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Tom Burke — Coal Miner and Opera Singer


Mention the word “opera” and any self-respecting leftie will immediately go for their gun. Elitist, reactionary, upper-class and irrelevant are all epithets which the left-wing culture-critic will hurl in opera’s direction. Of course it’s true that opera in England doesn’t attract the toiling masses, but then again neither does a lot of overtly left-wing theatre and film. The simplistic dismissal of opera ignores its very deep roots amongst the working class in Spain and particularly Italy. Many of the great opera singers were from the grindingly poor families of Naples, Milan and elsewhere, and thousands of Italian immigrants brought their love of opera to the bustling cities of America at the turn of the century.

Having established that opera isn’t quite so bad after all - may I, ladies and gentle­ men, comrades and friends, introduce TOM BURKE - the Lancashire Caruso, pit lad and opera star, the last of the great singers. He died in relative obscurity in 1968. after an incredible career which took him to the very top of the musical ladder - only to end up back down at the bottom, singing for a few bob round the pubs of Leigh and Tyldesley.

Tom Burke’s fascinating life story is told by John Vose, in his highly entertaining biog­ raphy The Lancashire Caruso. His parents were both Irish, his father having arrived in Liverpool in the late 1880’s. He settled in Leigh, got a job in the pits and married Mary Aspinall in 1889. Tom was born the following year and was soon, as an infant, to experience the harsh struggle of 1893 when his mother and father kept themselves alive by picking coal at Fletcher’s Colliery in Atherton. At the age of twelve Tom started as a “half-timer” in Courtauld’s Silk Mill. Two years later he started full-time down the pit at the wage of twelve and six a week, working as a “lasher-on” - hooking tubs of coal onto the rope which dragged them to the surface. It was boring, monotonous work but he made it a little more bearable by singing the Irish melodies he had picked up at home, including “The Minstrel Boy”:

The Minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on - and his wild harp slung behind him . . .

Tom was instantly popular with his older workmates who dubbed him “The Minstrel Boy” and even did his job so he could carry on his singing! Tom joined the Leigh Borough Brass Band as well as his father’s “Irish Forresters Drum and Fyfe Band” which rehearsed and supped pints in equal proportions above the Derby Arms. Tom’s real love was singing - above all, opera. He walked the thirty miles to Blackpool to hear his hero, Enrico Caruso, perform at the famous concert of 1919 in the Winter Gardens. John Vose tells of Tom’s enthusiasm about the concert, which wasn’t echoed by some of his workmates down the pit:

“Thar’s bin weer, Tom?” asked his mate
“To th’ Winter Gardens to see Enrico Caruso”
“Aye? Who was he wrestling?” was the reply.

The tale of Tom’s “discovery” as a singer has much of the romantic about it. He was walking home from the pit with his mates, all singing at the top of their voices. They passed a middle-class household and Tom’s voice caught the ear of Mrs. Swarbrick, wife of the local church organist. The following night the Swarbrick’s listened out for the golden tones of the black-faced pit lad, and sure enough he obliged with “Lend Me Your Aid” from Verdi’s Irene. Tom was taken under Swarbrick’s wing and began to receive serious tutition which eventually led him to Italy, and the great masters of world opera. On 12th May 1919 he topped the bill, with Nellie Melba, at a performance of La Boheme at Covent Garden. It was an immense success, though his relations with Melba became somewhat soured during the performance. After the first act the two took a bow to cries of “We Want Burke” from the audience. The great prima donna was somewhat indignant at this, and dug her elbow into his ribs with the words “Move over you Irish bastard”. Tom got his revenge in the last act: as she was dying in her lover’s arms Burke uttered the tender words: “Now die, you Australian cow!”.

There’s no doubt that Tom’s Irish working class background was a massive obstacle to his acceptance in the world of English opera. He often remarked that if he had called himself something like “Tomaso Burkski” he might have done much better. To his great credit, he stuck to his roots, came back to Leigh regularly and performed before great crowds in many of the Lancashire towns. His reception in Bolton was so phenomenal that after his performance the crowd festooned his car with ribbons and put a rope on the car’s bumper, which they then dragged out as far as Burnden Park Football Ground. In 1928, in between performances in Paris, Berlin and Vienna the famous tenor appeared at the Co-operative Hall, Leigh. The scene is described in one of the national dailies:

“Come on, Tom, lad, show us what tha’s made of” growled a gruff voice last night from the back of the Co-operative Hall in Leigh . . . The applause rose to a thunderous climax as “Our Tom” walked on stage. Prominent business men and colliers, freshly washed from the afternoon shift, clapped side by side; Lancashire housewives and mothers stamped their feet in excitement. To speak to elderly people in Leigh is to fully realise the pride the folk of this little town, noted more for grime than culture, felt for the local boy who conquered the world of music by sheer determination.

(Quoted in John Vose, The Lancashire Caruso, p. 124)

Tom Burke was a very proud man — a man, who wanted his own way and a man who had no time for the class snobbery of the English musical scene. Inevitably, he fell foul of the musical establishment and his career as one of the world’s great tenors ended as quickly as it had begun. He was soon back in the pubs and clubs of Leigh, singing for a few shillings a night. A1 Houghton, one of Bolton’s nicest socialists, remembered hearing him sing at ‘‘Ponky’ s Pub” in Tyldesley, a couple of years before A1 left Bolton to join the International Brigade in Spain. Tom Burke was the “paid turn” for the night:

“My father was full of this great singer who was appearing at Ponky’s. The pub was jam­ med full and he got a great reception. I was too young then to be bothered much but afterwards my father said “You’ve just heard one of the world’s finest tenors.”

(Quoted in Vose, p. 146)

Tom attempted a come-back in the 1960’s. He deeply wanted to make opera a popular art, which could reach out to the centuries-old musical traditions of Lancshire and other regions of England and get away from the domination of London. His “Lancashire Opera Company” was a brave attempt to change the whole basis of opera by “municipalising” it:

“This is the only way, as I see it, of ever building up a healthy opera public . . . There must, I am convinced, be thousands of young people who would develop quite a taste for opera if only they had the chance to hear it at the right time. Municipal opera is the primary need in this whole business of establishing opera on a healthy footing in this country.”

(Quoted in Vose, p. 181)]

Sadly the project failed; ironically, the only performances of the company being in London. A few years later and Tom Burke was dead. Fortunately, Tom Burke’s name is being steadily re-established - not least as a result of John Vose’s biography and the re- release of some of his recordings. His name in working class history is not so well known compared with union leaders, M.P.’s and political campaigners - but I think it ought to be. Our history isn’t just about those who fought the good fights - it must also include those who helped make this life a bit more pleasureable and bearable. Tom Burke was one of those.

It’s a warm autumn evening and children are singing outside in the street. I sit back from my typewriter and imagine I’m sat in the Co-op Hall in Leigh, that night in 1928. Tom Burke comes on to the stage. His words echo through the hall:

In the fell flush of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody but unbowed . . .
I am the Master of my fate
I am the Captain of my soul!

Thanks to John Vose for his permission to freely use material from his biography The Lancashire Caruso, published in 1976. Copies of the book are available price £7.50 including postage from the author at 24 Norcliffe Road, Blackpool.

Three L.P.’s of his recordings are available: The Minstrel Boy, Tom Burke - Last of the Great and A Toast To Tom Burke
from: V.I.P. Records, 21 Nassau Road, Barnes, London SW13 9QF

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