It was an incident which occurred decades before Hillsborough became synonymous with the worst football stadium tragedy in British history.
But exactly 100 years ago next week a less well-known – but similarly shocking – disaster occurred at the same ground.
Hundreds of football fans were crushed when a brick and concrete wall at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium collapsed during an FA Cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Only good fortune and the heroic response of both other fans and emergency fire crews prevented any deaths – but more than 80 people had to be rushed to hospital. Broken limbs, shattered ribs and torn spines were reported amid the carnage.
In an eerie fore-runner of the disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans died in 1989, people piled onto the pitch to escape. The sight of the suffering so shocked Wolves Wales international goalkeeper Edward ‘Teddy’ Peers, he collapsed on the pitch.
“We were all packed together like herrings in a box under the wall,” one fan told this newspaper, then called the Yorkshire Telegraph & Star. “There was suddenly a crush and we were thrown to the ground by a terrific weight of bricks on top of us. I was in complete darkness and could scarcely breathe, nor could I move and I simply had to wait there until some friendly fellow came to help remove the bricks on top of me and lift me out of the darkness.”
It was a terrible end to a day – February 4, 1914 – which had started with such promise.
Wednesday were then one of football’s giants. In the previous decade they had won the league title twice and the FA Cup, and had finished third in the league the previous season. The club, although then struggling against relegation, had every reason to hope for a good cup run when they were drawn against Wolves in the third round.
Hillsborough itself, meanwhile, had never looked so impressive. The ground – which had been renamed from Owlerton Stadium the year before – had been vastly improved the previous summer. Some £18,000 had been spent on a transformed South Stand which included 5,600 new seats as well as offices, dressing rooms and a billiard room underneath. The Penistone Road end, where the tragedy would unfold, had also been improved.
“At least 3,000 supporters were reported to have made the journey from Staffordshire,” says Alexander Mills, who has researched the incident as part of a book he is compiling on notable incidents attended by South Yorkshire firefighters. “That made the official attendance 43,500 – more than double the usual home gate.
“In fact, the crowd might have been even larger had Wednesday agreed to hold the game the next day, a Friday, when shop assistants would have been free to attend. But the club refused, citing fixture congestion.”
Trams were packed and roads congested on the way to the ground, it is reported. Supporters of both sides wore top hats and carried paper trophies as they made their way to the stadium.
In a bad-tempered game, Wednesday took the lead early on, but the ground was still filling when the teams came out for the second half.
Disaster struck with 12 minutes left. A new 10ft brick and concrete wall in the Penistone Road end collapsed under the swaying weight of the crowd. Huge chunks of debris crushed mainly home spectators underneath. Fans at the front were sent surging onto the pitch as others pushed to escape.
Alex, 29, of Walkley, said: “At first, the seriousness of the incident was not fully understood by onlookers in other parts of the ground. Many thought the crowd had deliberately broken through a wooden barricade at the front of the stand
“But as spectators piled onto the playing surface, the true seriousness of the emergency quickly became clear.”
Firefighters from across Sheffield were rushed to offer emergency help, as police on duty were left overwhelmed. They tended to the injured and tried to restore order on the pitch and in the stands.
“Many of the legs and heads of the spectators presented a ghastly appearance,” reported the Yorkshire Telegraph & Star.“Many of those who had fallen managed to scramble to their feet, but others were trampled on by the surging crowd. Spectators were seen to be struggling frantically to escape the seething mass beneath.”
First reports found the wall’s collapse to be due to the use of cheap mortar to bind bricks together, instead of more costly cement.
But this newspaper also noted that “the absence of an adequate number of police was a matter of serious comment on the part of many of the awe-struck crowd. Indeed, throughout the whole game the police were conspicuous by their absence.”
Incredibly, after a long delay, the match was restarted and finished 1-0 to Wednesday.
The Owls would go out of the cup in the next round, while the disaster would be largely forgotten.
n Alexander Mills is a communications team leader with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue. He is researching a charity book about incidents attended by the region’s firefighters in the last 150 years. If you have any photos or information on incidents email firstname.lastname@example.org