Did he or didn’t he? … Tommy Burns claimed to have dived off the Forth Bridge by moonlight in the early hours of 21st December 1896, a claim later branded ‘a myth’ by railway officials.

The Forth Bridge
FORTH BRIDGE: Railway officials found clothes and slippers at the point where Tommy was said to have dived. Photo: Jimmy Wilson

A report in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph later that day was typical of many:

Tommy Burns, the well-known diver, leaped from the Forth Bridge between three and four o’clock this morning into the sea, a distance of 150 feet. He was rowed out to Inchgarvie Island in a small boat, and climbed up the great pier, leaping from the rails level. When picked up he was rowed ashore and attended to by a doctor, but did not appear much the worse for his exploit.

But the Dundee Courier of 23rd December reported:

There would appear to be some doubt as to whether Tommy Burns really did dive from the Forth Bridge, as announced in the newspapers. The North British Railway officials declare the whole affair to be a myth, and state that the watchers on duty on each end of the bridge neither heard nor saw anything of Thomas’s achievement. At the same time, the authorities admit that a coat, pair of trousers and slippers were found on the bridge at the point where Tommy was said to have dived. Whether Tommy did or did not dive, the publicity which has been given to the affair is bound to ‘boom’ him in Edinburgh where he is at present fulfilling an engagement.

On 2nd January 1897, the Edinburgh Evening News reported:

Richard Marshall and John Marshall, boatmen, Daniel Paterson, James Lamb, and William Chisholm, all of Queensferry, have signed a certificate that they saw Tommy Burns, champion diver, dive from the Forth Bridge rail level on the morning of 21st December. He dived into the water about 150 yards from the lighthouse at Inchgarvie.

And a few days later, several newspapers carried a letter from Tommy, defying the sceptics and offering to dive from the Forth Bridge again – in daylight – and donate the proceeds to ‘Edinburgh Royal Infirmary or similar charitable institution’. The offer was subject to the railway company giving him permission to dive from the bridge.

The Big Question …

The assertion of the authorities seems to be that Tommy did not get on to the bridge because he was not seen or heard by the guards in the early hours of the morning … so how did the clothes get there?

In support of Tommy’s version of events, records show that there was a full moon on the night of 20th / 21st December 1896.