Tommy Burns died on Tuesday 6th July 1897 after diving from a platform at the end of the pier at the North Wales seaside resort of Rhyl, watched by 3,000 spectators. By the time it was realised that something had gone badly wrong, it was too late.

Rhyl Pier in the 1890s
Rhyl Pier in the 1890s

At an inquest at the local town hall the following day, a jury took just 10 minutes to reach a unanimous verdict of accidental death by drowning.

Two local newspapers – the Rhyl Journal and the Rhyl Record and Advertiser – covered the hearing at which several witnesses said that Tommy had been drinking. One witness thought he saw him staggering as he left the pier dressing room to climb the platform ladder. No-one had thought that Tommy was unfit to dive and no-one tried to stop him.

This is how the Rhyl Journal reported part of the coroner’s summing up:

From what he had heard of the case, and judging from the evidence, he was bound to tell the jury that he did not think that the deceased was in a fit state to go on the stage that day and perform what was undoubtedly a very risky piece of business.

While there had been no evidence that the deceased had been compelled to go through his performance, he did not think that there could possibly be any doubt as to the condition of the deceased. At all events there ought to have been a boat ready to pick up the deceased if he required assistance, in that respect there was no doubt negligence.

The Record and Advertiser stated:

He [the coroner] said he regretted to find that there was an evident disposition  on the part of some of the witnesses to disguise the condition in which the deceased was in. On the question of whether he was drunk or not he asked the jury to put a common sense interpretation on the evidence and of the whole of the circumstances, remembering that the witnesses called before them were in a manner in a responsible position, and their testimony, if he may say so, should be accepted with a grain of salt.

The jury recommended that in future a boat should be placed at the pier head.