On Bank Holiday Monday, 7th August 1893, Tommy Burns was hired to top the bill at a gala 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 shallow tank of water.

Sheffield Botanical Gardens Conservatories with extended sections - Postcards A Hunter Collection
Victorian postcard of Sheffield Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of Alison Hunter.

He was billed to give two performances including ‘a sensational night dive’ at 8.45pm. The venue could accommodate 40,000 visitors and promised ‘the best shillingsworth in the county’. But as Tommy was being hoisted up to the diving platform a beam gave way and he plunged to the ground.

A detailed report of the incident appeared in the next day’s edition of the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent which reported:

Yesterday the spice of the sensationalism was provided by the engagement of Tommy Burns, the celebrated diver, who made his name chiefly in London by diving into a shallow tank from a great height at the London Aquarium.

It was announced that this intrepid performer would give two exhibitions during the day, one at five o’clock and the other at quarter to nine in the evening. He was destined to give neither.

The programme as publicly announced was that he should in the open air dive from a platform 70 feet high into a tank of water, which was only ten feet wide and eight feet deep.

When the gardens were thronged with visitors yesterday afternoon the platform and tank were inspected by them with much curiosity, and the first performance was looked forward to with no little interest.

The platform was fixed on three upright poles, and the means of ascension was a rope passing through a pulley attached to the top of the ropes. It was understood that Burns had tried the apparatus on the previous day, and that he had found it satisfactory.

At five o’clock, a huge crowd of spectators had gathered about the railings which fenced in the portion of the lawn where the dive was to take place. Amongst those seated nearest was Mrs. Burns.

As Burns made his appearance the band in the neighbouring kiosk played “See, the conquering hero comes,” and a few moments afterwards the diver came into view. He was seen to be a big, athletic-like fellow, clad in a light dress, wearing a singlet, and a thickish wrapper about the middle, while his feet were encased in a dainty pair of slippers.

Three or four men at once began to pull at the rope which was to hoist the performer, and he was soon swinging in mid-air. Up and up he went, till, at what seemed a great height, his shoulder touched the under surface of his platform. Here there was a slight pause, and it seemed as if Burns was trying to swing clear of the little platform. At the same time he was pulling the return rope, by which he had aided his ascent.

Then occurred what struck all the vast crowd of sightseers with horror, and caused several women to faint. The timber to which the hauling rope was attached gave way with an awful crack, and it was seen that Burns must come to the ground.

In a manner which may have been suggested by his diving experience, Burns, in a moment of terrible suspense, flung out his limbs, so that when he fell he came down, not upon his head or back, but upon his feet. A subdued cry of horror rose from the spectators as the unfortunate diver came to the ground with a deadly thud and rebounded upon his head.

Everyone thought he was killed. For the time he was indeed rendered unconscious. Willing hands were soon about him, and Dr. Thompson, of Broomspring lane, who was on the spot, made a hasty examination of the unfortunate man. He was then stunned. Some spirit was administered to him, and he was carried into a tent adjoining.

A sort of trolly [sic] was brought in, and the injured man having been placed upon it, was wheeled away to a side entrance, where a cab was speedily procurable. Under the direction of Dr. Thompson, Burns was carefully carried inside. At this time he had evidently recovered conscioussness, for he feebly asked those who were lifting him “not to hurt him.”

Accompanied by the medical man who had fortunately happened to be present, Burns was conveyed to the Hospital and Dispensary in West street. He was there admitted as an in-patient. Upon examination, it was found that his right shoulder was dislocated and it was feared that he had suffered other serious injury.

Condition ‘critical’

At the hospital, he was examined by Dr Knox who replaced the dislocated shoulder but found no signs of internal injuries and considered there was no danger of concussion. But the newspaper account added:

At a later hour Dr. Knox took a more serious view of the case. He said the dislocation of the shoulder was but a minor consideration, and he did not think the concussion of the brain to be of a dangerously severe character, but a graver symptom had set in, namely a vomiting of blood, which indicated internal injury.

The doctor pronounced the patient’s condition critical, but said he did not anticipate a fatal termination at present. Mrs. Burns was still with her husband, who was able to talk occasionally. Strict injunctions were, however, given that he was to be kept perfectly quiet.

On 11th August, the Huddersfiewld Chronicle reported that Burns was considerably better and out of danger. The Edinburgh Evening News on 30th August stated that Burns had left hospital.

Tommy ‘almost destitute’

According to a report in the 6th September issue of the Sheffield Telegraph, the committee of the Botanical Gardens made a £10 grant to Tommy after hearing that he had not recovered from his accident and was ‘almost in a destitute condition’.

The Sheffield Evening Telegraph on 27th September gave details of a subscription fund being set up in Sheffield as Burns’s accident ‘has deprived him of any hopes of again performing, at any rate, for some considerable period’.

On 5th October, Sheffield Independent columnist Flaneur wrote:

I am asked to call attention to the concert in the Montgomery Hall next Monday night, on behalf of Tommy Burns. An admirable programme has been provided, and as Burns is in sore need of assistance just now it will be a kindness to take up the tickets.

By the end of March the following year, Tommy was back in action and the Sheffield Evening Telegraph (27th) reported that he had given a highly successful performance at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Belfast.

His dive was, as usual, from a platform 70 feet high, into a tank of water, and on this occasion happily no contrtemps occurred.