The Disaster of Burnden Park

England 1946

Following the end of World War II, people in Britain expected a better life but poverty and hardship remained for many years to come. There were shortages in jobs and housing for those returning from the war as well as shortages in food – rationing of food in the UK lasted until 1955. Britain’s infrastructure was hit hard during the war and many cities were in ruins when it ended.  London, Coventry and Portsmouth were hit hard by the Luftwaffe and were more bombsite than city. A new Labour Government had been elected in 1946 taking Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party out of office. After a landslide election victory the Labour administration led by Clement Attlee presided over a series of far reaching changes. The Bank of England was nationalised along with the railways, which received heavy government investment.

In 1948 the National Health Service (NHS) was created and a new system of social security designed to provide protection for all ‘from the cradle to the grave’ was created. Radical changes in education and the mass building of council houses were implemented. The Labour Government of 1945-51 were instrumental in forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Britain gave back independence to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma and strengthened the Commonwealth. This Labour Government was by far the most progressive in modern British history.


Bolton is a town in the North West of England. It is 10 miles of the city of Manchester. Historically part of Lancashire until 1974, Bolton became a constituent part of the Metropolitan Borough of Bolton in Greater Manchester. A former mill town, Bolton has been a production centre for textiles since Flemish weavers settled in the area in the 14th century, introducing a wool and cotton-weaving tradition. Bolton was a 19th century boom-town reaching its peak in 1929 with 216 cotton mills and 26 bleaching and dying works made it one of the largest and most productive centres of cotton spinning in the world. The population of Bolton in 1946 was around 165,000 and for Lancashire around 940,000 – meaning that Bolton was the largest town in Lancashire in 1946.

 Bolton Wanderers Football Club

Bolton Wanderers Football Club was founded by the Reverend Joseph Farrall Wright, curate of Christ Church Bolton, and Thomas Ogden, the schoolmaster at the adjacent church school in 1874, as Christ Church F.C. It was initially run from the church of the same name on Deane Road, Bolton, on the site where the University of Bolton now stands. The club left the location following a dispute with the vicar, and changed its name to Bolton Wanderers in 1877. The Wanderers part was added to commemorate their long search for a permanent headquarters. Bolton Wanderers were one of the twelve members of the inaugural Football League along with Accrington FC, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Bolton Wanderers have won the FA Cup on four occasions throughout their history, with three of those successes coming during the 1920’s against West Ham United, Manchester City and Portsmouth FC respectively. Bolton returned to Wembley in 1953 for one of the most famous FA Cup finals of all time which became known as the Stanley Matthews Final, against local rivals Blackpool.

The club played at Burnden Park for 102 years from 1895 and in 1997 to their current home The Reebok Stadium. The stadium was renamed the Macron Stadium in July 2014, to reflect the club’s new deal with Italian sportswear company Macron.


On Saturday 9th March 1946 one of the saddest tragedies in football history surged upon the Lancashire town of Bolton in which 33 people died and 400 people were injured.  Bolton Wanderers were playing Stoke City in the 6th round of the FA Cup at Burnden Park, home of Bolton Wanderers.

Besides a lot of local interest, people came from far and wide. This was the first year the FA Cup was played in the UK after World War II and things had started to get ‘back to normal’. Portsmouth FC had won the FA Cup in 1939 and due to the breakout of war had held the cup for 7 years until 1946.

The crowd, believed to be gathering at a much higher rate than usual, they came in their thousands to see the game. The game had extra interest due to Stoke City’s Stanley Matthews, the proverbial David Beckham of the age – steeped in legend and fame. County pride was also a source of pulling power as Bolton Wanderers acted as Lancashire’s sole representative in the competition. This twinned with the re-founded appeal of football following this 7 year hiatus created greater anticipation around not only this game but football as a whole.

Before World War II the previous highest attendance at Burnden Park had been 69,912 in 1933. In 1946 prior to this game the highest had been 43,000. By kick-off time (3pm) the turnstile count had reached 65,000 (official attendance was given at 65,419).

However, matters were further complicated that day as several turnstiles had been made unusable. A section of Burnden Park which normally held 2,789 had been requisitioned by the Ministry of War as storage space for army supplies and had not yet been returned to normal use, resulting in the 28,000 plus on the Railway Embankment Stand having to enter from another part of the ground. In addition ticket holders in the Burnden Paddock Stand were also admitted through entrances in this area and then escorted round the pitch to their allocated places, resulting in a huge build-up in the north-west corner of the ground.


At around 2.40pm the turnstiles were closed but spectators continued to gain access to the Railway Embankment Stand via various methods: a section of the crowd simply climbed over the turnstiles and walls. Some people broke down sections of fencing that ran along the railway line and gained access into the Railway Embankment Stand, and with 10 minutes to go before kick-off an estimated 1,000 spectators gained entry by climbing over another entrance. So many spectators turned up this day that even a stationary train that ran parallel to the Railway Embankment Stand was covered in people wanting to see the game. All these extra people were too many to handle. People began to get crushed. At one point a father acted on the pleas of his son to get him out of the ground. This man deemed the only necessary option was to pick open a lock leading to an exit gate. However as this occurred and the man and his son struggled to safety, hundreds more supporters on the outside flooded through the open gate adding to the crush.

Shortly before the 3pm kick-off the crowd on the terraces on the North West corner swayed uncontrollably causing two crash barriers within the stand to snap thus causing a mass crush. Under the pile of humanity, 33 people were asphyxiated and around 400 other people were injured. As the bodies began to mount and many supporters were spilling onto the pitch the police did what they could to clear the pitch. The bodies of the dead were laid along the touchlines and the crowd was cleared from the pitch. The referee George Dutton, despite being fully aware of the severity, decided to carry on with the match which was enforced by a large police presence.


The game continued for 12 minutes as hundreds of spectators spilled back onto the track surrounding the pitch before eventually the seriousness of the situation was realised and the players were taken from the pitch.

Play resumed at 3.25pm after several thousand spectators were moved from the Railway Embankment Stand to the Burnden Paddock Stand. The game continued without further incident and the result, which now seems almost immaterial, was a 0-0 draw.

85,000 people were eventually estimated to have been in the ground during the game, 20,000 over the official gate of 65,419. An enquiry followed this disaster opening on the 22nd March 1946 and was formally presented to the government on the 25th May 1946, fronted by Honourable Q.C. Moelwyn Hughes who came to the conclusion that 5 main issues were accountable for this disaster:

  1. Underestimation of crowds.
  2. Poor entrance control.
  3. Slow reaction from officials to the situation.
  4. Badly organised reaction to the problem.
  5. Unauthorised entry and poor positioning of the crash barriers.

At Burnden Park the dead were laid along the touchline and covered in coats with a new sawdust lined touchline separating the players from the corpses. Stanley Matthews later said he was sickened that the game was allowed to continue. On 24th August 1946 England played Scotland and drew 2-2 in an additional fixture in aid of the Disaster Fund. All tickets to the match at Maine Road (Manchester City’s ground) were sold and raised £12,000 (2015 – £453,500).

Even to this day the Burnden Park Disaster remains a disaster very much ‘swept under the carpet’. The Burnden Park Disaster was the deadliest stadium-related disaster in British history until the Ibrox Park Disaster in Scotland in 1971 where 66 people were killed and 200 people were injured in a game between Rangers FC and Celtic FC.


In 1992 a memorial plaque was unveiled at Burnden Park. In 2000, following the move of Bolton Wanderers to a new ground (The Reebok Stadium), the plaque was relocated to the wall of the supermarket which now occupies the site of the tragedy. The 2015/2016 season saw Bolton FC wear a specially made kit to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the disaster on 9th March 2016. The Macron-manufactured shirt had the names of the 33 people who died that day printed within the fabric. The Lancashire rose and date of the Burnden Park Disaster — 09-03-1946 — featured on the reverse and collar of the shirt.


Jack Napier


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