Tommy Burns visited Earlestown in Lancashire in November 1891 with the aim of diving from the Sankey Viaduct, an impressive railway bridge opened about 60 years earlier and known to locals as Nine Arches.
The visit must have been one of the greatest disappointments of Tommy’s career as he was arrested and carted off to the police station only to discover later that an opportunist bystander had dived off the bridge minutes later and benefited from a collection among the vast crowds there to see Tommy.
Tommy stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Earle Street while he prepared for the dive which was to take place on Saturday 7th November. He dropped stones off the 70ft viaduct and tested the water depth which was 7ft.
As usual, his pre-dive publicity leaflets were highly effective and police sergeant Longworth estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people turned up to watch – quite a high turnout as the population of the area in that year was only 12,861. The Earlestown Examiner (14th November) described the scene:
Three o’clock was the time fixed for the exhibition, and before that time, shoals of people were to be seen wending their way towards the canal, on foot, and in conveyances, until at the appointed time there could be no fewer than 3,000 people present.
The Earlestown Guardian (13th November) noted:
… early on Saturday afternoon people flocked from all quarters to the salubrious banks of the canal and Sankey Brook to witness the sensational feat. By three o’clock something like four thousand people were to be seen about the neighbourhood of the canal, eagerly discussing the possibility and probability of the feat being performed.
Word went around that efforts would be made to prevent the dive taking place and police were seen on the viaduct and along the canal banks. Despite this, the Guardian reported:
Still the people came and the tow path was crowded from the Ship Inn right past the Sugar Works.
According to the Examiner:
About ten minutes after Burns had been removed, a collier named Dempsey, from Parr, got on to the unguarded bridge, and performed the feat which Burns had previously been prevented from doing. The performance was by no means satisfactory as Dempsey was seriously injured.
He had to be helped from the water and despite his injuries, he was carried shoulder high along the towpath towards the Ship Inn, a collection being taken on the way.
Tommy was accused of trespass and being drunk and disorderly, charges he vigorously denied when he appeared before magistrates at the local petty sessions held at Newton-le-Willows Town Hall a week later.
He called witnesses to his sobriety including Dr William Valentine of Earlestown who had examined him two hours after his arrest when ‘his speech was quite coherent and he walked perfectly straight’. The doctor said it was not possible for the defendant to have been drunk two hours earlier and sobered up since.
Tommy wrongly believed that under an 1883 Act of Parliament, he could not have been guilty of trespass unless he had been previously warned by the railway company, but the prosecution pointed out that this had changed under a new Act.
The court dismissed the drunkenness charge but found him guilty of trespass, imposing a £1 fine with 18s 6d costs – a total equivalent to about £238 in value in 2018.