Football Disasters in Britain

In 1899 Archibald Leitch was commissioned to build Ibrox Park, the new home ground of Rangers. The new stadium comprised large wooden terraces and a stand accommodating some 4,500 spectators.

On the 5th April 1902 Bobby Templeton won his first international cap for Scotland against England. It was during this game that the newly built West Tribune Stand at Ibrox Park collapsed and spectators plunged 40 feet through the broken boards. Twenty-five people were killed and 517 injured in the disaster. Play continued and bodies recovered from the wreckage and laid out along the touchline. Afterwards it was claimed that Templeton was partly responsible for this disaster as had the ball on the wing at the time and the vast crowd swayed to see his dribbling skills.

Doubts over the quality of the wood used by Archibald Leitch led to an prosecution of the manufacturer for culpable homicide. Although the prosecution was unsuccessful the Ibrox disaster brought an end of wooden terraces.

The Empire Stadium at Wembley was built by Robert McAlpine for the British Empire Exhibition of 1923, at a cost of £750,000. It was originally intended intended to be demolished at the end of the Exhibition. However, it was later decided to keep the building to host football matches. The first match at Wembley, the 1923 FA Cup Final between West Ham United and Bolton Wanderers, took place only four days after the stadium was completed.

The Empire Stadium had a capacity of 125,000 and so the Football Association did not consider making it an all-ticket match. After all, both teams only had an average attendance of around 20,000 for league games. However, it was rare for a club from London to make the final of the FA Cup and supporters of other clubs in the city saw it as a North v South game. It is estimated that 300,000 people attempted to get into the ground. Over a thousand people were injured getting in and out of the stadium.

On 9th March 1946 Bolton Wanderers played Stoke City in a FA Cup tie. Over 80,000 people entered the Burnden Park ground before the club closed the gates. Some locked out fans decided to climb over the walls in order to see the game. Hundreds of spectators were pushed down a barrier-less section of the embankment under the weight of the crowd. A police officer walked onto the pitch towards the referee. He blew his whistle to stop the game and Nat Lofthouse saw the officer point towards the bodies lying motionless at the edge of the pitch saying: "I believe those people over there are dead." Thirty-three people died and over 400 were injured in the disaster.

The Burnden Park disaster on 9th March 1946
The Burnden Park disaster on 9th March 1946

On 16th September 1961 two people were killed in a crush on the stairway at Ibrox Park, and there were two other incidents where several people were injured. On 2nd January, 1971, another 66 people, including several children, were killed on the same stairway as spectators tried to leave the ground. At first it was believed that the accident was caused by Rangers scoring an equalizing goal in stoppage time. It was speculated that fans leaving the ground turned back when they heard roars from the crowd and they collided with fans leaving the ground when the match ended. The official inquiry into the disaster indicated that there was no truth in this hypothesis.

A stand caught fire at Bradford City's Valley Parade ground on 11th May 1985, killing 56 spectators and injuring 265 others. It is believed the cause of the fire was from a discarded cigarette or match, which had dropped through gaps between the seating to a void below the stand where rubbish had built up.

Large perimeter fences resembling cages were erected at many grounds in order to keep hooligans off the pitch. These fences proved to be fatal for 96 Liverpool fans who attended the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough. They were crushed to death when police opened an external gate to let in locked-out fans into a section which was already full beyond capacity.

Primary Sources

(1) The Scotsman (7th April 1902)

Never before have such distressing and thrilling scenes occurred at a football match. At one end of the ground there is a high terraced stand, rising from a few feet above the level of the ground in tiers to a height of fully fifty feet. It is of iron framework, but otherwise of wooden planks, and can accommodate many thousands. On Saturday it was crowded to its utmost limit. The crowd swayed dangerously for some time prior to the start of the match, and within a few minutes of the kick-off a portion of the planking at the back of the stand, at the highest part of it, gave way, precipitating those standing thereon into the depth below. That more people were not killed is most surprising, for the breach extended fully twenty yards round.

A panic ensued, and what at first seemed mere pressure of the crowd really resulted from the frantic efforts of those close at hand to get off the stand. Strange as it may seem, the fact that anything of so tragic a character had occurred was unknown in other parts of the ground. Several persons were carried across the field of play, but these were supposed either to have fainted or been crushed in the stampede from the stand to the arena. Had the serious nature of the disaster been fully realised, the game would have been abandoned, but the majority of the injured were carried round behind the stands to the pavilion. Play had been stopped when the crowd broke on to the ground, but was eventually resumed. Neither players nor spectators, except those in the immediate vicinity, were aware of the cause of the interruption or of the terrible scenes being enacted just beyond the western boundary.

It appears the crowd on the highest portion of the terraced stand got out of control, through a railing dividing some of the uppermost tiers snapping and, the unusual pressure concentrating on one part, the wood planking collapsed like a trapdoor. The greatest consternation prevailed amongst those near the gulf thus created, and for a time they were spellbound, the natural inference being that more of the terracing would give way. This fortunately was not the case, and further disaster was therefore averted.

The scene below was a terrible one, and the work of rescue was difficult in the extreme. For a time, fearing that further portions of the terracing might collapse, no one cared to venture to aid in rescuing those underneath; but the police soon got to work, and gradually the sufferers were brought out and laid alongside the fence guarding the enclosure, that portion of the ground subsequently resembling a miniature battlefield. The clothes of many of the victims were torn to shreds, the arms and legs of many hung limp and broken. All were more or less cut and bruised, and blood flowed freely from heads and bodies. The terracing debris was promptly transformed into splints, while larger portions were utilised as stretchers on which the injured were conveyed to the pavilion. Pending the arrival of medical aid, the ambulance men of the police rendered signal service.

The fact that the game was proceeded with was doubtless gratifying to a great number who had assembled, many of them from long distances. But to those engaged amongst the dead and dying, the applause which from time to time punctuated the play seemed extremely incongruous, coming as it did as an accompaniment to the groans and moans of the injured and dying.

(2) George Wood, interviewed in The Scotsman (7th April 1902)

When I reached the western terrace, or grand stand, which was more like a circus gallery than anything else, except that spectators stood on it, I ascended the middle stair, and though there was still half an hour prior to the commencement of play, the terrace was crowded, except the north side, as word had been passed along that a lot of it was broken. Whether that was so or not I cannot say. I was so hemmed in that I could only see faces on every side of me. The game had been in progress only about ten minutes, when looking round I noticed there was a gulf, but as nobody shouted I could not realise what had happened. I was practically stunned with fear. I had only to step back a couple of yards, and there I saw a chasm, at the foot of which lay a number of people. No groans or cries rose from them. All the people for fifty yards on either side of me commenced to scramble to get into the arena, and on to the cinder track. I could not get through that way, and fearing the whole terrace would collapse I caught hold of one of the uprights and slid down amongst the injured who, now that I was actually beside them, presented a woeful appearance. The first man who caught my eye appeared to be dead and I subsequently found that he was. His face was a queer colour and his clothes were all torn. A man at that moment bent over him, and seeing that he was dead, covered his face up. Not far from him was a well dressed boy as white as a sheet. He told me he had dropped from the top of the terrace, and had landed on a man. He was not hurt. Help was tendered by a host of those who had been on the terrace. One of them hurried in with a bottle of brandy. He and another man attempted to force some of the spirit down the throat of one of the injured, but the tumbler only rattled against his teeth. His chest was heaving and his eyes were glazed, and as I looked a queer sound came from his throat. I turned away sickened at the sight, and feared I should faint. Meanwhile the police were making stretchers with broken wood, and men were taking off their coats and spreading them on the stretchers, and laying wounded on them. They were thus conveyed to the vehicles, where some were placed on the tops of cabs, others were laid on cushioned seats of brakes, those accompanying them holding and making them as comfortable as possible. Half an hour afterwards, when all the injured had been taken out, and play was again in progress, I was surprised to see the terrace again occupied.

(3) Brian James, England v Scotland (1969)

Within six minutes of the start part of a new stand in the packed Ibrox stadium collapsed, raining spectators down upon the bodies of those who had fallen a split-second earlier. After the players left the pitch - with a panicking crowd all over the area, they had little choice - it was decided that the match be resumed to prevent possibly worse scenes of disaster.

But from that moment on the game lacked heart and fire, for although they did not know the extent of the casualty list, the teams did know that many had been killed and they were merely playing to occupy time while rescue services were organised.

Even had they been in a mood to make a real match of it, it is doubtful whether they could have succeeded, for the crowds still encroached to the lines and often beyond them. Players taking throw-ins had to beg room to move their arms ... wingers taking corners had to ask police assistance to create a corridor for their run-up to the ball.

Templeton, often racing down Scotland's wing having to dodge spectators as well as English tackles, persevered to get over a centre from which Brown scored. Just before half-time Settle equalised for England, taking advantage of a neat pass through the centre.

After further debate at half-time the match was resumed but with the players now taking part with even less heart. Some of the play in the last half-hour seemed more like exhibition football in contrast to the traditional fire of the matches in the series.

(4) Jeff Harris, Arsenal Who's Who (1908)

Robert Bryston Templeton was one of the great personalities of British football. A showman, known as the "Edwardian Dandy" or the "Prince of Dribblers". It has often been claimed that he was the indirect cause of the Ibrox disaster in 1902 after the crowd swayed, attempting to see one of his amazing dribbles.

(5) Jeff Harris, Arsenal Who's Who (1908)

Robert Bryston Templeton was one of the great personalities of British football. A showman, known as the "Edwardian Dandy" or the "Prince of Dribblers". It has often been claimed that he was the indirect cause of the Ibrox disaster in 1902 after the crowd swayed, attempting to see one of his amazing dribbles.