Bradford City Football Club had played their home games at Valley Parade, in Bradford, since the club was formed in 1903. It had been the former home of Manningham Rugby Football Club, which had moved into the ground in 1886.
The playing area and stands were very basic but the ground had enough room for 18,000 spectators. When the football club was formed, the ground was changed very little and had no covered accommodation. However, when Bradford City won promotion to the highest level of English football, Division One, in 1908, club officials sanctioned an upgrade programme.
Football architect Archibald Leitch was commissioned to carry out the work. By 1911, his work was completed. It included a main stand, which seated 5,300 fans, and had room for a further 7,000 standing spectators in the paddock in front. The main stand was described as a “mammoth structure”, but was unusual for its time because of its place on the side of a hill. The entrances to the stand were all at the rear and were higher than the rest of the ground.
Although there had been some changes to other parts of the ground, the main stand remained unaltered by 1985. Football ground writer Simon Inglis had described the view from the stand as “like watching football from the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel” because of its antiquated supports and struts. However, he also warned the club of a build-up of litter beneath the stand because of a gap between the seats. Some repair work was carried out, but in July 1984 the club was warned again, this time by a county council engineer, because of the club’s plans to claim for ground improvements from the Football Trust. One letter from the council said the problems “should be rectified as soon as possible”; a second said: “A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk.” In March 1985, the club’s plans became more apparent when it took delivery of steel for a new roof.
The 1984–85 season had been one of Bradford City’s most successful seasons. Following a 1–0 defeat to Leyton Orientat the end of September, the side went 13 games undefeated, during which they went top of the Division Three table by defeating Millwall 3–1. City maintained their superiority and opened up an 11-point gap over the rest of the league by February, and were assured of the championship title courtesy of a 2–0 victory against Bolton Wanderers in the penultimate game of the season, guaranteeing Division Two football for the first time since 1937. As a result, Bradford-born captain Peter Jackson was presented with the league trophy prior to the final game of the season with mid-table Lincoln City at Valley Parade on 11 May 1985.
As it was the first piece of league silverware that the club had captured since they won the Division Three (North) title 56 years earlier, 11,076 supporters were in the ground. It was nearly double the season’s average of 6,610 and included 3,000 fans in the ground’s main stand. In the crowd were local dignitaries and guests from three of Bradford’s twin towns—Verviers, in Belgium, and Mönchengladbach and Hamm, in Germany. The city’s newspaper, the Telegraph & Argus, published a souvenir issue for the day, entitled “Spit and Polish for the Parade Ground”. It detailed the safety work which would be carried out as a result of the club’s promotion, admitting the ground was “inadequate in so many ways for modern requirements”. Steel was to be installed in the roof, and the wooden terracing was to be replaced with concrete. The work was expected to cost £400,000.
After 40 minutes of the first half, the score remained 0–0, in what was described as a drab affair with neither team threatening to score. At 3:40 pm, five minutes before half-time, the first sign of a fire—a glowing light—was noticed three rows from the back of block G. It is believed the fire started when a spectator dropped a match, lit cigarette or tobacco, which fell through holes in the stand to rubbish, which had accumulated below. One witness saw paper or debris on fire, about nine inches below the floor boards. The stand seats did not have risers; this down the years had allowed a huge accumulation of rubbish and paper under the stand, which had been lost or disposed of by dropping it back between the seats
Spectators initially felt their feet becoming warmer; one of them ran to the back of the stand for a fire extinguisher but found none. A police officer shouted to a colleague for an extinguisher. However, his call was misheard and instead the fire brigade were radioed. The call was timed at 3:43 pm. However, the fire escalated rapidly and flames became visible, and so police started to evacuate the stand. The blaze began to spread; the roof and wooden stands were soon on fire. One eyewitness, Geoffrey Mitchell, told the BBC: “It spread like a flash. I’ve never seen anything like it. The smoke was choking. You could hardly breathe.” One of the linesmen informed match referee Don Shaw, who stopped the game with three minutes remaining before half-time.
The wooden roof, which was covered with tarpaulin and sealed with asphalt and bitumen, caught fire. The material combined with a strong wind to spread the fire along the stand, creating the impression of a fireball, setting fire to the entire stand. Burning timbers and molten materials fell from the roof onto the crowd and seating below, and black smoke enveloped a passageway behind the stand, where many spectators were trying to escape. It took less than four minutes for the entire stand to be engulfed in flames.
There were no extinguishers in the stand’s passageway for fear of vandalism, and one spectator ran to the clubhouse to find one, but was overcome by smoke and others trying to escape. Supporters either ran upwards to the back of the stand or downwards to the pitch to escape. Most of the exits at the back were either locked or shut, and there were no stewards present to open them, but seven were either forced or found open. Three men smashed down one door and at least one exit was opened by people outside. Geoffrey Mitchell said: “There was panic as fans stampeded to an exit which was padlocked. Two or three burly men put their weight against it and smashed the gate open. Otherwise, I would not have been able to get out.” At the front of the stand, men threw children over the wall to help them escape. Most of those who escaped onto the pitch were saved.
People who had escaped the fire then tried to assist their fellow supporters. Police officers also assisted in the rescue attempts. One man clambered over burning seats to help a fan, as did player John Hawley, and one officer led fans to an exit, only to find it shut and had to turn around. Bradford City’s coach Terry Yorath, whose family was in the stand, ran on to the pitch to help evacuate people. Another player went into the office space to ensure there was nobody there. One fan put his jumper over a fellow supporter’s head to extinguish flames. Those who escaped were taken out of the ground to neighbouring homes and a pub, where a television screened World of Sport , which had live pictures from the ground. Those who escaped queued for a telephone to ring their families.
A total of 56 people died in the fire. Of those, 54 were Bradford supporters and two from Lincoln. They included three who tried to escape through the toilets, 27 who were found by exit K and turnstiles six to nine at the rear centre of the stand and two elderly people who died in their seats. Some had been crushed as they tried to crawl under turnstiles to escape. One retired mill worker made his way to the pitch, but was walking about on fire from head to foot. People smothered him to extinguish the flames, but he later died in hospital. Half of those who died were either aged under 20 or over 70, the eldest of which was the club’s oldest supporter, former chairman, Sam Firth, aged 86. More than 265 supporters were injured; the fire was described as the worst fire disaster in the history of British football, and the worst disaster since 66 spectators died at the Ibrox disaster, Glasgow in 1971. One policeman said: “It must have been survival of the fittest—men first.”
The fire brigade arrived at the ground four minutes after they were called. However, the fire had consumed the stand by that point and they were faced by huge flames and dense smoke. Unfortunately, they were unable to start fighting the fire immediately so that supporters could be first rescued from the ground. The fire destroyed the main stand and left only burned seats, lamps and fences. Some of those who died were still sitting upright in their seats covered by tarpaulin. Police worked until 4 am the following morning, under lighting, to remove all the bodies.
The match was being recorded by Yorkshire Television for transmission on their Sunday afternoon regional football show The Big Match. Coverage of the fire was transmitted minutes after the event on the live ITV Saturday afternoon sports programme World of Sport and the BBC’s Grandstand.
The inquiry into the disaster, chaired by Sir Oliver Popplewell and known as the Popplewell Inquiry, led to the introduction of new legislation to improve safety at the UK’s football grounds. One of the main outcomes of the inquiry was prohibiting the construction of new wooden grandstands at all UK sports grounds.
At the time of the disaster, many stadiums had perimeter fencing between the stands and the pitch to preventincidents of football hooliganism – particularly pitch invasions – which were rife during the 1980s. The main stand at Bradford was not surrounded by fencing, so the spectators were not penned in and so most of them were able to escape onto the pitch – if they had been penned in then the death toll could have been in the thousands. However, the turnstiles were locked and none of the stadium staff were present to unlock them – meaning that there was no escape for those who attempted to escape through the normal entrances and exits. Fans in the next stand (the “Bradford End”) pulled down the fence separating them from the pitch.
The Popplewell Inquiry found that the club had been warned about the fire risk that the rubbish accumulating under the stand had posed. However, as there was no real precedent, most Bradfordians accepted that the fire was a terrible piece of misfortune. A discarded cigarette and a dilapidated wooden stand, which had survived because the club did not have the money to replace it, were considered to have conspired to cause the worst disaster in the history of the Football League.
The Bradford Disaster Appeal fund, set up within 48 hours of the disaster, eventually raised over £3.5 million. The most memorable of hundreds of fundraising events was a recreation of the 1966 World Cup Final, which began with the original starting teams of both England and West Germany, and was held at Leeds United’s stadium, Elland Road, in July 1985 to raise funds for the Appeal fund. England won the re-match 6–4. Part of the Appeal funds were raised by a cover version by The Crowd of the Gerry & The Pacemakers hit “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which reached number 1 in the UK Singles chart. The money raised from this record was contributed to fund the internationally renowned burns unit that was established in partnership between the University of Bradford and Bradford Royal Infirmary, immediately after the fire, which has also been Bradford City FC’s official charity for well over a decade. The unit’s innovative use of a sling to relieve the pain of severe burn injuries and reduce the risk of them becoming infected in the days immediately after the fire gave birth to a medical product that is still in use today.
A capacity 6,000 crowd attended a multi-denominational memorial service, held on the pitch in the sunny shadow of the burnt out stand at Valley Parade in July 1985. A giant Christian cross, made up of two large charred wooden members that had once been part of the stand, was constructed in front of the middle of the stand and behind the pitchside speaker’s platform. Part of the service was also held in Urdu and Punjabi as a sign of appreciation to the local ethnically Asian Subcontinental community in Manningham, Bradford and around Valley Parade that had opened up their doors to Bradford City supporters in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The next day work began on clearing the burnt out shell of the stand, and Justice Popplewell released his findings into the disaster.
Four police officers, Police Constables David Britton and John Richard Ingham and Chief Inspectors Charles Frederick Mawson and Terence Michael Slocombe, and two spectators, Richard Gough and David Hustler, were awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for their actions. PCs Peter Donald Barrett and David Charles Midgley, along with spectators Michael William Bland and Timothy Peter Leigh received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. In total, 28 police officers and 22 supporters, who were publicly documented as having saved at least one life, later received police commendations or bravery awards. Together, flanked by undocumented supporters, they managed to clear all but one person who made it to the front of the stand. Club coach Terry Yorath incurred minor injuries while taking part in the rescue.
At Valley Parade there are now two memorials. One, now re-situated to that end of the stand where the fire began, is a sculpture donated on the initial re-opening of Valley Parade in December 1986 by a then Jersey-based former West Yorkshire woman.
The other, situated by the main entrance, was donated by the club after its £7,500,000 renovation of the original main stand in 2002. It has a black marble fascia on which the names and ages of those that died are inscribed in gold, and a black marble platform on which people can leave flowers and mementos. There is a twin memorial sculpture, unveiled on 11 May 1986, which has the names of the dead inscribed on it. They were donated by Bradford’s twin city of Hamm, Germany, and are situated in front of Bradford City Hall in both locations.
After the fire, Bradford City also announced they would thereafter play with black trim on their shirt collars and arms as a permanent memorial to those who had died.
By the City Hall memorials, in a tradition similar to Remembrance Day, a short memorial service follows a minute’s silence held on the 11th hour of the 11th day of each May. This is perhaps because 24 of those who died at Valley Parade were above the age of 60 and would have lived through or served during World War II, and the 40th anniversary of VE Day was only 3 days before the fire, and because a dignitary party from Hamm in the Ruhr in Germany was in the stand on the day of the fire, because of the civic ceremonies of reconciliation that surrounded this anniversary.