Fire scares at Valley Parade pre 1985

A  matter of fact snippet in The Yorkshire Sports of 25th April, 1953 reveals that the old Main Stand could have burned down in April, 1953 – 32 years before the eventual Fire Disaster. Ominously the cause of fire in 1953 was assumed to have been a dropped cigarette which is also attributed to be the incendiary of the Disaster in 1985.

The report is insightful on a number of levels, not least that the risk of fire was considered a routine hazard which might also suggest that such incidents were not uncommon. In the aftermath of the discovery I have not come across any mention in the press of an inquiry by the police or Bradford Corporation which was the licensing authority of the principal stadia in the city at the time. Of course that is not to say that there were no confidential investigations. Irrespective, the stand continued to be used and it was not until the following decade that structural alterations were made, albeit largely superficial. Furthermore, I do not recall an enforced ban on smoking having been introduced and I certainly do not remember there having been any ‘No Smoking’ signs in the stand as late as 1985.

The story of the construction of the stand in 1907 is told elsewhere on my blog and the origins and early history of Valley Parade can be read in another feature. The key points to note are that the old stand was only ever intended to be a temporary installation and that in essence it incorporated a wooden viewing platform (the sort of grandstand used at agricultural shows or coronations) encased in a steel frame that provided a roof covering. Over time the temporary structure became permanent and the Main Stand that existed in 1985 was much the same as that of 1907.

Structural alterations in the 1960s included shortening the stand which had previously run the full length of the pitch in order to accommodate the existing office block at the corner of Holywell Ash Lane and South Parade which was constructed in 1961. In the 1966 close season under the direction of then chairman, Stafford Heginbotham the pitch was moved towards South Parade at the expense of part of the paddock (covered terrace) in order for a replacement covering or shed to be built along the Midland Road side. This involved the concreting of the foundations of the lower tier of the Main Stand with installation of new plastic seating and upgraded seating in the upper tier. The upgrade comprised an ingenious recycling of industrial waste from the Baird TV plant in the city with seats created from the wooden cut-outs of TV cabinets which were affixed to the existing wooden benches in the stand. Plywood was then tacked beneath the rows of seating ostensibly to prevent rubbish being dropped below and this covering presumably replaced something similar. No changes however were made to the exit routes or corridor at the back of the stand although at some stage lighting and a PA system was fitted.

It is impossible to know how many times there had been close calls with fire in the Main Stand. In addition to the incident seventy years ago it is recorded that a fire broke out under the stand during the first half of the game against Sheffield United at Valley Parade in September, 1911 which was put out by a policeman with a bucket of water. This was described by the Bradford Daily Argus in its match report as ‘an interesting and unusual diversion’ and that ‘it turned out there was more smoke than fire’. The report referred to paper having been set ablaze which might suggest that litter was being dropped beneath the stand almost from the beginning.

I took this photo in 1983 from roughly the area where the fire broke out on 11th May, 1985.

Between 1977-85 I had been a volunteer cushion seller in the Main Stand and was unaware of any issues in the period immediately preceding the fire but I would be surprised if there had not been other scares in earlier years. Ironically this may have contributed to a relatively complacent attitude towards safety in so far as a disaster had never previously happened. My guess is that Dick Williamson, who was editor of The Yorkshire Sports in 1953 would have shared such a view. So too, Sam Firth who had been a stalwart of the Bradford City Shareholders’ and Supporters’ Association since its formation in 1921. Both men attended the game on 11th May, 1985 but Sam perished in the fire. I believe that mention of the two is relevant as they continued to have influence at Valley Parade even in old age.

The reason for the fact that there had never previously been a major fire was most likely a combination of good fortune and that Valley Parade crowds had been on a downward trajectory since the end of World War One. Low attendances had financial implications but at least they made accidents less likely. With regards the match on Easter Monday, 20th April, 1953 to which the cutting refers there had been a gate of 8,165 and it is unlikely that the Main Stand – which then had a stated capacity of 2,700 – was more than half full. If the stand was not cramped it gave more opportunity to physically put out a fire or failing that, to escape.

It is telling that the incident occurred in the spring when ground conditions were likely to be drier. Taking account of matches in  August, September, April and May there were probably no more than six fixtures in a season when there was heightened risk of fire taking hold. What is notable however is that the final game of the season – on 29th April, 1953 – had an attendance of 22,147 (as reported in The Yorkshire Sports) and there is no evidence of any special measures having been put in place to optimise spectator safety in the wake of discovery of the fire on Tuesday 21st. The likelihood of a disaster was discounted then as it was in 1985 and for me it demonstrates that we were all in denial about the possibility of something like it ever happening.

Remarkably perhaps the Disaster in 1985 is the first recorded instance of spectator fatalities as a consequence of fire in a football stadium in Great Britain. On 24th August, 1968 the Main Stand at the Forest Ground, Nottingham had caught fire during the game against Leeds but thankfully it was evacuated. Electrical faults have been attributed as a common cause of stadium fires including those in Bradford at the greyhound stadia at Brownroyd Street (City Stadium) in July, 1963 and at Dudley Hill (Greenfield) in December, 1944 and May, 1952.

The fact that the old Main Stand at Valley Parade had minimal electrical fittings (ie with no integral floodlights and no changing rooms / offices incorporated) at least limited the risk of fire from electrical failure. In March, 1953 the stand at Brunton Park, Carlisle was destroyed by fire and that may have had something to do with the installation of floodlights given that the fire occurred during the night following the first floodlit game at the ground. Carlisle United faced financial ruin as a consequence of its fire and it was the sale of Geoff Twentyman to Liverpool in 1953 that helped finance a replacement (which is the stand opposite the away end).

In the case of the Main Stand having been destroyed at Valley Parade it is unclear how Bradford City would have recovered given an ageing squad and the lack of star players who could have been sold. At the time the club already faced the question of how it would replace the old Midland Road stand, the demolition of which had only just been completed in 1952 (and the central gable from the former stand had been stored under the Main Stand). The club would have been deprived of any seating or covered accommodation and it is highly unlikely that it could have afforded to rebuild the stand. Having already received a Football Association grant of £3,000 in March, 1953 to build a covered stand on Midland Road (which opened in 1954) it is unlikely that additional grants could have been secured. (The club had also committed funds to erect floodlights which were first used in December, 1954.) Besides, with wartime restrictions still in place there was a shortage of building materials.

The club’s viability would have questionable and inevitably there would have been discussion about merger with Bradford and relocation to Park Avenue or a move to Odsal. Contrary to what has been claimed by others there had never been any plans for either City or Avenue to play at Odsal and it was not a popular option for either soccer club or Bradford Northern RLFC itself. Nonetheless the potential of Odsal was topical with a crowd of 69,196 having watched the Challenge Cup Third Round tie between Bradford Northern and Huddersfield on 14th March, 1953. (What is notable is that on the same day a further 12,000 watched Yorkshire RFU defeat East Midlands at Lidget Green and there were 6,006 at Park Avenue where Bradford played Hartlepools. Collectively it meant that there were more people watching sport in Bradford that day than in any other city outside London. As regards the Odsal attendance, I am told by someone who was at the game that the stadium still only looked half-full.)

Bradford City AFC had jealously guarded its independence and would have resisted loss of identity at Park Avenue or to be a junior partner at Odsal. My guess is that the club would have ground shared at Park Avenue, possibly as a prelude to merger. Rivals Bradford were in considerable financial difficulty and in July, 1953 it was announced that that club had lost in excess of £20,000 over the previous two seasons. Faced with the possibility that City might derive advantage and subsidised rent at Odsal I think that the Bradford directors would have made an offer that the City directorate could not afford to turn down. There might also have been pressure from civic leaders for a move to Park Avenue but we can only speculate how history could have been different.

Thanks for visiting my blog where you will find other historical features about Bradford football. Have a look also at VINCIT, The Online Journal of Bradford Sport History.

** This is an extract from my forthcoming history of the City – Avenue rivalry in the Football League which will be published in two volumes as part of the Bantamspast History Revisited series.

You can find archive photos of Valley Parade and more detail about the history of the stadium on my blog from this link.