Eyewitness account of the Burnden Park tragedy 75 years on

It is 75 years today since what was at the time the worst football stadium tragedy in English history. The Burnden Park disaster claimed 33 lives and a Lancashire Post reporter was there to witness the horror unfold

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 3:45 pm
Women and children being passed over the heads of the crowd during the crush in which 33 football fans died during an FA Cup match between Stoke and Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park, Bolton, on March 9, 1946
Women and children being passed over the heads of the crowd during the crush in which 33 football fans died during an FA Cup match between Stoke and Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park, Bolton, on March 9, 1946

On Saturday I saw a great sporting occasion turn into dreadful tragedy.

For the first time this season I attended a football match, not as a reporter, but as a spectator.

The match was the Bolton vs Stoke cup tie, and I count myself fortunate to be able to write this story.

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Jack Livesey, of Bamber Bridge, and Harry Bertwistle, of Blackburn, who died in the crush

I reached Burnden Park at 2pm, having travelled from Preston by the 12.37 train, so crowded with enthusiasts from the Preston and Blackpool districts that hundreds could not squeeze aboard the train at Chorley, Adlington and Blackrod.

At 2.15, with 45 minutes to go to the kick-off, there was tremendous confusion inside and outside the ground.

Turnstile queues were so close packed that thousands who decided it was safest to say outside were swept through the entrances against their will.

Inside, thousands more were struggling to get out, despairing of seeing anything of the game, and caring only for their safety.

How the Post reported the tragedy

At 3.35 I had been swept on top of a place on the railway embankment at the Bolton end. I could only glimpse the playing pitch, and all around were hundreds who would willingly have escaped from the ground.

But individual movement was impossible. I could not even drop a cigarette end to the ground. The tight-packed crowd just swayed and one swayed with it.

Women were screaming, and scores of them – as well as many boys – were tossed over the heads of the crowd, with their legs waving wildly in the air, and rolled to the foot of the embankment, over the fence and on to the running track.

Then, just as the game started, the tragedy occurred. At the side of the embankment, near the entrances, a wall collapsed under the pressure.

Casualties are stretchered away from the crowd

The collapse was not dangerous in itself, but the result was that more pressure was thrown on the rear of the heaving mass of people.

A minute later there was a fresh surge, caused by hundreds of men who crossed the railway rack, high at the rear of the embankment, and climbed the sleeper fence into the ground.

Something had to give way under the irresistible pressure and it was the crush barriers, made of three-inch tubular steel bars, near the foot of the embankment, that collapsed.

Two of them, 20 yards to my right, were pushed flat to the ground as if they were made of modelling clay.

Officials survey the aftermath of the tragedy

Men and women leaning on them were hurled forward and crushed to the ground beneath the surging mass of probably 10,000 people. The screams were horrible but they only lasted a few moments.

In a few seconds there were hundreds of people in a struggling mass inside the stout wooden fence dividing the spectators’ embankment from the track round the playing pitch. I saw the legs of men and women wave wildly in the air before they were submerged by another wave of humanity.

A section of the wooden fence collapsed like matchsticks. Police and ambulance men tore down another section of fence and the crowd overflowed across the track and playing pitch.

Somewhere under the feet of the crowd were the unfortunate victims. Life must have been crushed from most of them within a minute.

I was swept myself down 15 yards of the embankment, jammed in the crowd, and struggling to keep my feet. Anyone who went down faced death.

The smashing of the wooden fence eased the pressure, and after 10 minutes I saw police, ambulance men, soldiers and spectators dragging bodies from the confused mass.

Some were so crushed and trampled they looked like bundles of rags; others were practically stripped of their clothing. Men and women wandered dazed across the track, their clothes in ribbons.

While this happened, play was still going on, and it was only stopped when the referee came across to find inert figures lying inside the touchline.

The players left the field, and immediately masses of people overflowed over the whole of the playing pitch.

The dead and unconscious were carried away on stretchers and on makeshift slings contrived from overcoats, some along the track and beneath the stand, others through a big exit gate that was thrown open.

I tried to fight my way from the embankment to reach a phone. I might as well have tried to climb the Niagara Falls.

There were horrified cries when those near the tragic spot realised the game was to go on. There were still dead and injured waiting to be carried away.

Ironically, the crowd in other parts of the ground was howling for a restart and cheering the procession of stretchers, believing they were only minor fainting cases.

The amazing fact is that although this was the worst tragedy in the history of sport, probably 90 per cent of spectators were unaware of the true situation.

Scores of thousands reached home after the match, still unaware of the tragedy.

Another ironic fact was that while people were being crushed to death, the Burnden stand – on the other side of the ground – stood empty.

The space beneath it is requisitioned for Government storage, and release of the seating portion has been denied despite repeated appeals by the club. After the tragedy, the stand was thrown open on police orders.

The dead and injured were taken from the ground in ambulances, National Fire Service tenders and private cars that had difficulty in making their way along Manchester Road, still dense with people; some trying to reach the ground, others trying to get away.

On Saturday night Bolton was a town of tragedy. Relatives of people who had not returned home from the match besieged the Central Police Office and the Royal Infirmary for news.

Weeping women pleaded for information. The scenes were reminiscent of a railway or colliery tragedy.

The Burnden Park disaster took place on March 9, 1946 and killed 33 men, women and children. Father-of-two Jack Livesey, of Collins Road, Bamber Bridge, was among those who died.

The 36-year-old fitter went to the match on a coach with workmates from the English Electric Company’s Preston works.

McKenzies Arms landlord George Waterfield was with the party and told the Post, “Our coach broke down twice on the way to Bolton and finally a relief coach was sent out to take us to Burnden Park.

“We did not arrive until 20 minutes before the kick-off, and the crowds outside were terrific. The party split up to enter the ground and I don’t know what happened to Livesey after that.

“I never got on the ground at all – the crush was so great I decided it was safer to stay outside.”

Blackburn schoolboy Harry Bertwistle was the tragedy’s youngest victim aged 14.