84. In Memory of the 56: The Papers of the Popplewell Inquiry into the Bradford City Fire

On 11 May 1985, 56 people who went to watch a football match between Bradford City and Lincoln City at Bradford’s Valley Parade ground were killed by a terrible fire.  Many others suffered horrific burns.   A Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Sir Oliver Popplewell, was set up under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 to investigate the causes of the fire.  Its Interim Report, published in July 1985, concluded that the fire had been caused by a lighted cigarette or match igniting piles of litter under the stand.

Bradford City Fire Disaster Memorial, from Tim Green aka atoach's flickr stream (licence CC BY 2.0)

Bradford City Fire Disaster Memorial, from Tim Green aka atoach’s flickr stream (licence CC BY 2.0)

The account of the start and spread of the fire is shocking: litter had been allowed to pile up for years (a similar pile under Block C contained a 1968 newspaper and a pre-decimal packet of peanuts).   The stand was made of wood and roofed with asphalt, which fed the flames and, melting, caused more injuries.  The fire took hold “quicker than a man could run”: within minutes, the whole stand was ablaze, fanned by fierce winds.  Matters were made worse by inadequate exits and fire extinguishers, and many other practical and managerial problems, concisely outlined by Sir Oliver in his report.  He also covered the fatal riot at Birmingham City’s football ground, which took place the same day as the Bradford fire.

The Committee gathered further evidence, including material relating to the Heysel Stadium disaster of 29 May, and published its Final Report the following year.  Both reports contain important and detailed recommendations on the construction and management of sports grounds.  Sir Oliver donated the evidence gathered by the Inquiry to the University of Bradford in 1999.  The papers  include more information about the three disasters, insights into the work of the Inquiry and the football and sporting cultures of the time.

'Big flag' commemorating the 56 who died in the Bradford City fire 11 May 1985.  Bradford City v Swansea City, Wembley 1985.  From stephoto27's flickr stream (licence CC BY-ND 2.0).

‘Big flag’ commemorating the 56 who died in the Bradford City fire 11 May 1985. Bradford City v Swansea City, Wembley 1985. From stephoto27’s flickr stream (licence CC BY-ND 2.0).

The 56 have been remembered and worldwide audiences reminded of the story in Bradford’s fairytale Capital One cup run this year: the League Two team defeated Premiership sides including the European champions to reach the Wembley final (and at time of writing, the club is in the play-off final for promotion, which would be a wonderful end to the season).

Further reading: I recommend Paul Firth’s compelling book about the Bradford fire: Four Minutes to Hell.  As far as I know, this is the only published book about the disaster.  An excellent blog, The Bradford City Fire, brings together information about the fire from many sources, including memories of those who experienced the fire.  It also hosts digitised versions of the two Popplewell reports.

PS The University is also home to the Bradford Burns Unit (now part of the Centre for Skin Sciences), set up by Professor David Sharpe after the disaster to find new ways to help those who had been injured.

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