Date: 9th March 2011 at 8:01am
Written by:

On March 9th 1946, a little over six months after the end of World War II, Bolton Wanderers met Stoke City in an FA Cup Quarter-Final Second Leg. Due to the season starting after the cessation of hostilities, players still being demobbed and the fact that the clubs needed the money, all the ties up to the last eight were played on a home and away basis.

After beating Blackpool, Liverpool and Middlesbrough, Bolton travelled to The Potteries on March 2nd and came away with a 2-0 victory, both goals scored by Ray Westwood. A place in the Semi-Final beckoned. And so it was that a large and expectant crowd travelled towards Burnden Park a week later to watch the return leg.

The Burnden Stand was not available to fans, as it was still in use by the Ministry of Supply. The closure of the stand also meant that those fans who had tickets for the Burnden Paddock had to enter by the Manchester Road end and be escorted around the pitch. On top of this, the turnstiles at the east end of the Railway Embankment which adjoined the Burnden Stand had been closed since 1940.

This meant that, on top of the 28,000 spectators that had tickets for the Railway Stand, a further 9,000 were entering the ground through turnstiles virtually next door.

Because those in charge were simply unprepared for the amount of people who wanted to see the game, the numbers swelled by Bolton’s victory at Stoke and it being many people’s first opportunity to see the already legendary Stanley Matthews play for Stoke, at 2:40 p.m. it was decided that the turnstiles be closed. This, however, did not stop people entering the ground. They did this by climbing over the same turnstiles, by removing sections of fencing and climbing in from the railway, or by entering the ground through a locked turnstile that had been opened by a father and son who had picked its lock, trying to escape the crush that was forming inside. When it became impossible to climb over and in, some fans stood on top of a stationary train that had stopped outside the ground.

As the game kicked off, the crowd had already spilled onto the touchline, trying to get away from the crush, in images that were tragically recalled forty three years later in Sheffield. Two barriers collapsed under the crush and, as the crowd moved forward, it fell down, collapsing under the collective weight of thousands of people.

Play was stopped, but only to allow the police to push the spectators that had encroached onto the pitch back over the sideline. The game restarted but was quickly halted as a police officer came onto the pitch and spoke to referee George Dutton. He, in turn, called together Harry Hubbick, who had taken over the club captaincy from Bolton Wanderers only fatality in the war, Harry Goslin, and Neil Franklin, the captain of Stoke. He advised them there had been a fatality in the stand and then took the teams off.

When the players returned a little under half an hour later, a new touchline had been created with sawdust and the players continued the game with bodies lining the sidelines, covered with coats. At half time, the referee turned the teams round and restarted the game immediately. The match finished scoreless and Bolton advanced to the Semi-Finals.

As with Heysel and Hillsbrough, the players themselves weren’t aware of the full scale of the tragedy and neither were most of the fans until after the match had finished. Matthews himself commented later:

‘In our dressing-room again we heard more rumours about the increasing number of casualties. Yet it was not until I was motoring home that evening that the shadow of the grim disaster descended on me like a storm-cloud.’

Alf Ashworth, a fan who went to the game, said, when interviewed a long time after:

‘On our way home, we were asked a few times had we been to the match and what had happened. It was only when we arrived home and listened to the Wireless (no TV in 1946), that we found out what had happened.’

Thirty three people died and more than four hundred were injured. As with all football disasters, reports were written. The one looking into the disaster at Burnden Park was chaired by former Labour MP Moelwyn Hughes, who recommended limitations on crowd sizes.

The disaster at Burnden Park was tragedy enough, made all the more worse by the fact that some of the dead had only recently returned from fighting for their country. What makes it worse is twofold.

Hughes’s investigation concluded that it was easy for a dangerous situation to arise in a crowded enclosure and that it would happen again and again but usually without fatal or injurious consequences. Anyone who has stood in one of the mighty terraces of football grounds will tell you of the swell when your team has scored, of how you could find yourself halfway down and halfway across the stand before the swell stopped, of being caught against a barrier and having the breath knocked out of you. Hughes recommended that all terrace enclosures should be accurately monitored and feared that the disaster might easily be repeated at 20 to 30 grounds. It also stressed the need for controlling crowds well back from the entrance of a ground. Whilst the Home Office ordered the report, no official body was willing to take responsibility or to put the recommendations into effect.

On a Spring day in 1989, ninety six people died in Sheffield, in circumstances that echoed those of Burnden Park. Lack of forethought by the authorities led to a crush and caused fans to attempt to get onto the pitch. If the fences that had been erected due to the hooligan problem of the 70’s and 80’s had not been there then the crowd could have spilled onto the pitch as they did in 1946 and, before that, at Wembley in 1923. Whether this would have caused less fatalities, or none at all, is neither here nor there. The same mistakes were made, this time made worse by the fact that this wasn’t at a time of austerity, when the authorities may have not had the necessary structure to deal with a large crowd.

Tragedy links Bolton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Glasgow Rangers and Bradford City like no other clubs in the British Isles. And yet, when it comes to what happened at Burnden Park, for most people, it is lost in the midst of time. Bolton have a memorial at The Reebok but it seldom, if ever, galvanises in the way that it does at both the Hillsborough memorial at Anfield and Hillsborough. The scarves, shirts and other mementos that surrounded it after the death of Nat Lofthouse locked yesterday and today together for a while. But they have now gone. The Munich Clock, itself an evocation of a bygone age, may have been moved around the corner at Old Trafford but is still a stark reminder of the players, staff and others who died on that runway and is still pointed out by United fans taking their children to Old Trafford for the first time.

It may be because the tragedy happened so soon after the end of the war that the dead were just an addendum to the many who had already perished. But it seems to go deeper than that somehow.

On these pages two years ago, Richard McCormick wrote about the tragedy. A day later, Manny Road spoke of how little had been done to mark the day, that there had been no mention on the official website or on the Bolton News website. The Wikipedia article on Burnden Park had, at the time, the same amount of lines on the stores that now fill the space left by the levelled ground to the tragedy that happened within it. Vital Bolton, it seemed, were the only voice for the fallen.

A day later, The Bolton News mentioned the minute`s silence that had taken place at the Burnden Asda, but the story was so small it was an insult. Even within Bolton, apathy had, it seemed, become the byword when it came to the tragic history of the town`s club. Even if Liverpool fans do get justice for the ninety six who died, there is no chance that Liverpool as a club or city will ever fail to honour those who perished.

Look around the web now and there is still little written about what happened that day. Some, indeed, are amazed that they have never even heard of it. This may be to do with the fact that, after hours of trawling the web, I could not find one article from any journalist talking about it.

Sixty five years on, the club is in the quarter finals of the FA Cup again, only the eighth time that we have reached this stage since 1946. It would be nice to think that someone, somewhere, could bring these two facts together in a piece in a national paper. Or, on live national television, Birmingham and Bolton could stand together in a minutes silence and bring to the nation`s attention the day when thirty three people set off to watch a football match and never returned home.

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.


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