Tommy Burns – The Entertainer

On 28th June 1890, Tommy Burns’s manager took a full-column advertisement in The Era newspaper in which he described him as champion all-round athlete of the world at ‘diving, swimming, walking, running, boxing (Marquis of Quensberry), pole jumping and horizontal bar etc’.

He offered to compete against any artistes on piers, promenades, baths, bridges, pontoons, and stages – dramatic or musical.

Some of Tommy’s engagements and feats

On 15th September 1886, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph recorded an ‘Extraordinary Swimming Feat’ which had been attempted by several well-known swimmers without success – swimming from Battery Pier in Port Skillion, Isle of Man, to Derby Castle Pier in Douglas.

Burns dived into the sea, the water being very cold and rough. He stuck to his task with great gameness, and swimming in fine style landed at the Derby Castle Pier in the splendid time of 1h 7min, the distance being over two miles. Burns was loudly cheered on arriving at the pier.

On 6th October 1888, Tommy took part in a variety show at the Lyceum Theatre in Blackburn where he walked a mile on stage in under eight minutes and ran a mile in under five minutes. The show also included trick cyclists, a juggler and wire walker, Irish comedians and a song and dance artist.

On 25th June 1889, an ad for New Brighton Baths appeared in the Liverpool Echo stating that the champion swimmer would be appearing there every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 7pm and on Sundays at 6pm.

In November 1890, he was top of the bill at the Britannia Theatre in Glasgow where he walked half a mile on stage in four minutes and ran the same distance in 2½ minutes. The Era newspaper on 22nd November 1890 noted: ‘His reception is most enthusiatic’.

He appeared on stage at the Victoria Theatre of Varieties in Bolton at the start of 1890. An item in The Era newspaper of Saturday 4th January promised ‘a capital holiday entertainment is given here by Tommy Burns, pedestrian’.
Also on the bill were:

Wiggins and Coyle, wrestlers; the Morgans, sketch artists, Griffin and Wilkinson, pedestal dancers; the Reynolds, speciality artists, Ted Millins, sand jig dancer; Harry Lynch, Negro comedian; and Barbara Alleyn, serio-comic.

On 14th January 1892 Tommy was top of the bill at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Middlesborough where he was appearing for the week.

On 20th January, he was appearing at the Star Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees. He publicised his appearance by diving from the Victoria Bridge and swimming to the bottom of Bishop Street where the theatre was situated. In The Era newspaper (25th January 1890) managers of the Star Theatre boasted:

The programme here is always a strong one and this week is no exception to the rule as the following list proves: Tommy Burns, diver and swimmer; Mr J. H. Pierce, Negro comedian and top-boot dancer; Miss Marjory Glen, serio and dancer; Mr Dave Gorman, character vocalist …

On 20th April 1892, he gave a private performance at a Liverpool exhibition where he swam in a tank with an alligator. The Manchester Evening News reported:

Burns dived under and over the alligator, which is 4ft 2½in long, and succeeded in nonplussing the saurian to such an extent that he was never in fear that its teeth would come in contact with him.

On 5th August 1892, he took part in the Southport Centenary which was advertised as ‘the exhibition of the century’.

On 26th August 1892, Tommy dived off three bridges in York – Lendal, Ouse and Skeldergate – and appeared at the Corn Exchange in the evening.

Christmas Eve entertainment at Roscommon Street Music Hall in Liverpool in 1892 included Tommy Burns and his co-performer named Bird presenting ‘La Grand Gymnase’ which included ‘comic boxing, walking circle on the stage, concluding with sensational dive by Tommy Burns’.

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. Pantomime artistes from all the Liverpool theatres supported the event which featured a race between Tommy Burns and comedian Joe Burgess who was appearing at the Rotunda Theatre. Despite heavy rain and part of the ground being flooded, there was a capacity crowd of 12,000.

At the start of April 1893, Tommy starred at the Royal Aqarium in London where he thrilled Victorian audiences by diving 100 feet into a shallow tank of water. Read more>>>

On Bank Holiday Monday, 7th August 1893, he was hired to top the bill at Sheffield Botanical Garden where visitors could pay a shilling (sixpence for children) to see ‘the world’s champion diver’ dive 70 feet into a tank of water 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and eight feet deep. But as Tommy was being hoisted up to the diving platform a beam gave way and he plunged to the ground, suffering a dislocated shoulder and serious head injury. Read more>>>

In March 1894, Tommy was well enough to dive again following his accident in Sheffield seven months earlier. He appeared at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast where he dived from a 70ft platform into a tank of water.

On 3rd June 1895, locals lined Victoria Pier at Douglas in the Isle of Man to see the arrival of English tourists at the start of the holiday season. As the Lady Tyler was 300 yards from shore, Tommy jumped overboard and gave an ‘aquatic display’.

In September 1895, he appeared for the last week of a ‘Grand Carnival’ in Craigie Park, Dundee. Around 28,000 millworkers in the city were involved in a pay dispute and an ad on the front page of the Evening Telegraph announced: ‘Owing to the Strike and to enable the Working Class to Visit the above  Carnival’ the admission price was being reduced to three old pence [about £1.40 in today’s money].

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