy was hailed as a celebrity entertainer, at times attracting crowds up to 20,000 who would happily throw money in the hat to see him display his diving and swimming talents.

The Sheffield Evening Telegraph commented on 11th May 1893:

The boxing kangaroo, the wrestling lion, the gentleman whose cranium is a match for paving stones, having had the attractiveness of novelty worn off, London is now being entertained by sensational feats of diving. The aim of the professors of the latest draw is to dive from as great a height as possible into a ¬†tank which contains only some six feet of water …

Attention has been called to the dangerous character of such displays, but apparently this merely whets the public taste. The spectators would be horrified were they doomed to witness an accident involving serious injury, and possibly loss of life, but the knowledge that such a catastrophe is possible is the magnetic power of such entertainments … it is the danger that constitutes the ‘draw’.

I hope you enjoy reading about Tommy and I look forward to hearing from you if you have information or images to add to his life story.

Les Powell


This website was published on 20th March 2013, the 120th anniversary of Tommy Burns’s arrival at the Royal Aquarium in London where Victorian audiences gathered to see the latest sensational entertainment of the day.