50 Years | The Main Stand Fire of 1966

50 Years | The Main Stand Fire of 1966

"In all it's chequered history, going back to 1881, Southport Football Club has never received such a devastating blow" Joe Moore - Southport Visiter, 1966

By James Cave

50 years ago, Southport, like this season, played Wrexham on Boxing Day. 8,197 spectators saw Ambrose “Amby” Clark score a looping header at The Blowick End to keep Southport in the 1966/67 Fourth Division promotion race.

Sports Editor of the Visiter, the late Joe Moore wrote at the time “John Price’s flag kick was headed away by McMillan but Ambrose Clark, backing up, headed the ball over the heads of the defenders on to the underside of the bar, and although full-back Stacey made a valiant effort to get the ball away, it had obviously crossed the line before it did so”

Wrexham were also promotion hopefuls and would seek to restore the balance at the return fixture, which was scheduled for the very next day.

Early on December 27th 1966, Colin Alty was in his car, dropping his girlfriend (now his wife) home in Churchtown. While sat in the car, there was a knock on the window, and a young lad informed him that the main stand at Haig Avenue had been burnt to the ground. Naturally, Alty drove straight to the ground, in the hope the lad was joking about.

“I got there, I just remember thinking, everything was flat but the safe was there, still steaming. That was it, there was nothing else left”

* * *

The first of seven phone calls came at 4.57am. Two appliances were sent initially, who upon their arrival radioed for assistance. At least ten fire engines attended though some local reports place this number as high as fifteen.

Southport’s chief fire officer Mr J A Perkins oversaw the effort to extinguish the blaze, which included over fifty firemen on site from Southport, Bootle and The Lancashire County fire brigades. Flames punctured the roof of the stand and the gymnasium and at their height reached 40ft into the air. The glow from the fire could be seen around the town, the smell of smoke travelled as far as the promenade.

Five families were evacuated from their homes, as the strong wind hurled burning wooden debris into the gardens. Broken windows and blistering paintwork were also reported.

While it took six hours to fully extinguish the fire, the blaze was “under control” by 5.26am, less than thirty minutes after it was first reported to the Fire Brigade. While the clean-up operation continued, “police officers stood guard over a safe in the remains, as scores of shocked supporters made a pilgrimage to the ground until darkness fell”.

The entire main stand, club offices, gymnasium and changing rooms were destroyed.

* * *

Wrexham and The Football League agreed to postpone the game, but Southport were scheduled to continue their fixtures against Crewe at Gresty Road the coming Saturday.

The reserves also had a game, at home, on the same Saturday with South Liverpool visiting Haig Avenue in The Lancashire Combination. The floodlights were not destroyed in the fire but a section of cabling was damaged, as such the kick off time was brought forward to 2.30pm.

Front page of The Southport Visiter - dated December 28th

Front page of The Southport Visiter – dated December 28th – Click to enlarge

Meols Cop Boys School offered changing facilities to the club straight after the disaster. A few weeks after the fire, following several meetings between the club and local education authorities, it was decided that both Meols Cop and KGV Grammar School would offer training space in their gymnasiums during the season. The club continued to use Meols Cop as their match day dressing rooms during the season.

“That was one of the best things… walking across” recalls Eric Redrobe. “Because the crowd were magnificent. The walk geed you up no end.”

Alty agrees, “As soon as you left those changing rooms, the crowd were off.”

The prolonged walk from the Meols Cop changing rooms from the pitch gave Southport a psychological advantage for the rest of the season. The mentality of a club quite literally rising from the ashes was evident both on and off the pitch for the rest of the season. The team celebrated promotion at home on the final day of the season against Southend, finishing second to champions Stockport County, sending Southport into the Third Division.

Recollecting the period after the fire, Michael Braham says “We were on a bit of a roll. I still say that was the greatest season we ever had, to get a promotion that I never thought possible, never thought it was ever likely to happen. I think it galvanised the team. They rolled their sleeves up and made sure we got a promotion. In fact, had it been two or three years earlier, I doubt they would have bothered to rebuild the stand.”

* * *

The stand destroyed in the fire was purchased for the club back when it was Southport Central in 1896 by Chairman Isaac Smith. It was extended several times, notably before the 1921 season when Southport entered The Football League for the first time. On the day it burnt down it could seat 2,000 spectators. The centre section was reserved for club directors and guests and had cinema style seats installed. The side sections of the stand were filled with long wooden benches.

A view of the inside of the main stand

With the Boxing Day crowd against Wrexham the largest for ten years, the stand was unusually filled to capacity. Announcements were even made over the PA system appealing to supporters not to block the gangways, for fear of breaching fire regulations.

Michael Braham was sat in the stand that day. He recalls: “It was full, which happened very rarely. I felt slightly uneasy because, well it wasn’t moving but it was groaning under the weight of so many people there.”

The cause of the fire was never fully established. Being in a built up residential area, the clean-up operation had to be quick and efficient. Work started the evening after the fire, limiting time for a thorough investigation.

A discarded cigarette butt is often cited as a likely cause but this in itself raises questions. The stadium was empty at that time, so who discarded a cigarette butt at 5 o’clock in the morning? Several witnesses had indeed finished factory shift work around that time and had been walking home in the area. It is possible a cigarette was discarded outside on the pavement, but the exterior of the ground in 1966 was metallic sheeting and the first calls to the fire brigade reported smoke coming from inside the stand.

In 1955 Princess Margaret visited Haig Avenue as part of a St John’s Ambulance celebration event. A powerful new PA system was built for the occasion and retained by the club. It was noted in the investigation as to the cause of the fire that the damage around the power for the PA system was particularly severe. Similarly, a section of floodlight cabling was damaged in the fire. The floodlights themselves were not damaged but remained out of action for some time. In the coming weeks it became possible to turn on the floodlights on the popular side, permitting evening training sessions at the ground.

* * *

While a perfect mixture of emotion and passion from the crowd, along with the battle and skill of Bingham’s Boys may have achieved promotion, the future was an uncertain one for the club. The stand was insured but despite quotes from the club hierarchy, it was not perhaps as “fully” insured as they claimed.

The evening of the fire, a meeting was held at The Bold Hotel and a Fire Disaster Fund was formed. The meeting was attended John Church, Leon Rapaport, Billy Bingham and a number of other parties compelled to help safeguard the future of the club. It was decided that collection boxes for the Fund would be placed in as many local pubs as possible, with St John’s Ambulance generously providing the boxes, local traders would be approached for donations and collecting boxes would be put on the turnstiles at Haig Avenue.

“The Show Must Go On” was adopted by the directors as an unofficial motto. Not only were they concerned with the financial future of the club, much thought was given to the accommodation of the club’s season ticket holders. At the next home game, Lincoln City, a note in the programme was published thanking the many donations that had been received and addressing supporters: “It is realised, of course, that the temporary arrangements we have made for stand patrons have their snags and we do ask that patrons be as patient with us as possible.”

Within a few days, the Supporters Club had distributed over 200 collection boxes to local businesses. The Mayor, Alderman Mrs B Pogson, wrote a letter to The Visiter commending the appeal and urging contributions.

Overall, the club did receive a large number of generous offers of assistance, from both their footballing colleagues and the local community.

Chester FC were the first to offer kit, donating two sets of colours. Tranmere and Blackburn Rovers soon followed, sending clothing of their own but in the end, Southport used some of the financial proceeds to purchase a full set of equipment, including yellow kit, by New Year’s Eve. The purchase totalled £300.

The Conservative Club pledged to hold a competition which hoped to raise over £100 for the club. Chairman Alderman J S Mitchell said “At the request of a large number of members who are anxious to assist the Football Club in every way possible, my committee have decided to organise this fundraising scheme. Already many members have offered valuable prizes and we expect to raise a sum well in excess of £100 to assist the Football Club in it’s great hour of need”.

In the days following the disaster, the Visiter is filled with heart-warming stories of donations from the townspeople of Southport. The headmaster of St Phillips sent a cheque for £3 and 3 shillings, with an accompanying letter that read: “This is our way of saying thank you to the club for the use of their ground on special occasions. Perhaps the way these youngsters have emptied their money-boxes after the Christmas celebrations may inspire some grown-ups to send their loose change. All our best wishes to the team.”

Donations were received from well-wishers all over the country, but perhaps none as touching as the donation of Robert Reed. The 11-year-old from Middlesex sent the contents of his “entire week’s pocket money”.

By New Year’s Eve, Burnley Football Club headed up a published list of contributions received at over £100. A letter accompanying the donation from Burnley’s club secretary said: “My directors are very sorry to hear of your club’s plight through the unfortunate fire you have just had and on their behalf I am including herewith our cheque valued 100 guineas. While we appreciate this amount will not buy a new stand, we hope it will go some way towards buying new equipment”. It was Mr Bob Lord, Burnley Chairman and member of the Football League Management Committee who opened the rebuilt Grandstand in August 1968.

Aside from Burnley, a number of other clubs offered financial assistance. Within a month of the fire contributions had come from Everton (£250), Liverpool (£250), Manchester United (£250), Manchester City (£105), Blackburn Rovers (£105), Wrexham (£100), Chester (£100), Kirkby Town (£25), Carlisle United (£10), Fleetwood Hesketh FC (£10) and Banks FC (£1). Other clubs continued to donate during the course of the season.

Stockport County, also knocked out in the early rounds of the FA Cup, agreed to play Southport in a benefit match at Haig Avenue in January, forgoing their share of the match proceeds. A dance was held in the evening at The Palace Hotel for the entertainment of both teams, with Mr Emmerich from the hotel donating the bar proceeds back to the club.

3,140 spectators attended the benefit match against Stockport with accommodation provided in a new temporary main stand. Coronation Street’s Len Fairclough and Pat Phoenix attended the game and signed autographs for the crowd. The dance at The Palace was also a success, selling out the 700 available tickets. The Southport branch of the Musicians Union played for 6 hours in a programme consisting of seven different bands, despite only two being advertised. The events combined raised over £1,000 for the Fund.

* * *

The Fund eventually raised £10,000 towards the replacement stand. The final cost of The Grandstand was estimated at £75,000, with the insurance company and efforts of the directors each contributing an even share of the outstanding cost. Arthur Briscoe, a club director, owned the building company used to build The Grandstand and was responsible for the removal of the wreckage after the disaster.

Initially, it was decided that the main stand would not be rebuilt and that the temporary accommodation being built would have to suffice. This stance appears to have changed by New Year’s Eve when the paper was reporting a new stand would be built.

There were several factors that worked in the club’s favour despite the massive setback imposed after the fire. A few years either side of 1966, it is unlikely the club would have recovered from such a burden. With the fire occurring during an incredible campaign, the unity between the crowd and the team probably pushed the club over the line for promotion. Finances were also fairly healthy due to the outstanding cup run the previous season.

After the Bradford City fire, the Popplewell Inquiry banned new wooden grandstand structures in English football and the closure of practically every wooden stand in the country. Southport’s main stand certainly would have fallen foul of those regulations and been condemned.

In the struggle to continue, the club were helped by the contents of the safe largely remaining intact.

An article appears in the New Year’s Eve edition of the Southport Visiter entitled “FC Fire Disaster Fund Approaches £500”. After giving details of the upcoming Stockport benefit match it goes on to state “It was not until Thursday tea time that the office safe, the only thing left standing, was opened with oxy-acetylene cutters, members of Southport Fire Brigade assisting the safe experts of Chubbs of Liverpool”

Club filings since inception and three filing cabinets of documents were among the documented losses of the fire. Everything in the safe itself was intact, with the exception of a four-shilling postal order and two bags of coins which had discoloured with the heat. Other contents in the safe included the takings from the Wrexham match and player contracts.

Most unusually, a box of matches was also found inside.

Click here to view donations to The Fund as published by The Southport Visiter

With thanks to:

  • Geoff Wilde and Michael Braham, for their information in “The Book”, photographs provided, personal recollections of the time
  • Colin Alty and Eric Redrobe for their personal recollections
  • Dan Hayes at Port Online
  • Alan Jones and Rob Urwin for photographs provided and lending of research materials
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