A brief overview of the Burnden Park Disaster

Bolton Wanderers' club secretary and historian Simon Marland details how the events of the 1946 Burnden Park Disaster unfolded

A lifelong Bolton Wanderers supporter and a man who has worked for the Whites for over three decades, club secretary and historian Simon Marland offers his own reflection on the Burnden Park Disaster to bwfc.co.uk.

“It was an important FA Cup tie and traditionally, throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Bolton were a cup team and massive crowds always turned out for our matches.

On this particular day, Stoke City were the visitors and Stanley Matthews was the main attraction. Everybody wanted to see him and at the time, we were doing well ourselves.

The crowd which was expected was between 50,000 and 60,000 – as it turned out though, the official figures reckon there were over 75,000 inside the stadium.

At one point, the police decided that they couldn’t allow any more people inside the ground in the Embankment end. As a result, there were a lot of people outside the stadium who wanted to get in and people inside who wanted to get out because it was that dangerous.

A father and his son managed to get out by opening the exit, but because of that people managed to get in too and in the end, one of the barriers collapsed which resulted in 33 people losing their lives.

The barrier collapsed about ten to fifteen minutes into the game and the referee halted proceedings under instruction from the police. People were being passed down over heads and at the time, Burnden Park had a big track around the pitch so there was space.

People were put out and a police horse was trying to keep people in the terrace – there were ultimately too many people in a small area.

In other parts of the ground meanwhile, there was room. It could have been all so different, but it’s all in hindsight now unfortunately.

When you look at the addresses of those that lost their lives, you can see that they’d come from all over the North West – they weren’t just Bolton fans. Back then, people did jump on a train or a trolley bus to go and watch football.

It was a major entertainment option back then and it was a massive thing for so many people.

A large percentage of people in the ground that actually didn’t realise what was going on. The game was continuing to take part at the time and a lot of people didn’t realise what was happening, even the players included.

They were told to get back out on the pitch and play the game and it was only afterwards that they learned that people had died.

Until the referee and police got involved and started taking players off, it wasn’t clear what was going on and they certainly didn’t know that people had died.

You look at the fact that the police and the referee decided that the game should continue too – it was decided that way to keep people safe from the knowledge of what was actually happening.

If they’d cancelled the game without explaining what was going on, it would have caused further unrest and that’s why they chose to carry on.

It was just unbelievable – when you see people panned out on the side of the pitch, your initial reaction is that they’ve fainted due to too many people being in there. 

But we have to remember that this happened in a totally different era. People literally had a radio and it was a totally different world.

In comparison to today, everybody has got mobile phones and communication, but back then, there was none of that.

With that in mind, when somebody goes to the game and doesn’t return home, you’re left wondering what has happened to them and what has gone on.

After the game itself, the ground was amended to make it safer with barriers being strengthened.

When you look at the modern day game, you cannot imagine anything like that happened again and that is ultimately because people learned that day but paid a heavy price for it with what happened.

I’m sure this will live on and we’ll continue to commemorate it for many years to come. It’s something that as a club, we will never forget.”

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Read Time: 4 mins