Earlier this year a jury concluded that the 96 Liverpool Football Club supporters who lost their lives following a crush whilst attending an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough in 1989 were unlawfully killed, quashing the original verdict of accidental death which was established in 2012. The Hillsborough disaster remains the worst sporting catastrophe in British history, yet it was preceded by a remarkably similar tragedy that occurred in Bolton in 1946.
Summary of Post War Football
The conclusion of the Second World War in 1945 coincided with a rapid growth in the popularity of association football across Britain. Following six years of fear and uncertainty the public were eager to experience and engage in any form of leisure that would provide them with a brief respite from the grim reality of post-war life. For the working class man, football became the cheapest and most viable option, with football attendances during the mid-1940’s reaching an all-time high in England.
However, football itself had been left badly scarred by the hardships of war. Many of the stadiums had fallen into neglect or had suffered damage from German bombing raids whilst others had been procured by national organisations to aid the war effort. Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, was partly destroyed in 1941 during a late-night bombing raid whilst Stoke City’s Victoria Ground was partly converted so as to become an air raid shelter that could house up to 400 people.
Description of Burnden Park
Burnden Park, the former home of Bolton Wanderers Football Club, personified the poor state of many British sporting grounds in the immediate aftermath of the war. The stadium stood in the Southern reaches of the city and was located in a working class neighbourhood surrounded by rows of narrow streets and small, terraced housing. It was rudimentary in design, with the Railway Embankment being little more than a mound of dirt and earth with loose flagstones laid down for steps. Crude ‘crush barriers’ were positioned in strategic locations throughout the ground and stood as the only safety mechanism installed to control the ‘swaying’ and ‘surging’ of spectators. Like many other football clubs, Bolton lacked the fiscal capability to renovate or improve their stadium in the austerity of post-war Britain.
9th March 1946
On 9th March 1946 Burnden Park hosted the FA Cup quarter final second leg between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City. The home team were favourites to progress following a two goal victory in the previous game whilst the Stoke team included Stanley Matthews, a player of renowned prestige who was said to attract an extra ten thousand spectators to each game in which he appeared. A bumper crowd of 50,000 was expected, yet on the day it is estimated that up to 85,000 supporters travelled to the game at a ground which had an official capacity of roughly 65,000.
At 2:40pm the police closed the turnstiles and declared Burnden Park officially full, leaving 15,000 supporters locked outside the ground. Whilst many resigned themselves to missing the game, there were reports of hundreds of spectators climbing over turnstiles and forcing holes in the perimeter fencing to illegally enter the ground. Inside the stadium conditions were already cramped and uncomfortable to such an extent that one man, desperate to escape the packed terracing on the Railway Embankment with his young son, forced open a fire exit to escape. However, as he made his exit he left the gate open allowing thousands of supporters outside the ground to flood into the stadium.
The arrival of the two teams at 3:00pm resulted in the crowd swaying and rolling as spectators strained to get a view of the players. In the Railway Embankment, the arrival of thousands more supporters through the open exit gate generated such a force that a crush barrier was flattened and people began to be pushed helplessly forward into the resulting breach. Thousands of people were compressed into this gap, funnelling down uncontrollably. Barriers elsewhere began to buckle under the strain, and down went the crowd, tumbling forward. Thousands of spectators poured onto the playing area to escape the crush and at 3:12pm the game was halted.
Only the arrival of two mounted police officers allowed some semblance of order to be restored, and as the police began to regain control, the seriousness of what had occurred began to become clear. Motionless casualties began to be removed from the Embankment corner of the ground, at first only one or two, but soon the mounting list came to such an extent that bodies were placed along the touchline in front of the main stand.
The Chief Constable of Bolton decided that to abandon the game would only result in more panic and ordered the match to be resumed. With no space being available on the terracing, new touchlines were made using sawdust to allow the overspill of spectators to sit on the original outline of the pitch for the remainder of the game. Even as the match continued casualties continued to be carried from the Railway Embankment across to the main stand and many motionless bodies were left by the side of the pitch.
The game finished in a goalless draw and it was not until the following day the true enormity of the disaster became clear. 33 spectators lost their lives whilst over 500 more were injured.
Response and Reaction
Following the disaster, a public inquiry was ordered by the home secretary with R. Moelwyn Hughes being selected to head the inquest. The Hughes report came to three conclusions: that the number of spectators present inside the stadium exceeded a safe amount, that the design and shape of the Railway Embankment enclosure was at fault, and that the unauthorised entry of supporters was a key factor. The report also made strong recommendations regarding the control of crowds at all football grounds with the Football League and Football Association promising their full co-operation to ensure that a disaster of this magnitude would not occur again.
The Burnden Park disaster was, at the time, the worst tragedy in English football history. Yet, just four days later, the stadium was open as usual when Bolton Wanders hosted Bradford City in a league fixture. Despite the Hughes report, very little, action was taken by local authorities, football clubs and police forces regarding the calls for stricter crowd control. The disaster preceded further tragedies at Ibrox (1971), Bradford (1985) and Heysel (1985) and it was not until forty three years later that the events of Hillsborough instigated significant changes in British football.
Article © Martyn Cooke