by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

9 March 1946: 33 lives lost and hundreds injured in the Burnden Park disaster

On 9 March 1946 Bolton’s game with Stoke in the FA Cup Quarter-Final was overshadowed by a crush of supporters that led to the death of 33 fans and over 400 more injured.

That season’s FA Cup saw the rounds being held over two legs to help compensate for the lack of League football, which had yet to restart after the Second World War, and, on 9 March Bolton were hosting Stoke in the second leg of their quarter-final tie.  Bolton fans must have been optimistic of getting through to the semi-finals as they had already won the first leg 2-0 thanks to two Ray Westwood goals.  Interest in the game though was coming not just from locals, but also from the wider area.  This was the first year since the end of the war that the FA Cup had been competed for, and people particularly wanted the chance to watch the top players who were returning from the forces to their clubs, and Stoke were bringing with them maybe the best of them all, Stan Matthews.

A few days before the tie, Bolton were anxious to emphasise that, despite all tickets being sold out for the Main Stand, the game was not all-ticket. Under a headline, “Plenty of Room for Spectators Without Tickets,” the Bolton Evening News spread the club’s message that “most of the ground would be available for spectators paying at the turnstiles.”  The message was certainly taken on board.  Although the official attendance was given as a capacity filling 65,000, it was later estimated that the crowd was in fact in excess of 85,000 people, some stating as high as 90,000. Whatever the numbers, they dwarfed the highest attendance of 43,000 that Burnden Park had seen that season.

The disaster happened at the Railway End of the ground where the facilities could be called rudimentary at best.  Instead of terracing there was just a bank of dirt, which would turn to mud very quickly, and just a few flagstones acting as steps.  The overcrowding was enhanced because part of the Burnden Road Stand had yet to re-open after it had been requisitioned by the Government for use as a storage building during the War.  In addition a set of turnstiles at the east end of the embankment had been closed in 1940 and yet to be returned to service, meaning that the crowd were all forced to come through one side of the embankment.

The turnstiles where people were paying to get in did not allow for a running total of admissions so no-one really knew how many people were in the ground, and when the turnstiles were closed at twenty minutes before kick off, the end was already overfull.  When the turnstiles closed there were approximately 15,000 people still outside, and people found other ways to enter this end of the ground, some trying to merely escape the crush outside, not realising what was happening inside.  People climbed over the closed turnstiles and over the wall from the adjoining railway line, and when a father and son, who trying to escape the crush inside, opened a gate, even more people entered.

The game kicked off at 3 p.m. but just minutes after its start it had to be halted as fans spilt onto the pitch.  The pitch was cleared but two barriers gave away causing the crowd to spill forwards again crushing those underneath.  A fan at the game described how “All of a sudden those that were in front of us seemed to go – all falling down like a pack of cards.”

Stan Matthews described it this way, “As we trotted on to the pitch I noticed the crowd was tightly packed, but this was nothing unusual at a big cup-tie. Our boys began well, and after ten minutes we had reason to feel confident as we were having the best of the game. It then happened! There was a terrific roar from the crowd, and I glanced over my shoulder to see thousands of fans coming from the terracing behind the far goal on to the pitch.”

A police officer came onto the pitch to inform the referee George Dutton that there had been fatalities in the crowd, and Dutton took the two teams off the pitch.  With the players off the pitch the field began to resemble a military hospital as the dead and injured were laid down on it.  After a hold-up of half an hour the game was restarted at the request of the Chief Constable of Bolton, but this was not a popular decision.  As the players were coming back on to the field with the bodies of the dead lying along the side of the pitch covered with their coats, one of the spectators got hold of a Stoke player and shouted abuse at him for continuing with the game. Stanley Matthews said later he was sickened that the game had been played, and presumably in a desperate attempt to get the game finished, the half-time break was dispensed with, the players merely changing ends and resuming straight away. The game finished 0-0 to see Bolton qualify for the semi-finals, but that barely mattered.

A Home Office inquiry, chaired by Justice Ronw Moelwyn Hughes was launched to examine the events surrounding the disaster, but before the inquiry began journalists, club officials and police were quick to lay the blame solely with the fans.  The Chief Constable of Bolton, W J Howard, and the manager-secretary of Bolton, Walter Rowley, both issued statements to the press condemning sections of the supporters.  Rowley complained, “Holes have been torn in the fencing at the top of the embankment in almost every conceivable place.” The Chief Constable also knew exactly who to blame.  His statement alleged that, “There was no disorder … among those who gained entry in a legitimate manner.  The trouble began when hundreds of people broke down the fences on the railway embankment.” He claimed that the police had been “overwhelmed by the thousands of people rushing to the fence”, and that once these intruders were in the ground they “created pressure by surging forward with the result that two of the crush barriers collapsed.”

Influenced by these statements, the Times in a report headed, “Enclosure stormed by Crowd”, attributed the disaster “to crowds who were disappointed when the gates were shut, making an unauthorised entry to the popular embankment from a railway line.”   Some comment in the local press similarly laid blame on the crowd.   Olympian’, who was the Bolton Evening News main sports columnist, referred to an “ugly break-in of spectators.” The main editorial column of the paper took the position much further, viewing the crowd’s behaviour as symptomatic of broader social changes, saying, “The illegal entry has a clear relation to the increasing violence that great crowds of people are ready to use nowadays. The crowd is a lower organism than the individual, and in many ways the most frightening aspect of all this business is the sub-human vitality that seems to have possessed Saturday’s concourse…apart from illegal breaking and entering they were guilty of wilful destruction of property in their frenzy to catch a glimpse of the match. Some of them did not even hesitate to interfere with the working of the railways by clinging on to signal posts.”

In fact, in his report Justice Hughes spread the blame wider.  He described the invasion over the fencing at the back of the Railway Embankment as “irrelevant” to the disaster because, given the configuration of the terracing, it would not have brought any pressure onto the section where the barriers collapsed and the fatalities occurred. However, he did judge that the additional 200-300 spectators who gained entry through the opened gate did “contribute materially” to crowd congestion on the terraces relevant section of the ground, though even this was not a “major factor” in causing the disaster.

The report found that while the Bolton club and the police had taken proper steps on the day, those in charge were unprepared for such a large crowd.  The real problem arose from the fact that there had never been any proper assessment of the ground’s capacity; it was simply given as the greatest number of people to have been safely accommodated there on a previous occasion.  He also pointed out that there was also no means of knowing when the maximum capacity was about to be reached, nor facilities for the immediate closing of the turnstiles. An attempt had been made to open exit doors, but the keys could not be found.  Matters had been made worse by the fact that the turnstiles on the opposite side were unusable, which meant that over 28,000 destined for the Railway Embankment end had to enter through the same set of turnstiles.

Immediately after the tragedy a Disaster Fund was set up by the Mayor of Bolton to help the families of the dead and injured.  This raised £52,000, about £2 million today, and was boosted by the proceeds from England playing out a 2-2 draw with Scotland at a sold out Maine Road in a friendly to help raise funds in August that year. Bolton left Burnden Park in 1997 and Nat Lofthouse unveiled a memorial plaque in 2000 on the site of the old ground, which was now a supermarket. Yet compared to more recent disasters, and with no intention of taking anything away from them, today the Burnden Park disaster seemed to have become somewhat overlooked.  Perhaps because of its closeness to the end of the Second World War where plenty of lives were lost, including Harry Goslin, the Bolton captain, people were immune to tragedy.  Whatever the reason it does no harm to spend a moment of remembrance for the 33 who lost their lives on that day.