Many prodigies we have noted had the opportunity to develop their talent as children. This was, however, not always the case. Thomas Aspinall Burke was born on March 2, 1890. He grew up in poor circumstances but was a musical prodigy. He was boy who had a love of music. He learnt to play the Cornet and the piano as well as having an exceptionally fine singing voice. He grew up to be a fine tenor and appeared in Opera productions all over the world. Of Thomas Burke, Enrico Caruso heard him sing. He was impressed by Tom’s singing. He said, ‘One day you shall wear my mantle…’ This then is the story of a how a poor but gifted boy became a great Opera singer. This is the story of how a boy from an impoverished background became a successful opera singing. Tom’s biography, written by John D. Rose is called The Lancashire Caruso. Its title says more than a thousand words.
Tom's father, James Vincent Burke, came to England from Wicklow in Ireland. He settled in the Lancashire town of Leigh. This is a manufacturing town. Most people worked in the silk and cotton mills or in the coal mines. He left Ireland almost penniless but once he arrived in Leigh he found a job labouring in a coal mine. He rented a house in Mather Lane, a poor area of the town. He married Mary Josephine Aspinall (March 1889). She came from the nearby town of St Helens. Her parents descended from an Irish family and on the other, a branch of Lancashire Urmston’s. This was a household in which father’s earnings were the principal source of their income. Mum remained at home caring for their children.
The Burke family were regular church goers. They attended the nearby, Catholic Church of St. Josephs. It had been designed by the Hanson who is more famous for designing the Hansom cab. There was also St Josephs school which was run by the Jesuit fathers. The Burke household was one in which there was very little money to spare. His wage was but a short step away from being in very poor economic circumstances if there was financial change. Indeed mining strikes caused great hardship to the mining community and the Burke’s in particular. They first experienced this in 1893 when there was a pit strike. While it lasted The Burke’s and his fellow mining families were fed daily from charity soup kitchens. They spent there time searching the coal tips for any small piece of coal which would keep them warm during the winter, while the strike lasted. Mary worked hard to look after her family. She was always patching and sewing her children’s clothing. Her cooking ability was tested to the limit but she knew how to prepare the cheapest cuts of meat so that they were tasty and good to eat.
The family started to grow when the first child was born in 1890 and ended in 1899 and by this time there were nine children. All the children survived into adulthood. The first born was Thomas Aspinall Burke. He was the apple of his father’s eye and the son he liked the most.
Tom’s father had a very pleasing tenor voice and almost every day when he returned from work he would sit his young son on his knee and sing Irish lullabies to him. This was Tom’s first introduction to music and it was an influence that awaked something deep within Tom’s soul because he grew up to be a boy who liked to sing.
Tom was three years old when he first experienced soup kitchens and saw poverty first hand. He must have been very sensitive to this situation because he spoke about his memories of childhood poverty many years later. He said that the suffering he saw as a boy made him feel angry. He recalled the times when there was no food and he went hungry. Even when there was food there was not enough to satisfy his need for food. He felt strong enough to cope. He did feel great sadness that his parents, particularly his mother, bore the brunt of going without. Tom‘s boyhood staple diet was margarine and bread. A meat dish was a luxury he ate with his family ate once a week on a Sunday. There was often not enough milk to spare to put in tea.
It was against this background that Tom Burke nurtured his love of music. He dreamed and dreamed about being a great singer and musician. This fantasy was encouraged by his mother. He dreamed about playing the cornet and the piano. He knew that in reality there would never be money to buy the musical instruments Tom pined for. Late in his boyhood Tom would have opportunity to play them.
Singing was his first love and it was the dream he had from the earliest of days. Once when he was 6 he was curled up on the rug by the fire. His mother saw that far away look in his eyes as he stirred into the dancing flames. She knew he was thinking deeply about something so she asked him about his dream. Tom replied that he was thinking about being a great singer. He knew even then that he had been given a special gift. He believed it was a gift from God. Tom said his parents wanted to help and encourage him all they could. His neighbour and friends thought this was Tom’s foolishness. He had impossible dreams that could never be realised by a kid from such a poverty stricken background. The friends and the people of Mather Lane said in later years that Tom never stopped singing. He was always singing to himself and to anyone who would listen to him. He acquired a reputation as a singer and he needed no more encouragement then, ‘Please give us a song Tom,’ for him to burst into song. Tom’s father was interested in brass bands and through his father’s encouragement he joined Leigh Borough Brass Band. In 1904 he was 14. He had learnt to play the Cornet and he was promoted to first cornet player. The band competed in a national championship at the Crystal Palace. Tom’s solo cornet playing won him a silver medal for being the best.
In the play ground he joined in the games that his friend played. He sometimes got into fights with other boys which he sometimes won. He was a mischievous boy too. A favourite game was to tie a piece of string to the doors of adjacent houses. Then knock on each door. The householders would then find then could not open the door. On investigating they would discover the reason for this. Tom and his friends were in hiding from where they could watch the fun before running like the wind to escape the anger of their neighbours. Tom’s ability to sprint was admired by his pals because he could run faster than they could. In the neighbourhood Tom got into a lot of mischief. The neighbours complained to his parents about the things Tom had done. His father was angry at the nuisance Tom was becoming chastised him.
Tom as an Irish Catholic boy attended St Joseph’s School. He was educated by Jesuit priests. Tom was a clever scholar and well above the average. He was always singing and humming tunes as he worked through his lessons. His friends knew he was good at singing but he was also a keen sportsman too. He was a fast sprinter and liked football so much that he was picked to play in an amateur schoolboy team. It became known as the ‘Ragged Trousered Rangers,’ because of the worn appearance of the football kit they wore. Several school friends recall his great determination. Once his mind was made up there was no changing him he would see the plan through to the end. All through his childhood he desired to sing and took advantage of ever opportunity to do this. He left school before finishing the program at age 12. The family needed money.
Not much is known about these. There would not have been a School uniform. I expect he wore clothes similar to those depicted in official photographs taken at the time in schools attended by poor children. These photographs show children in long trousers, shirt, waist coat, wearing a flat cap and footwear was wooden shoes called clogs. A photograph in Wigan photographic archive shows poor children eating a meal at a soup kitchen at the time of the 1893 miner’s strike. Some of these children are bear-footed. His mum would have seen to it that he went to school clean and tidy. While Tom took a bath he would sing to his family. Tom’s neighbours noted that his father always dressed well. It seems probable that Tom’s parents did their best to have their eldest son dress smartly. Photographs taken of Tom in adulthood show that he liked to wear fashionable clothes. He looked as if he came from a wealthy background instead of an impovished one. It is likely that his school clothes and the clothes he played in were the same garments. Tom would very likely have had best clothes for Sunday. These he would have worn when he went to church with his parents.
Ton’s clothes are unlikely to have been new. They are likely to have been second hand clothes which his mum obtained from a variety of sources. New clothes would have been bought occasionally when finances allowed.
Tom left school to work in a local silk mill. The law only allowed children his age to work a limited number of hours. It was not until he became 13 that he worked the full hours. He laboured on the machine operatives and swept up.
When Tom was able to work full time, there was more money coming into the household and tom’s father thought that a piano should be bought for Tom. The family sacrificed much to get the money to buy it. Mum’s sawing machine was pawned and weekly payments were made until the piano had been paid for. This was Tom’s ‘golden harp’ and he learnt to play the piano.
Tom was very sensitive to the suffering he saw in his neighbourhood and this sensitivity was reflected in the songs he sang. He sang with great feeling and emotion. He practiced his singing on waste ground. Or anywhere he could find a peaceful spot in the surrounding streets. This was a regular event and it was a time when Tom shunned the companionship of his friends. This angered them for they wanted him to join their game of football or rugby. They chased him calling out for him to join in their game. He ran away singing out ‘I hear you calling me.’ Tom often headed for the Canal and he’d walk along the tow-path singing and practicing scales.
Tom at age 14 left the mill to become a miner which paid more. He was a ‘lasher –on.’ He had to fasten coal trucks onto a steel rope as they were brought from the pithead. A boring monotonous job but Tom could sing as he did the work. He soon was known, as the ‘Minstrel Boy’ for this was the song that the miners liked to hear him sing. They enjoyed his songs so much that there were times when they did his work while he sang to them.
He became friendly with two girls from a middle class home. Their parents did not like a poor boy visiting them at first but because of his singing he was soon a welcome visitor. In later years they felt proud that they had been an encouragement to him.
It was when he was a teenager that Father Fish asked Tom to join the church choir. He did not need to be asked twice. Tom was happy he liked to sing and sang at every opportunity. Tom was still determined to develop a singing career. Joining the choir was one more step in that direction. He began to fill his free time with singing and musical opportunity. Sunday’s he sang in the choir and practiced for it every Wednesday night. There was his brass band cornet playing and his piano practice. His week was full of singing and music making. He was determined to be a singer and would not settle for anything less.
Tom enjoyed sports. He played in a rugby team as a second row forward. He joined a gymnasium and found a passion for boxing. He toured Lancashire taking part in boxing tournaments. >br>
Tom knew he needed singing lessons to professionally develop his voice. He received tuition from Dr. Mort, an Atherton teacher of voice. He wanted to be enrolled at the Manchester College of Music. The lessons would have to be paid for. Tom needed to earn more money. His earnings helped support his family and he needed money to cover the costs of his tuition fees as well as find the rail fare to the college.
Tom’s father kept pigs and had a small business supplying tripe. This came from the pigs stomachs. It was sold in the public houses. It was Tom’s job to go around town selling his basket of tripe. Once inside a pub and Tom was soon singing to the patrons. The proprietor often did all they could to keep Tom singing. One way was to buy all the tripe and then let Tom sing for the rest of the evening. In this evening’s work Tom was able to save enough for his tuition fees. He also did other jobs to save for college. He became an insurance salesman, a dept collector saving as much of the money as possible for his music tuition. He worked as a waiter at the Pied Bull hotel in Leigh at the weekends to earn his railway fare and college fees. He was soon singing to the patron’s who called him ‘The singing waiter.’
In 1909 when Tom was 19 he walked to Blackpool to see a concert by Enrico Caruso. He queued up for several hours before the performance. Tom was delighted by what he heard and it added motivation to him to realise his dream. He went to Blackpool on several more occasions to attend concerts.
A local music society was presenting Handle’s "Messiah". A tenor they had engaged fell ill at the last minute. A search for a suitable singer came up with Tom. He agreed to sing. Tom had a good news paper write up about his performance and he received 30 shillings in payment. This led to an interview with J.W Turner’s Opera Company. Turner who agreed to hear him sing interviewed Tom. After the audition Turner told Tom he was good but he needed to get more practice. Tom was “not bad but not good enough” was what Turner told him.
Joe Burke said his brother left the mine when he was 17. Events had occurred that got him to the Manchester School of Music.
When Tom finished his shift at the mine he walked home with the other miners. They sang as they walked. The Swarbrick family heard the singing. The family were professional entertainers. On hearing a miner’s solo they wondered who it was that was singing so well. They found out that Tom was the solo singer. He was invited to join their family singing group. This was a gathering at the Swarbrick home on a Sunday night. Tom went and enjoyed singing there. They told the manager of the Manchester Theatre about Tom’s singing ability. He heard him sing and made arrangements for Tom to attend the Manchester College of music.
He was a full time student at the college. He studied hard and did not waste the opportunity.
Tom auditioned for the Halle Choir. This was a step towards full filling his dream He sang for Michael Hallin, the music master of the choir. He did not recognise Tom’s ability and thought his talent quite ordinary. However, Christian Neilsen, the Halle orchestra and choir conductor, had heard Tom’s singing. He thought differently to Hallin. He told Tom about a London impresario called Hugo Gorelitz. He asked Tom to sing for him. He did. Gorelitz gave Tom a contract. He was to study at the Royal Academy in London and attend paid singing engagements at various venues in the capital.
This was in 1913 and Tom was 23. It was while he at the royal academy that he had the opportunity to sing before Enrico Caruso. After it Caruso said ‘You must go to Italy and there you will find your voice.’
Vose, John D. The Lancashire Caruso (1982). ISBN 0 950103616 Ch 1 through and Ch 2, pp. 17-36.
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