Royal Aquarium advertisement 1893
Royal Aquarium advertisement 1893.

The highlight of Tommy’s professional career came in 1893 when he appeared at the Royal Aquarium in London. When it opened in 1876 the Aquarium was a lavish palace of intellectual entertainment offering classical music, art exhibitions, concerts and plays. But from the 1880s, the programme moved towards more profitable music hall variety and sensational acts which were extremely popular with Victorian audiences.

An illustration from the weekly newspaper The Black and White showing Tommy Burns performing at the Royal Aquarium in 1893.
HIGH DIVE: An illustration from the weekly newspaper The Black and White showing Tommy Burns performing at the Royal Aquarium in 1893.

According to historians at the City of Westminster: “Many of the acts centred on feats of physical endurance and acrobatic skill such as Zazel the human cannonball, and Zaeo the aerialist. Both of these female acts caused a great stir – the first for the risk posed to the young girl of 14, catapulted into the Royal Aquarium arena, and the second for the risqué outfits sported by Zaeo during her routine.”

An early reference to Tommy’s appearance at the Aquarium was made by the Yorkshire Evening Post on 20th February 1893 under the headline ‘A tremendous dive’:

The Royal Aquarium has got hold of a new novelty to attract the town. Tommy Burns, the well-known swimming expert has undertaken to dive from the summit of the Aquarium dome – a tremendous height – into a tank of water below only six feet in depth.

Tommy’s arrival at the Aquarium made headlines around the world after journalists and others were invited to a preview performance on Monday 20th March. The Auckland Star in New Zealand told its readers:

Not since Baldwin made his first parachute descent has there been anything in the dangerous exhibition line that gave the same amount of preliminary thrill.

The newspaper described how Tommy appeared on stage “looking a very pretty fellow in his blue tights and flesh-coloured jersey. On his breast he wore a garment consisting principally of the gold and silver medals he has won in swimming and diving contests’.

A reporter for the Lincolnshire Chronicle (24th March 1893) noted that Burns

…did not appear in the least degree nervous as he put his foot in the loop of a rope, and was hauled up to a platform some 83 feet above the floor of the Aquarium.

Burns’s undertaking looked one of a critical character, but the diver seemed perfectly unperturbed. Swaying his body gently backwards and forwards for a moment he gave a shout, and, arranging his limbs in the customary way, plunged clear of the platform …

What happened next was described in the weekly newspaper The Era (25th March 1893) which told how Tommy did a somersault and landed on his back, causing a ‘mighty splash’ that soaked some of the bystanders. Afterwards, he gave an exhibition of ‘fancy swimming’ in the Beckwith Annexe and the report stated: “His imitations of the salmon, the cod, shark, porpoise, skate, and various flat fish are very interesting …”

After the preview dive, the platform was raised to 100 feet, providing the paying  public with an even more sensational performance on 2nd April – Easter Saturday. The following weekend, The Era newspaper carried the following review:

The holiday programme at the Aquarium was forty inches long, and it was literally crammed full of good things – sensational performances, of course, claiming the greatest share of attention, and commanding enthusiastic acclamation for such daring entertainers as Professor Thomas Burns …

Illustration of diver Tommy Burns from The Penny Illustrated Paper 1893
BURNS IN ACTION: Illustration from The Penny Illustrated Paper 1893

MP called for diving ban

Two months after Tommy appeared at the Royal Aquarium, questions were being asked in Parliament about diving displays. On 2nd June, North Islington MP Sir George Christopher Trout Bartley raised his concerns with Home Secretary H. H. Asquith:

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to the exhibitions now going on of jumping and diving into water from a great height, and to the extreme danger of the performance; and whether he can do anything to stop such exhibitions?

Asquith – a future Prime Minister – was not persuaded. He told Bartley:

My attention has been called to the exhibitions referred to in the question of the hon. Member; but I have no power to stop exhibitions or performances which, though they may be dangerous to the performers, are not necessarily dangerous to the spectators. On this, as on similar previous occasions, warnings have been given through the police to the persons responsible for the exhibition that they should take all proper precautions, and I am afraid I can do nothing the Home Secretary of the day, H. H. Asquith.

Fishy fact about the Aquarium …

Although there were 13 large tanks in the building when it opend, it was not initially used as an aquarium due to problems with the water supply. Curiously, a dead whale was exhibited in 1877 and some years later, a live whale went on show. In 1883, the Aquarium was presented with the carcass of a shark killed by Tommy after it attacked him in the sea at New Brighton.