The 1945/46 season had seen the resumption of competitive football after the Second World War in the form of the FA Cup. That season, it was decided that all ties from the First Round onwards would be played over two legs to extend the competition, and after accounting for Burnley and the two Sheffield clubs, Stoke were drawn to face Bolton Wanderers in the quarter final.
The Trotters ran out 2-0 winners at the Victoria Ground in the first leg on March 2nd 1946 in front of a crowd of 50,735, and so we faced a real uphill task in the return leg at Burnden Park a week later.
Interest in that return leg was huge and both Bolton officials and journalists confidently predicted a similar size crowd for a game that would feature Stoke’s England international stars Neil Franklin and Freddie Steele as well as Bolton’s gifted young centre forward Nat Lofthouse, who would go on to enjoy a distinguished career for both club and country.
The star attraction though was of course The Potters’ wing wizard, Stanley Matthews, by far the most exciting and celebrated player of the era. His presence helped draw massive crowds wherever he played; in the two previous rounds over 50,000 had been in attendance at Bramall Lane and 62,728 had squeezed into Hillsborough to see City progress to the last eight.
Bolton’s estimate of a 50,000 plus crowd then wasn’t at all extreme, especially considering their fourth round tie against Middlesbrough had attracted a gate of 43,553, and with a capacity of 69,485 at Burnden Park, there was no apparent cause for concern. This was, after all, the post-war boom period for attendances, clubs gave little thought to packing fans in to their ground and supporters didn’t seem too troubled by the conditions they were subjected to. They were just happy to be watching real football again after the war!
Bolton were however aware of the need for more spectator accommodation and during the week leading up to the game sought permission to open up the 2,800 capacity Burnden Stand, which had been requisitioned by the Government during the war. The stand was still full of food and other supplies though and Wanderers’ request was turned down.
The club announced that 14,000 tickets had been sold for the game, with the main stand and Burnden paddock both sold out, but emphasised that there was plenty of room elsewhere inside the ground. Indeed the local newspaper ran a story on the eve of the game under the headline “Plenty of Room for Spectators Without Tickets.”
Whilst fitting 50,000 people into Burnden Park may not have been a problem, getting them inside the ground most certainly was. The 9,000 fans who’d bought tickets for the Burnden paddock had to gain access through the main stand’s turnstiles on the opposite side of the ground and were then escorted around the pitch by police to their section.
Then there was the problem of admitting fans to the Railway Embankment, a shallow, 28,000 capacity arc shaped bank of terracing behind the goal at the north end of Burnden Park. Turnstiles to the enclosure on the east side of the ground had been closed since 1940, so fans could only access that area through fourteen turnstiles adjacent to the main stand on Manchester Road.
9th March 1946 dawned to a bright, sunny day and thousands of fans descended upon Burnden Park. Bolton were the only team left in the FA Cup from the north west, so, along with the local Bolton support and a hefty number of Stoke followers, football fans from all over Lancashire who’d been starved of this kind of big match atmosphere for six long war years, turned up to savour the occasion.
From the very early afternoon though, it became apparent that far too many fans wanted to get inside the ground, and congestion outside the turnstiles on Manchester Road became a major problem, particularly as most of the area between the turnstiles and the road was used as a car park.
Eventually, around twenty minutes before kick off, the turnstiles were closed with 65,419 fans officially inside the ground and estimates of up to 20,000 outside. Though most of the disappointed supporters made their way home, a large number of frustrated fans – many of them servicemen – started to find other ways of getting into the ground, climbing over the boys’ turnstiles or onto the railway line at the top of the embankment where many broke into the ground by removing sections of fencing. Some even clambered on top of a stationary engine wagon to watch the game.
Inside Burnden Park, congestion in the area immediately past the turnstiles on the Railway Embankment was becoming intolerable. A frightening human bottleneck had formed as fans tried to make their way through a gangway and up a barrier-less slope onto the main part of the embankment.
Terrified women and children were lifted to the pitch side and many people even tried to get out of the ground. Police ordered spectators to break down wooden pitch-side fences to help alleviate the congestion, and one man, concerned for the safety of his young son, picked the lock of an exit gate to escape the crush. That only added to the congestion inside though, as hundreds of fans took the opportunity to free themselves from awful conditions outside where they had been pressed up against a wall and the gate.
Then, shortly before 3.00 pm as the two teams emerged from the dressing rooms, the crowd on the Railway Embankment started to sway uncontrollably as fans strained for a view of the players. Fans from the back surged forward, and under the sheer weight of people two barriers at the front of the terracing close to the corner flag collapsed causing many fans to fall forward on top of those in front of them. Tragically, 33 people lost their lives, most asphyxiated in the mayhem, and over 500 were injured. The youngest victim was 14 year-old Henry Birtwistle from Blackburn, while the only female to perish in the tragedy, 40 year-old Emily Hoskinson of Bolton, was killed along with her brother after helping pass her young son over the heads of the crowd to safety. She was attending just her second football match.
The game had already kicked off with hundreds of people on the pitch side, having freed themselves from the crush, when at 3.12, a police officer marched onto the pitch to inform referee George Dutton that there had been fatalities in the crowd and that he should bring the game to a halt. Both teams returned to the changing rooms, where the Bolton players were horrified to witness the bodies of several of the dead being carried past them and into the medical room which was to act as a temporary mortuary.
Soon after, a decision was made to resume the game, with police concerned that the atmosphere in the ground would turn ugly if the game was abandoned. Some fans who’d witnessed the tragedy were furious, but the overwhelming majority inside Burnden Park had no idea that people had died in a small corner on the Railway Embankment and the police were worried that there could be rioting if the match didn’t continue. There was no public address system to inform supporters about the tragedy and senior officers felt that they had little choice other than to resume the game.
As it turned out, the cup tie ended goalless, with Wanderers going through, but as far as the players were concerned, it hardly mattered. They had been asked to compete for a place in the FA Cup semi final with the covered bodies of some of the dead just yards away from them and many broke down in tears at the final whistle as the full horror began to sink in.
The Mayor of Bolton organised a relief fund for the bereaved which raised over £50,000, and a benefit match between England and Scotland was played at Maine Road, but in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy there was a huge clamour to apportion blame. Club officials, police and the media nailed their colours firmly to the mast, pointing the finger at those fans they had considered to have gained entry to the ground illegally. In the House of Commons, Conservative MP Sir Jocelyn Lucas demanded to know if prosecutions for manslaughter against the fans who’d broken into the ground through the fencing were being considered by the Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede.
Chuter Ede appointed Justice R Molewyn Hughes to head an official enquiry into the disaster, and though the Bolton secretary Walter Rowley and the Chief Constable of Bolton William Howard hardly wavered from their initial stance that the tragedy was the fault of fans breaking into the ground, Hughes described the invasion through the fencing at the top of the Railway Embankment as “irrelevant to the disaster”. “Given the configuration of the terracing”, he reported, “it would not have brought any pressure onto the section where the barriers collapsed and the fatalities occurred.”
Though Hughes commended police officers on the day for their efforts under severe pressure (incidentally, less than 120 officers were on duty that day!), he was critical of their superiors was well as club officials who, he said, were slow to recognise that the Embankment was beyond capacity. Although turnstiles had mechanical counters, these were only used after games to calculate figures for the benefit of tax. On match days, Bolton employed a “head checker” whose responsibility was to estimate the numbers in each enclosure. Twenty minutes before the disaster, a concerned police officer went in search of the head checker to warn him that the turnstiles should be closed, only to find him under the main stand!
The enquiry concluded with many recommendations, most notably that clubs would have to more thoroughly inspect their grounds, and in particular the strength of crush barriers. During the enquiry, it was revealed that metal tubing at the base of the collapsed barriers had rusted to as little as a third of its original thickness, despite an inspection of the terrace by Rowley days before the game. Hughes also urged clubs to improve the condition of entrances and the means of uninterrupted movement from one part of an enclosure to another, a concern that was to have much significance some four decades later.
Hughes’ final recommendation was that no football ground should be allowed to host matches without a licence granted by the local authority. However, by 1949, the Government had abandoned planned legislation, preferring that clubs adopted a voluntary code of safety.
Bolton, doubtless remorseful after the tragedy, spent over £5,000 modernising the Railway Embankment. New crush barriers were erected, fencing was secured and turnstile access improved, but many clubs were dismissive of the recommendations of The Hughes Report and, despite raking in countless thousands of pounds as the post-war attendance boom continued, did little, other than repair bomb damage, to improve their dilapidated grounds.
It wasn’t until the mid-seventies and as a result of another awful disaster, this time at Ibrox Park in 1971 when 66 people died after barriers collapsed on a stairway after an Old Firm game, that clubs were required by law to be in possession of a safety certificate before their grounds could be opened to the public.
By 1986, Bolton found themselves in severe financial difficulties and on the verge of relegation to the Fourth Division. To raise money, their directors sold off part of the ground and a Normid Superstore was built at Burnden Park on the site of the tragedy. In 1992, a commemorative plaque in memory of the 33 who had died 46 years earlier was finally unveiled at the ground by Nat Lofthouse and Sir Stanley Matthews.
Given the events of 9th March 1946, it is beyond belief that a disaster on an even greater scale should occur in an English football ground over 40 years later. That it did shames those who ran football in this country and will forever remain a slur on the memories of those who lost their lives at Burnden Park.
This article orignally appeared in Issue 455 of The Oatcake, on 4th March 2009 when Stoke City played Bolton Wanderers.
LIST OF PEOPLE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE BURNDEN PARK DISASTER
Wilfred Addison 68 Stockton Street, Moss Side, Manchester.
Wilfred Allison (19) 11 Selborne Street, Leigh.
Fred Battersby (31) 16 Argyle Street, Atherton.
James Battersby (33) 23 Worthing Grove, Atherton.
Robert Bentham (33) 96 Bolton Old Road, Atherton
Henry Bimson (59) 86 Leigh Road, Leigh.
Henry Ratcliffe Birtwistle (14) 10 June Street, Blackburn.
John T Blackshaw 11 Norman Street, Rochdale.
W Braidwood (40) 96 Green Lane, Hindley.
Fred Campbell (33) 49 Garstang Avenue, Bolton.
Fred Price Dearden (67) 61 Florence Avenue, Bolton.
William Evans (33) 90 Glebe Street, Leigh.
Winston Finch 50 Deneside Avenue, Hazel Grove, Stockport.
John Flinders (32) 2 Clough Terrace, Littleborough.
Albert Edward Hanrahan 21 Cambria Crescent, Winton, Eccles.
Emily Hoskinson (40) 49 Garstang Avenue, Bolton.
William Hughes (56) 28 Byrom Street, Poolstock, Wigan.
Frank Jubb 103 Greenbank Road, Rochdale.
John Livesey (37) Collins Road, Bamber Bridge, Preston.
John Thomas Lucas (35) 13 Arthur Street, Leigh.
Harold Mcandrew 13 Sharp Street, Wigan.
William Mckenzie 2 St Paul`s Villas, Bury.
Morgan Mooney (32) 167 Escrick Street, Bolton.
Harry Needham (30) 41 Bella Street, Bolton.
David Pearson 66 Brimrod Lane, Rochdale.
Joseph Platt (43) 34 Thwaites Street, Bolton.
Sidney Potter (36) 10 Charles Street, Tyldesley.
Grenville Roberts 5 Foy Street, Ashton-In-Makerfield.
Richard Robey (35) 24 Lower West Avenue, Barnoldswick.
Thomas Robey (65) 118 Upholland Street, Billinge, Wigan.
T Smith (65) 2 King Street South, Rochdale.
Walter Wilmot (31) 175 Crescent Road, Bolton.
James Wilson 1210, Ashton Old Road, Higher Openshaw, Manchester.