BY CHRIS ETCHINGHAM
On the afternoon of March 9th 1946, at an FA Cup quarter- final between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, 33 fans died and over 400 more were injured at Bolton’s Burnden Park. Perhaps the most tragic part of the whole disaster was that this was to be no tipping point or line in the sand to be drawn when it came to fan safety; it was, in fact, a portent of things to come, a grotesque foretelling of events at Ibrox and Hillsborough in future decades.
The ground sat just a half a mile south of the town centre and the prospect of seeing stars such as Stoke’s Stanley Matthews and Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse was a unique draw for many townsfolk. This was a time before regular televised live matches; most people not attending games would have listened on wireless radios, so this really was a rare opportunity to see two stars of their time. The match itself was the second of two legs, the first of which Bolton won at Stoke’s Victoria Ground 2-0 thanks to a brace of goals by Ray Westwood.
Prior to turnstiles opening at 1pm fans of both sides (there was little in the way of segregation) began to arrive, many had travelled by train and had made the ten minute walk from the train station. When the gates did open there seemed to be little indication of the disaster to come as fans took up their positions on the terraces and seats within the ground. However, as the afternoon wore on, there seemed to be an endless stream of supporters arriving, many had worked morning shifts in warehouses and factories and couldn’t arrive in as good a time as the authorities would probably have liked. The situation quickly deteriorated.
By 2.15pm conditions both inside and outside the ground were becoming unbearable. Supporters waiting outside were being crushed against the wall of the stadium and those at the front of the queue were being pressed forward - whether they wanted to be or not - until they were packed so tightly that they couldn’t move any further. On the terraces, children were being passed over the heads of adults to the front of the stands to avoid suffocation.
At 2.40pm the turnstiles were closed, though spectators still found other methods of entering the ground. Some simply climbed over the closed turnstiles and walls, whereas others walked along the railway line that ran along the top of the ground which lead to fencing that was easily broken down.
The police (without modern day radio equipment) were losing the ability to stay in control of the situation; those inside the ground couldn’t communicate with colleagues outside the ground. People began to fall to the ground unable to keep their footing and those around couldn’t help but tread on those unfortunate fans underneath. With ten minutes to go before kick off, a man trying to leave the crush inside the stadium with his young son managed to pick a lock on an exit gate and leave. Hundreds of fans, having spotted this, used the exit gate as an entrance point into the ground and poured onto the already full terraces. Barriers began to buckle and give way and where there were no barriers, people funnelled down into gaps from which there was no escape. One fan described the movement of fans inside the crush as “falling down like a pack of cards”.
Amazingly, the match actually kicked off and was quickly halted but only so that the police could move those who had spilled onto the pitch, off it. The game continued, though again it was halted after a few more minutes as a policeman came onto the pitch and spoke to referee George Dutton to inform him that there had been a fatality. Nat Lofthouse remembered the policeman speaking to the referee whilst pointing to bodies at the side of the pitch and saying “I believe those people over there are dead”
Whilst the players waited in the dressing rooms, aware that something untoward was happening on the pitch, the dead and injured were being brought off of the terraces. Eyewitness Alf Ashworth describes people being carried by stretchers “some of them had their arms dangling over the side. I thought to myself ‘they are dead’”
After a thirty minute delay the game was restarted on the advice of Bolton Chief Constable WJ Howard, a decision that was popular neither with the crowd nor the players. Stanley Matthews in particular was “sickened” that the game had to be restarted and one Stoke player had his shirt grabbed and abuse shouted at him from the crowd. As the players took to the field they would have noticed that the pitch was considerably smaller than before. The dead and injured lay on the ground in front of the terracing and on the edge of the pitch so sawdust had to be used as rudimentary line markings. There was no half time, players simply changed ends and kicked off the second half.
Many at the ground didn’t realise the full extent of the disaster until they got home that night. Alf Ashworth was asked on his way home by his neighbours as to what had happened but it was only when he listened to his radio that night that he fully understood what had happened. Stanley Matthews wrote later that “it was not until I was motoring home that evening that the shadow of grim disaster descended on me like a storm”.
There were many theories as to what had caused the disaster, and in an echo of the future some in the press laid the blame firmly at the door of the fans. The Manchester Evening News reflecting on the large numbers of people who had broken into the ground commented that “perhaps the war has left people with less respect for the law than they used to have”. The Bolton Evening News also referred to the “ugly break in of spectators” before condemning those whom it believed had destroyed property and even interfered with the signals on the railway in a bid to gain entry. Even the Chief Constable believed that the fans who had gained access to the ground by breaking fences on the railway embankment had played their part in the course of events
This is, however, far too simplistic; there were many more underlying causes for the events that unfolded at Burnden Park that afternoon. Bolton Wanderers themselves had tried to encourage as many fans as possible to attend despite all the tickets for the main stand being sold; “plenty of room for spectators without tickets” according to a story in the Bolton Evening News. The message was clear and certainly not lost on the people of Bolton, it was estimated that there could have been as many as 85,000 people in the stadium, however authorities shouldn’t have been so surprised. A match the previous month had seen an attendance of 51,612 with many spectators forced to sit on the roof of a shelter behind one of the goals.
Another complication was the fact that the Burnden Stand - which held 2,789 fans - was still occupied by the Ministry Of Supply, a hangover from World War II and was out of bounds for spectators; this also meant that the turnstiles for that section of the ground were deemed unusable. The result of this was that the 28,000 fans watching the match from the Railway Embankment had to enter from the Manchester Road End, as too did those fans who had tickets for Burnden Paddock. Valuable police resources were used escorting some of these fans to their seats as well as guarding the unused Burnden Stand.
The Home Office launched an official enquiry into the events chaired by lawyer and MP Moelwyn Hughes and came to the conclusion that the disaster was caused by three factors. Firstly, the time taken by police and club officials to securely close the turnstiles. Secondly, the illegal entry gained by some fans (though he described the entry by the fans from the railway embankment as “irrelevant” he did state that the 200-300 who gained entry through the gate opened by the concerned father with his son did “contribute materially”) and thirdly, that one of the collapsed barriers was rusty and in a state of disrepair.
The report stated that given a specific set of circumstances it was incredibly easy for a dangerous situation to arise; “an involuntary sway…an exciting moment”. The report also absolved both the police and Bolton Wanderers of any blame though there had never been any real assessment of the ground’s capacity. It was simply that of the maximum number of people who could be safely accommodated, though there were no means of knowing when that capacity was reached. Hughes recommended local authorities should inspect stadia with a capacity of 10,000 and safety limits should be agreed for those with a capacity of more than 25,000. Grounds should have greater internal communications and turnstiles should have a means of mechanically counting spectator numbers.
Bolton Wanderers moved from Burnden Park to the Reebok Stadium (now the Macron Stadium) in 1997. A retail park now stands where the old stadium used to be. Nat Lofthouse laid a plaque on the site of the disaster (now an Asda supermarket). Recalling the events of that day he stated; “you couldn’t think about kicking a football, your mind was on those poor people. They died in the stand I used to climb in and if I hadn’t been a player, it could well have been me”.
Ultimately insignificant given the tragedy, the game finished 0-0.