Seventy years ago today, n the 9th of March, 1946, 33 people died in an overcrowded Burnden Park. Here, Tony Topping looks at the tragedy and its effects on football
On the morning of Saturday the 9th of March 1946, Bill Hughes left his home at 28, Byrom St, Poolstock to attend a football match. The 56yr old would never return to his Wigan home, he died along with 32 others on the concrete terracing at Burnden Park Bolton.
Three other Wiganers were amongst the dead that day, W. Braidwood aged 40 from 96, Green Lane, Hindley, Harold Mc Andrew of 13, Sharp St, Wigan and Thomas Robey aged 65 from 118, Up Holland St, Billinge.
They had all travelled to watch Bolton Wanderers v Stoke City in the 2nd leg of the F.A. Cup 6th round. Many neutrals in the crowd had travelled far and wide to see one man, Stoke City’s Stanley Matthews. England International Matthews could add thousands to a gate and Bolton were well supported anyway, the indications were that the crowd would be huge and it was.
You could pay on the gate, a far cry from the all ticket games of today, and people queued for hours to get in. Two people who got in the ground early were Alf Ashworth and his brother Bill they had decided to go in the Great Lever end. They immediately noticed that the terrace at the Bolton end of the ground was packed solid on the left hand side an hour before kick off.
The entrance to the Bolton end was by a turnstile on Manchester Rd. For anyone who visited Burnden Park before the ground closed, the Bolton end was the terracing behind the goals at the railway end. Having stood on this terrace myself in the past I find it hard to believe that officially 28,000 were allowed on this embankment. On the day of the tragedy even that official figure was surpassed. Alf and his brother could see that there was space on the far side of the terrace but you wouldn’t be able to see that on entering the ground on the other side. Another factor was the small snack bar that was located inside near to the turnstile entrance. People tended to make for this and it added to the crush as people made their way in.
Added to this was the fact that several turnstiles were unopened as the War Ministry had closed part of one stand which it used for supplies. Season ticket holders for the paddock in front of this stand had to go through the turnstile on the Bolton end and make their way to the paddock.
At 2:40pm the turnstiles were closed, capacity had been reached, the official attendance that day was 65,419. Unofficially the crowd was put at between 85,000 and 90,000. People were seen climbing over the wall of railway sleepers on the embankment, something I myself did in the 1970’s, it didn’t take much expertise to get over them. Spectators also climbed over the boy’s entrance and there was one unconfirmed report of a boy and his Dad opening a gate to escape the crush enabling others to rush into the ground.
When the teams came out at 3pm the crowd in that fateful corner of the ground surged forward, barriers gave way under the pressure and the fatalities occurred. Alf Ashworth recalls “The match started and everything was going well. Then we saw the crowd spilling onto the football field, we didn’t realise what was happening. The players left the field and people were being carried off on stretchers. Some of them had their arms dangling over the side. I thought to myself they are dead”
The game was stopped after 12 minutes.
Nat Lofthouse the legendary Bolton forward recalls a policeman going to the referee “He went to the referee and pointed to bodies being laid at the side of the pitch and said “I believe those people over there are dead” The players were taken off for half an hour but the angry crowd not knowing the full extent of the terrible tragedy demanded they return. When the two teams came out of the dressing rooms to take to the field they had to walk past corpses laid out under the stand.
Nat Lofthouse recalled “It was a sad day but I think the referee did the right thing starting the game. You couldn’t think about kicking a football, your mind was on those poor people. They died in the stand where I used to climb in and if I hadn’t been a player it could well have been me”
The game finished 0-0 and Bolton won on aggregate. The result is immaterial the day would always be remembered for the deaths of 33 people who went to a football match and never returned.
An enquiry was launched as so often is the case. Fingers were pointed, changes were made, football went on, lessons had been learned. Or so it seemed…
The 33 who tragically died that fateful day were:
Wilfred Addison, Moss Side Manchester
Wilfred Allison, (19) Leigh
Fred Battersby (31) Atherton
James Battersby (33) Atherton
Robert Bentham (33) Atherton
Henry Bimson (59) Leigh
Henry Ratcliffe Birtwistle (14) Blackburn
John Blackshaw, Rochdale
W. Braidwood (40) Hindley
Fred Campbell (33) Bolton
Fred Price Dearden (67) Bolton
William Evans (33) Bolton
Winston Finch, Stockport
John Flinders (32) Littleborough
Albert Edward Hanrahan, Eccles
Emily Hoskinson (40) Bolton
William Hughes (56) Wigan
Frank Jubb, Rochdale
John Livesey (37) Preston
John Thomas Lucas (35) Leigh
Harold McAndrew, Wigan
William McKenzie, Bury
Morgan Moonay (32) Bolton
Harry Needham (30) Bolton
David Pearson, Rochdale
Joseph Platt (43) Bolton
Sidney Potter (36) Tyldesley
Grenville Roberts, Ashton in Makerfield
Richard Robey (35) Barnoldswick
Thomas Robey (65) Billinge
T. Smith (65) Rochdale
Walter Wilmott (31) Bolton
James Wilson, Manchester
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