Tom Burke: The Minstrel Boy
Thomas Aspinall Burke was born on March 2, 1890. He grew up in poor circumstances. Burke'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.
Burke'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 Burke's first introduction to music and it was an influence that awaked something deep within
Burke's soul because he grew up to be a boy who liked to sing.
Burke'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. Burke's solo cornet playing won him a silver medal for being the best.
Burke as an Irish Catholic boy attended St Joseph's School. He was educated by Jesuit priests. Burke was a clever scholar and well above
the average. He was always singing and humming tunes as he worked through his lessons. He left school before finishing the program at age
12. The family needed money.
Burke 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 Burke was able to work full time, there was more money coming into the household and Burke's father thought that a piano should be
bought for Burke. The family sacrificed much to get the money to buy it. Mum's sewing machine was pawned and weekly payments were made
until the piano had been paid for. This was Burke's 'golden harp' and he learnt to play the piano.
Burke 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 Burke 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.
It was when he was a teenager that Father Fish asked Burke to join the church choir. He did not need to be asked twice. Burke was happy,
he liked to sing and sang at every opportunity. Burke 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. Sundays 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.
Burke 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. Burke 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.
In 1909, when Burke was 19, he walked to Blackpool to see a concert by Enrico Caruso. He queued up for several hours before the
performance. Burke was delighted by what he heard and it added motivation to him to realize his dream. He went to Blackpool on several
more occasions to attend concerts.
A local music society was presenting Händel's "Messiah". A tenor they had engaged fell ill at the last minute. A search for a
suitable singer came up with Burke. He agreed to sing. Burke had a good newspaper 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 Burke.
After the audition Turner told Burke he was good but he needed to get more practice. Burke 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 Burke
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 Burke 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. Burke went and enjoyed singing there. They told the manager of the Manchester Theatre about Burke's singing ability. He heard him
sing and made arrangements for Burke 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.
Burke auditioned for the Halle Choir. This was a step towards fulfilling his dream. He sang for Michael Hallin, the music master of the
choir. He did not recognise Burke's ability and thought his talent quite ordinary. However, Christian Neilsen, the Halle orchestra and
choir conductor, had heard Burke's singing. He thought differently to Hallin. He told Burke about a London impresario called Hugo
Gorelitz. He asked Burke to sing for him. He did. Gorelitz gave Burke 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 Burke was 23. It was 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.'
He got married, went to Italy. He did find his voice. Burke was 29 when he sang for the first time at Covent Garden. This was in 1919
and the start of his successful music career. Unfortunately Burke could not handle the fame. His eccentricity, his sensitivity, the
anger he still felt about the poverty he experienced as a child, his fighting spirit. Also Burke had a deep, latent antagonistic
loathing towards people of wealth and power. His mixed up emotional powder keg erupted on several occasions and helped to ruin his
career. He was at the top for about 12 years. From the early 1930s he began the slide downwards into obscurity. Nonetheless, one thing
is certain: Burke, the Minstrel Boy, had realised his dream.