On Saturday 19th October 1889, police were out in force in Lime Street, Liverpool, to control well-wishers who turned out to welcome Tommy Burns at the end of an incredible self-imposed challenge which the Liverpool Echo referred to as ‘Burns’s Great Feat’.

Lime Street in the 1890s.
Lime Street in the 1890s. Photo courtesy of Dave Wood.

Tommy had set out to make an 85ft dive off Runcorn Bridge on 9th October *, swim 18 miles down the River Mersey to Liverpool, walk and run to London, dive off London Bridge and walk and run back home again, all within nine days excluding Sundays.

Some time was wasted in the capital on 14th October as Tommy had to evade the attention of police. He chose his moment, appeared in a ‘neat ¬†costume of red’, mounted the parapet of London Bridge and dived off. He swam about a quarter of a mile before being picked up by a small boat.¬†An Echo report the following day stated:

From first to last, no interference was met with from the police. Burns started on his return journey at a quarter to two today.

He had allowed himself nine days to complete the epic task and he arrived back in Lime Street with 40 minutes to spare to be greeted by cheering crowds.

An Echo reporter met the ‘celebrated athlete’ in the Kensington district of the city and:

…in the course of a short conversation, he said he felt remarkably well, and, to tell the truth, he looked it. About half-past one he reached Lime-street where there was a tremendous crowd, who received the hero of the day with great cheering. The police arrangements in Lime-street were very ably carried out by Inspectors Rogerson and McConchie.

After Tommy had set off for London, painters on Runcorn Bridge suggested that he hadn’t dived off the structure because they hadn’t seen him. Tommy said he would produce evidence and for good measure, he dived off the bridge once more a week after his return.

He got the idea for the Great Feat three or four years earlier when he challenged American bridge diver Lawrence Donovan who was on a visit to Liverpool. Donovan, who went on to dive from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1888, declined Tommy’s challenge so he decided to do it himself.

*For the record, it’s the wrong bridge!

The dive was commemorated with a cigarette card in the Turf Cigarettes Sports Records (second series) published in 1925, but local historian Peter Blackmore points out that the card features the wrong bridge!

The card – No 48 in the series – was titled ‘Highest Dive’ and had the following caption on the back:

Cigarette Card Highest DiveWe illustrate the Highest Dive on record, which was made by Tommy Burns, when from Runcorn Bridge, on October 9th 1889, he took the water from a height of 85 feet. It should be added that before leaving the water, and immediately following his dive, he swam straightaway to Liverpool.

Peter says that instead of the railway bridge, the cigarette card shows the Transporter Bridge which wasn’t opened until 1905 … eight years after Tommy died.

The Transporter Bridge which opened in 1905. Photo courtesy of Peter Blackmore.
BRIDGE TOO FAR: Photo from the 1900s showing the Transporter Bridge with the railway bridge in the background. Photo courtesy of Peter Blackmore.