Preston pub collapse claimed four lives

Sixty years ago this week a tragedy took place which left the people of Preston in shock, as local historian Keith Johnson recalls

Saturday, 14th November 2020, 7:00 am
Emergency services at the scene after The Greyhound pub collapsed
Emergency services at the scene after The Greyhound pub collapsed

The 1950s had seen the start of a period of great redevelopment in Preston and with the great slum clearance which took place, it was inevitable that a number of public houses would disappear.

Indeed, by the end of the 1960s the number of licensed premises would be down to 170. A far cry from the peek of Victorian days, but nonetheless still plenty of places to enjoy a beer or two.

Understandable, during that period the publicans were keen to keep hold of their licences and, consequently, when the Greyhound Hotel on London Road was set for improvement work the landlord, Eric Ratcliffe, kept the public house open.

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Newspaper cutting reveals the aftermath of The Greyhound pub tragedy

Work started early in November 1960 with plans for the roof and top floor to be removed and a wooden shell built up inside, along with a temporary bar to enable the premises to remain open in line with licensing laws.

In the week beginning November 14 the workmen started to knock down the structure and all seemed to go according to plan with visitors to the public house still enjoying a pint in the vault.

Alas, on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 16 tragedy struck. Shortly before 3pm the landlady, Eithne Ratcliffe, was dealing with the last orders. Fortunately there were only a handful of customers, with Walter Pierpoint in his usual place at the end of the bar and Henry Marsden, Frederick Lawrenson and William Berry further along.

Ironically the conversation was about death, with the other men telling Pierpoint, a second hand dealer, that trudging along the busy streets with his handcart would kill him and he replying that he wasn’t afraid to die as it happens to us all one day.

Newspaper cutting reveals the aftermath of The Greyhound pub tragedy

Suddenly, there were rumblings from within the structure and the building collapsed with a crack like thunder. The street walls of the hotel fell outwards and masonry shot across London Road, with a huge cloud of dust mushrooming over the scene.

Before the dust had settled scores of people were clambering amid the wreckage, regardless of personal safety. Within minutes police, fire and ambulance services were at the scene and, led by Fire Chief Oliver Budd, firemen tunnelled their way through the masonry securing their path with hydraulic jacks.

First to be brought out were Pierpoint and Lawrenson, the former having escaped with multiple bruising but alas, Lawrenson had been killed. Then the lifeless bodies of Marsden and Berry were found and, after digging even further into the wreckage, the firemen discovered the body of the landlady Eithne Ratcliffe(pictured inset), who had been pinned down by ceiling joists.

A surgeon, who had tunnelled through with the firemen, ascertaining that she was dead also. An anxious search continued for some hours to ensure no one else was inside the crumbled remains, with the Borough Police surgeon remaining on hand should any survivors be discovered.

Scene of devastation after the collapse of The Greyhound pub

Fortunately nobody else had fallen victim of the tragedy and by morning the awfulness of the situation was realised by the local community. Bowler hatted brewery officials from Boddingtons, who had rushed to the scene the day before, remained on hand, and with fears for the safety of the structure it was decided to demolish the walls which remained.

Walter Pierpoint was on the mend and recounting the harrowing experience, while others recalled how fortunate they had been. One local stating he had passed the public houses minutes before but, despite a thirst, an empty pocket had kept him away. Cornelius Robinson, of Thomas Street, told how he had been in the Greyhound only minutes before the collapse playing dominoes, and a motorist revealed he had been heading down London Road when the building collapsed, scattering bricks across the road in front of his car.

When the inquest was opened on the following day the distraught landlord Eric Ratcliffe told of how they had planned to serve beer throughout the alteration work while living at another address nearby.

The brother of Henry Marsden, a driver’s mate, aged 50, told how Henry had been off work with a leg injury and was just passing his time. A relative of William Berry, 67, a retired hod carrier, spoke of William’s liking for a drink in the Greyhound where his friends gathered, and the teenage son of victim Frederick Lawrenson told the hearing that his 49-year-old father had been a ticket collector employed by British Rail, who had called in the public house after finishing his early shift that day.

Rebuilt The Greyhound pub before its closure

It was a tragedy Preston would not forget and throughout the months spent demolishing and rebuilding the public house it was a constant reminder of the grief and heartache caused on that November day. When the new premises were opened, landlord Eric Ratcliffe was once more behind the bar to greet the locals.

In March 1965 the tragedy was recalled at Manchester Assizes when Mr Ratcliffe, by then aged 36, was awarded damages of £2,000, with costs, in respect to his wife’s death. The award was against the builders and contractors who were carrying out the alterations. In fact, he spent almost 30 years serving Boddingtons bitter before, on his retirement, he and his second wife Dorothy said goodbye to the Greyhound Hotel and its memories.

The Greyhound continued as a local public house until 2012 when the doors were closed, ending an era begun circa 1836. Two years later the building was transformed into an Egyptian restaurant called Lola where you can enjoy the delights of Mediterranean cuisine.

This tragedy and so much more can be found within the pages of Keith Johnson's book ‘Preston In The 1960s’ published by Amberley.