This notorious blaze in Bolton, Lancashire, made legal history. The fire broke out less than six months after the venue had opened as a nightclub on the top two floors of an old mill warehouse building, the lower floor housing a kitchen furniture workshop.
A single wooden staircase was the only means of entering and exiting the club. The site was clearly a death-trap – so much so that, on hearing that the upper floors were being used as a club, one of the building’s owners, Norman Balshaw, turned up on the fateful night to warn nightclub managers that the business should not continue, and gave notice that they must vacate by 24 June. Unfortunately the warning came too late. Less than half an hour after Balshaw’s visit, at 11pm, a fire broke out.
Between 20 and 25 people were at the venue that night. Manager Bill Bohannon smelt smoke and, on going downstairs to investigate, discovered the furniture workshop ablaze. The intensity of the fire was so great that he could not go back upstairs, but he managed to flee and survived with 20 per cent burns.
Others were not so lucky. His wife Sheila and club owners Denis Wilson and Richard Sorrensen perished as the fire spread up the stairs. In total 19 were killed, 14 in the club – mainly from smoke inhalation, exacerbated by the burning of flammable solvents – and five who died from their injuries after jumping eight floors onto concrete below.
It was an operational nightmare for the Bolton fire brigade firefighters who responded. They couldn’t enter the building because of the intensity of the fire, and they couldn’t access the back window with a ladder because of a nearby river.
It took two and a half hours to bring the fire under control, and the firefighters had to use ladders to gain access to the upper floors as the staircase had been destroyed in the fire. No cause of the fire was ever found.
Scandalously, the chief fire officer had raised his concerns about fire safety matters in relation to the operation of a club on the premises but nothing was done. The FBU again highlighted weaknesses in current fire safety legislation.
“THE SCANDAL OF BOLTON
A Chief Officer writes to the tenant of a so-called Club and warns him that if fire occurs there may well be a tragedy. Weeks go by. No reply. No action. Fire does break out and nineteen people lose their lives.
The Chief Officer has been compelled to remain powerless. His men fight the fire and collect the bodies. The scandal of Bolton must alert the Government, Local Authorities and the people of Britain, to the inadequacy of the powers of the Fire Service and the ever-growing need for more effective FIRE PREVENTION to be maintained by a fully manned Fire Service.”
-The Firefighter vol. 1, no. 6, May 1961
The horrifying number of deaths and the warnings made by the FBU and others within the fire service prompted the government to act quickly. Parliament enacted the Licensing Act 1961, which made changes enabling fire brigades to inspect clubs. It also made club owners legally responsible for providing fire exits and extinguishers. Later changes to the laws have given fire brigades powers to close nightclubs that fall short of safety standards.