Tommy Burns falls on hard times
By 1897 – the year he died – Tommy Burns had fallen on hard times. His final engagement was at Rhyl Pier and he had to request an advance on his fees to pay his train fare from Edinburgh.
On his journey to Rhyl, he stopped off at Chester at around 8am when ‘by accident’ he met his old friend Matthew Hand Byrne from Toxteth. At that time, Tommy had just three old pence (less than £1.40 in today’s money).
By the afternnon, Tommy had drunk at least four gin and sodas and he died after losing control during his dive from a platform at the end of the pier. An inquest was held next day when it was revealed that Tommy’s widow Marie had been left penniless.
It is not clear what went wrong in Tommy’s life but one local newspaper – the Rhyl Record and Advertiser of 10th July – suggested that the turning point was four years earlier when an accident* almost ended his professional career:
The injury has ever since more or less permanently affected him. Of late he had fallen on evil days, engagements were few and far between, and the erstwhile champion, with so many competitors in the field, found it hard to pay his way.
Obviously notoriety is the breath of life to such as Burns, and it is melancholy to recollect that every life-risking attempt made by him was prompted not so much by a genuine impulse for adventure, as a dread alternative to starvation and the workhouse.
The turning point?
* The Rhyl Record and Advertiser referred to an accident at the Royal Aquarium in London but there are no newspaper reports available to support this. However, there are several archived reports of a serious accident witnessed by thousands of spectators at a bank holiday gala at the Botanical Gardens in Sheffield about four months after his Aquarium engagement.
His next reported bridge dive was two years later, although in the meantime he made a couple of attempts which were stopped by police.
A father’s grief
A letter published in the Liverpool Echo six days after the funeral revealed that the family was unable to pay for a memorial:
Mr. Patrick Burns, father of the late champion diver, writes from 113, Farnworth-street, Liverpool:-“My only son was a Lancashire lad, and, thank God, he shared my pride in being a Liverpudlian. I have been seriously ill in the past twelve months with dropsy and heart troubles. I have not earned one penny for months. God Bless those who have so nobly come forward.
“Amidst all my griefs the most poignant is that the medals and crosses honourably won by him, some for saving life, are held by strangers as security. It is no unkind thing to say that professionals, though ever ready to help each other, are by no means prudent. Year in and year out I gave freely to my poor boy out of the little wages I earned, but during the last year I was not able to help him. The consequence is that my little heirlooms are lost.
“I feel well assured that the public, who so kindly patronised him in life, will do their best to enable me to obtain the medals, pay several liabilities, and raise a stone over his resting place.”
At the end of July 1897, Patrick Burns again wrote to the Liverpool Echo, this time thanking fundraisers who had sent him money. He wrote:
I beg most respectfully to ask you to kindly allow me to acknowledge through the publicity of your paper how deeply I am indebted to Professor F. Eaton, the great diver, to the public, and those ladies who so kindly collected for me with boxes at the benefit at the Pierhead, Rhyl. This benefit given by Professor Eaton amounted to the substantial sum of £7 15s Id.
I shall never forget the kindness of all concerned. God bless all who have so nobly come forward. My only son, poor Tommy, catered for the people. He little knew how nobly the people o! this glorious country would come forward to give a helping hand to his beloved familv when he had passed away.