Tommy Burns – High Diver.




tommy burns

image by kind permission of Les Powell,

These were headlines  in the Rhyl Journal, July 10th 1897, describing the death of the world renowned high diver, swimmer, stuntman, lifesaver and athlete, Tommy Burns.

Diving and aquatic exhibitions from the Pier Head were an institution in Rhyl and the visit of high diver Tommy Burns had been well advertised and eagerly anticipated.

On a Tuesday afternoon in July, 1897, a large crowd waited to see Tommy Burns dive from the Pier.  A stand had been erected , the stage of which was 57 feet above the high water mark and from which the sensational high dive was to be taken.  In actual fact, it was a relatively easy dive for Tommy as his previous displays included dives from the Runcorn Bridge, London Bridge, Forth Bridge and the Tay Bridge. He was, at that time, the first and only man to have dived from the roof of the Royal Aquarium, London into a tank six feet deep, on March 20th, 1895.

It had been a weary wait for the crowd that afternoon, a strong north westerly wind was blowing, the Ladies’ Hungarian Band had not played, as had been announced, and Tommy Burns was almost an hour late appearing.

The article says:  “The spectators patient waiting was rewarded by seeing Burns walking up to the Pier.  He entered the shelter set apart as a dressing room, and after a further delay he re-appeared in a diving costume.  It was observed that on leaving the shelter he staggered, but his passage to the structure was a straight one.”  Tommy had travelled through the night from Edinburgh and appeared tired, also the Rhyl Record and Advertiser reported:  “that Tommy had been partaking too liberally of the cheering cup which inebriates was at once apparent”.

The Rhyl Journal continued: “without a doubt Burns looked a very fine specimen of manhood standing at that elevated position, being over 13 stone in weight, well built and finely proportioned.”

Then “placing himself in a stooping posture he dived off the stage.  For more than half the distance he retained a correct diving position, but when level with the Pier, he appeared to turn over on his back, probably being affected by the strong wind, and he fell flat onto his back into the water.”

tommy wm

image source: The National Library of Wales

He appeared to recover and then using breast stroke and side stroke he swam away from the pier.  It was almost half an hour later before it was decided that Tommy was not himself.  Two men, Professor Baume and Mr A MacCann of Rhyl Swimming Club swam to assist him and a message was dispatched for a boat to be launched.  The two rescuers managed to bring Tommy to the side of the pier, Baume managed to tie a rope around Tommy and they were both hauled up onto the pier.  Once Tommy was on the pier “Captain Veale, Inspector Williams and the coastguard, with others, did all in their power to restore animation.  Dr. Girdlestone arrived within a short space of time, and the usual means of restoring life were resorted to.”

After twenty minutes it was announced that Tommy Burns was dead and “within a very short time after the sad ending Mr Robert Morris Evans developed a splendid negative which he had secured of Tommy Burns’s last dive.  A print was exhibited in his shop in High Street at an early hour, and throughout the evening it was almost impossible to pass the pavement by Magnet Studio, so great was the crowd of persons anxious to see the picture. ( a latter day version of posting the photo straight onto social media.  It also seems rather voyeuristic.)

The inquest was held the day afterwards at the Town Hall, a full account of which appeared in the Rhyl Journal.  At the inquest Dr. Girdlestone was of the opinion that Burns first sustained “a concussion of the brain, and afterwards was drowned.”  His friend Mathew Hand Byrne said “He was not sober and he was not drunk”.  The Coroner said “he did not think that the deceased was in a fit state to go on the stage that day” also “there ought to have been a boat ready to pick up the deceased if he required assistance, and in that respect there was no doubt negligence.”  The jury came to the unanimous verdict of accidental death by drowning.”

Tommy Burns was 29 when he died, leaving his his wife of nine months a penniless widow.

Learn more about Tommy Burns:

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