Date: 1 May 1961
19 people died in the Top Storey Club fire in Bolton on 1 May 1961.
It was suggested that the fire was not accidental although there was no evidence for that and an open verdict was returned.
The club had been on the top floor of a three story building and the fire had started in a workshop on the ground floor. The workshop was owned by Gregg Construction Co who made kitchen furniture.
It was noted that there was no fire escape from the club and that a door behind the bar which could have been used to escape was obstructed by a false floor built against it preventing it from being opened readily.
The victims were:
The causes of death were given as:
There had been 24 people in the club at the time of the fire. 14 died in the club whilst five died jumping out of the window. Three people survived jumping out of the window whilst two others had walked down the staircase before the fire enveloped that although one of them was subsequently injured whilst assisting in rescue operations on the river bank.
The club was in a series of old buildings in Crown Street, Bolton by the River Croal.
The club had been opened on 19 December 1960 by a man who had run it until 24 March 1961 when he sold it to Dennis Wilson who died in the fire. The man that had run it had also been running Gregg Construction Co and had continued to run his business there until the time of the fire.
When the initial owner of the club was questioned he agreed that he had not made any application to the local authority for planning permission to use the premises as a nightclub although he said that he had been in contact with the fire chief for advice on the building about three or four weeks before the club was opened and was advised that a fire escape and fire extinguishers should be installed. However, he said that neither had been done as they were still finishing the construction of the club. When the previous club owner was asked what he thought was more important, the safety of the people using the club or the club decor, he said that the question had never been raised and that the erection of the fire escape was one of the constructional details that had to be completed.
When he was asked about the locked door behind the bar he said, 'We were going to put an open escape from that door'.
However, the previous owner said that he knew that the fire brigade didn't have the power to force him to carry out the alterations and that he had informed Dennis Wilson of the recommendations on safety when he bought the premises.
It was said that two days before the fire the owners of the building had taken steps to terminate the lease when they found out that the premises were being used as a club after reading an advertisement for it in the Bolton Evening News and that the owner had visited the club at 10.35pm on the night of the fire, 1 May 1961, telling them that they had to vacate the building by 24 June 1961. The fire started about 25 minutes later round 11pm.
The chief inspector of the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory at Preston said that following his investigations into the cause of the fire that he was not able to satisfy himself that the fire had been caused accidentally and that there was a probability that it was other than accidental but that he could not prove it.
He said that it was not a fire that had begun in a small way, but one that from the start was of considerable dimension. He said that the floor of the workshop beneath the club where the fire had started, where there were pots of paint, was evenly burnt which was consistent with a large pool of liquid having burnt on the floor. He said, 'Cellulose thinners present were of the type which could be readily ignited by a match or some other burning material. A person introducing such material would be fully aware of the fire, whether it was accidental or otherwise'.
The club, which was in Crown Street, Bolton was in the main shopping centre and stood on sloping ground on the bank of the narrow, swiftly-flowing River Croal which was spanned by a stone bridge beside it.
There were three separate but interconnecting buildings which possibly dated back to 1847 known as 25, 27 and 29 Crown Street with two entrances, one between nos 25 and 27 and the other between nos 27 and 29. The premises were shared by the club and a joinery firm. The buildings covered an area 70ft by 17ft and had three storeys, a basement and a sub-basement. Stone walls extended as far as the first storey level except for the section that fronted onto Crown Street which, together with the upper part of the other walls was made of brick.
Apart from the stone floor in the sub-basement the floors were constructed of timber. In the clubroom, parts of the floor were covered with carpet and underfelt. The roof was of slate on timber laths and rafters and part of it was underdrawn with hardboard on timber principals. The ceilings and partitions varied in their materials and construction and included close boarding, lath and plaster and a variety of combustible building boards.
The joinery firm that occupied most of the ground storey assembled kitchen units. Spray painting with cellulose paint was carried out at one end of the workshop and the rest of the ground story and the two upper storeys were sublet to the club by the joinery firm, the clubroom itself being on the top storey, as its name implied.
The club had its office with an external and internal telephone on the ground floor storey near the entrance on Crown Street and on the first storey there were the club foyer, cloakroom, lavatories and bottle stores. The club room on the top storey had a band room and stage at one end next to which there was a small dance floor surrounded on three sides by tables and chairs, with a bar at the other end of the building.
The way to the clubroom was through the building using the entrance between nos 25 and 27 Crown Street. Two successive doors led into a 3ft wide passageway and at the end of the passageway another door led into a hall from which there was a door into the joinery workshop and a timber staircase leading up to the first storey where it terminated. At the head of the staircase there was a 16ft long landing and at the north end of the landing farthest from the staircase an opening without a door in it which led into the club foyer. An open timber staircase, the only access from the access from the first storey to the top storey then led off from the furthest end of the foyer.
The only means of exit from the clubroom was, therefore, down the timber staircase to the foyer on the first floor, across the foyer and landing and down the other timber staircase to the hall on the ground floor.
However, there was another timber staircase between the ground floor and the first storey which was on the north side of the building and was a continuation of the staircase connecting the first and second storeys. It led from the foyer to the joinery workshop. However, there was no way out of the workshop as it would have been locked against illegal entry from outside and the staircase was therefore used as an exit from the club.
Although a door halfway down the staircase was not locked after working hours, there was usually a loose board placed at first floor level partially obstructing he way in order that club members did not use the staircase by mistake and find themselves in the workshop. The staircase was enclosed partly with asbestos cement sheeting and partly with plywood.
The staircases provided the only internal means of escape from the clubroom on the top storey. However, in the corner of the clubroom near the bar there was an old loading door from which there was a drop of 20ft into Back Crown Street. The door had opened inwards but was obstructed by an additional layer of flooring and covered by thick felt and carpet that had been laid on the top of the original floor right up to the door.
However, it was noted that the door could have been opened by lifting it on its gudgeons until the bottom of it cleared the carpet although it was described as being a difficult task and several bodies were later found dead near the door.
On the north side of the clubroom there was a 50ft drop from a window into the river below. There was another window in the band room that faced onto Crown Street and four other windows had been bricked up.
The fire had started on the ground floor in the joinery workshop in the area between the bottom of the staircase leading up to the club foyer and the door leading to the hall.
It was said that the very rapid growth and spread of the fire and examination of the areas of the fire's origin after the fire suggested that a large amount of liquid, perhaps 1½ gallons of cellulose thinners had been spilt from an open drum at the bottom of the staircase and had then bene ignited by an unknown source of ignition.
It was noted that there was no evidence to show how the fire started.
The fire was first spotted between 11pm and 11.05pm by some people that had been in the car park on the other side of the River Croal. They noticed an orange glow and flames in the ground storey windows at what was later established as the point of origin of the fire.
At about the same time the manager of the club who was in the clubroom noticed smoke drifting up the staircase and went downstairs to trace its source. On finding smoke coming from under the door of the workshop he broke open the door to find the room a mass of flame. Then, after trying unsuccessfully to pull the door shut again he went to the club office and called the fire brigade by telephone. The call was received at 11.07pm. He then tried to return upstairs but was forced back by the intense heat and volume of smoke and ran out into the street leaving the doors in the passageway open.
It was noted that another man had followed the manager downstairs from the clubroom. He had said that as he had stood in the club foyer on the first storey that he could feel the heat through the floor. He ran to the landing and vaulted over the rail to the lower part of the staircase because by that time the flames were already licking into the stairwell.
He then joined the manager in the club office. He said that as he came out of the office with the manager that he saw the staircase was burning and that the flames were coming out of the door of the workshop.
It was said that from the accounts of the survivors who had been in the clubhouse that little notice was taken of the first cry of 'fire' and that when the smoke suddenly started to enter the clubroom that everyone moved away from the staircase towards the bar.
The lights then went out due to damage to the electrical distribution box sited in the ground storey workroom.
Someone then kicked out one of the windows overlooking the River Croal and there was then a sudden rush towards it and eight people either fell or jumped from the window into the river, five of whom were killed and three of whom survived with shock and burns. The bodies of the other victims were found in the clubroom, some in front of or behind the bar, others near the window and the remainder round the disused loading door. They had all died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Appliances of the Bolton Fire Brigade arrived three minutes after being called by the manager and the firemen attacked the blaze immediately but could not ascend the staircase because of the intensity of the blaze. It was noted that the officer in charge of the first appliances realised that the turntable ladder could not reach the windows to the club from the car park across the river, which was the only firm level ground on that side of the premises and so the ladder was accordingly pitched from the bridge in Crown Street to the nearest window along the river side of the building. However, no one appeared at the window and it did not seem possible that anyone inside could still be alive. The window had been beside the staircase that had led up into the clubroom and drew up the fierce fire then burning on the ground and first storeys. It was also noted that at that point the firemen didn't know whether there were any people alive in the building but they continued their operations as though there might have been people still trapped inside.
The fire brigade then gradually suppressed the fire and found the remaining bodies inside.
A 17-year-old hairdresser that had lived in Beechfield Road, Bolton said that she had gone to the Top Storey Club on the night of 1 May 1961 with her brother-in-law who ran the club and Joan Naylor and Shiela Bohannon who both died in the fire. She said that she had arrived at about 10.30pm, being let in by Richard Sorrenson and sat at a table near to the bamboo screen. She said that sometime later she saw her brother-in-law, the part owner of the club and the manager at the top of the stairs and then heard a woman say, 'There’s a fire?'. She said that after the woman made the remark that people stood up and stood around but that no one ran to the stairs or panicked or anything.
She said then that the smoke came into the clubroom very suddenly and that there was a lot of coughing and that the people in the clubroom moved towards the bar and that when they reached it the lights flickered and went out.
She said that someone then suggested that they break a window but that someone said 'No, it will cause a draught' but that the intensity of the heat was building up and that Dennis Wilson then kicked the window open and there was a rush to it.
She said that she then sat on the window sill with her back to the outside over the river. She noted that at no time did she see any flames. She said that the intensity of the heat began to increase and that she let go of the window and fell out of it and that the next thing she knew she was on the bank of the river and was afterwards taken to the Bolton Royal Infirmary.
A 23-year-old sales representative that had lived in Crompton Way, Bolton said that he had been to the Top storey Club on the night of 1 May 1961 with Derek Ridings and Francis Roylance who both died in the fire. He said that when they arrived at about 10.45pm they went straight upstairs but were called back by Dennis Wilson and asked to sign the club register. He said that shortly after he heard the club owner shout 'Fire' and that he saw smoke coming up the stairs and that after a period of about two minutes it increased in volume rapidly after which the lights went out. He said that it all happened rapidly.
He said that he had already been stood at the bar but that everyone else then came over and that he put a handkerchief over his face and that after a length of time he went over to the window and decided to climb out. He said that at first he tried to get onto the roof and had hold of the gutter but could not get onto the roof and just stood there holding the gutter with his feet on the window. He said that someone then nudged him and he started to fall backwards so he took hold of the window frame to bring himself back into the window but said that it was too warm inside and so he held onto the window ledge and then dropped into the river and was carried away by it but managed to get out by himself. He was then taken by ambulance to the Bolton Royal Infirmary.
It was noted that whilst the fire had severely damaged the contents to the ground and first storeys, that the clubroom itself had only been slightly damage to its contents and decorations caused by smoke and heat.
The report into the fire stated that from the evidence of the floor charring, which was confirmed by experiments carried out with 1½ gallons of water from a similar tin to the thinners container that was thought to have been the source of the flammable liquid used to start the fire, that the flammable liquid would have washed against the end frames of several partially completed timber units that were stored on the floor and then flowed down the side of the frames, spread underneath some of the piles of timber units stored against the other staircase and then, due to the slope of the floor, spread out towards the ramp leading up to the doorway in the south wall.
It was said that the units would have provided all the ingredients of a crib fire coupled by the storage of 1,000ft of 1in by 1¼in timber at ceiling level and more timber stored elsewhere in the workshop, the structural timber and a large amount of other combustible material to produce a very rapid fire build up.
The fire built up to a point when the heat zone had come down to about five feet from ceiling level throughout the workshop at which point it was probably vented when the other club owner kicked in the south door to the workshop from the ground floor club premises.
As the heat zone would have then been about 3ft down from the top of that door there would have been an immediate rush of smoke, hot gases and flames through the door opening.
It was thought that the fire first broke out of the door as the two men passed the head of the workshop staircase by the first floor club foyer, without noticing anything untoward on their way down to find the fire.
It was then presumed that very soon after breaking in the south door that the fire burnt its way through the door and plywood separation on the north staircase although some protection might have been afforded to that staircase by the rear units piled around it.
The destruction of the separation at ground floor level on the north staircase would have accounted to the sudden in-rush of smoke and hot gases into the second floor club room as reported by the survivors.
Once the fire had broken out of the workroom, the north staircase between the first and second floors had acted as a flue up which the hot smoke, hot gases and flames were drawn into the club room and noted that once the window on the top floor was broken that that would have aggravated the flue effect.
The report stated that the fire eventually spread up both staircases on to the first floors of Nos 29, 27 and 25 from where it spread up to the Club Room Nos 29 via the staircase and an unsealed slit in the ceiling of the cloakroom through which the ropes for the old hoisting gear used to run, heavily involving the band room and band stand.
Further, the fire up the ground to the first floor staircase in nos 27 destroyed the softboard ceiling over the landing and burned through the floor above and that from that landing it spread into the rear room of nos 25 where it broke through the ceiling and into the front room of nos 27 where it destroyed the staircase up to the second floor, involving the second floor rooms of nos 25 and 27.
It was noted that a few months before that the fire officer of the Bolton Fire Brigade had inspected the club at the request of the previous owner and the following is an extract from the chief fire officer's letter to the owner dated 4 February 1961.
'Whilst I am not the competent authority for dealing with means of escape from your premises, I must put on record the fact that, as they exist, they are considered to be totally inadequate for the use to which you are putting the building and that if a fire did occur on the ground or second floors when the top room was in full occupancy, there would be every possibility of those people being trapped without any alternative means of escape at their disposal. May I recommend strongly that you take immediate steps to provide alternative means of escape from all floors of this building'.
The recommendations also called for the installation of two 2-gallon water/CO2 extinguishers for each floor in use.
It was noted that when an officer of the brigade visited the club in April 1961 that the club had changed hands and the substance of the earlier letter was sent to the new owner on 15 April 1961. The new owner later said that subsequent to that letter that he had been arranging to provide an external escape leading from the disused loading door down into Back Crown Street, but that that had not been installed at the time of the fire.
During the April 1961 inspection the door to Gregg Construction Co on the ground floor was open and the inspector took the opportunity to examine their workshop. However, when he asked two male operatives what they did they stated that they assembled kitchen furniture with water glue and trimmed off rough edges with a hand plane and no mention was made of the cellulose spraying and that at the time there was no smell of cellulose or evidence of cellulose storage.
It was later noted that the fire revealed that the authorities did not have the effective machinery for the control of fire safety requirements in club premises. It was said that although the fire authority had recommended most strongly that immediate steps should be taken to provide alternative means of escape from all floors of the building, they were not in a position to enforce their requirements because the club licence, once granted, could not be withdrawn.
At the time of the fire a licensing bill had been passing through Parliament and as a result of the fire two Bolton MP's tabled an amendment designed to give fire authorities greater powers over club premises. The Government accepted the amendment in principle and the Licensing Act 1961 then gave fire authorities rights of entry to and inspection of registered clubs and could object to the grant and renewal of registration on the ground of the risk of fire.
It was further noted that club premises frequently occupied parts of a building of which other parts were in the hands of different businesses and whose premises were unoccupied at the time the club was full and that a fire in the unoccupied part of the building could therefore develop to major proportions before discovery and that for that reason it was considered essential that means of escape should be made that were adequate beyond question for any contingency or that complete fire separation between the club and other premises made. It was noted that whilst there were many parallels to the situation of the occupancy of the Top storey Club that many other businesses where shared with other businesses of essentially a similar nature and that the problems there were not so serious.
At the inquest an open verdict was returned, there being insufficient evidence to determine how the fire started with the jury adding the rider that they would like the make a strong recommendation that legislation should be sought for official supervision of that type of premises.
The owner of the premises, a 55-year-old man that had lived in Vesper Holme, Chorley New Road, Bolton, said that he had let the premises at 27 Crown Street to the first club owner with respect to him using it to run his kitchen furniture business, Greg Construction Company, and nothing else, stating that no mention of the use of the premises as a club had been made and that he had no idea that it was being used as a club. He was a company director and said that he had refused two previous requests to use the premises as a club.
He said that the first that he heard of the premises being used as a club was when he saw a half-page advert for the club in the newspaper and said that on the night of 1 May 1961 that he went to the offices of the Top Storey Club, entering the office on the right hand side as he entered the building on the ground floor, the time being about 10.35pm. He said that he had got access by knocking very hard on the door for five minutes, noting that he had in fact had to kick on it before someone let him in.
He said that he first saw a man to whom he explained he wanted to see Dennis Wilson the part owner and that he was soon after joined by Richard Sorrenson, the club manager, and that they told him that they were then the new owners. He said that he then told them that their tenancy was not to be continued, noting that that was the main reason for his visit and that the date they had to be out by was 24 June 1961, that being the expiry of a certain three month period.
The building owner noted that whilst he was in the office that he noticed a large electric fire there that was giving off considerable and noticeable heat. He said that he was in the office for about 20 minutes, until about 10.55pm and that whilst he was in the office that there had been several calls, guessing at least five or six and that he saw a number of people arriving at the club, mostly as couples, who where admitted by Richard Sorrenson.
He said that whilst he was in the office that he saw nothing suspicious, he only thing standing out being the heat from the fire, stating that the office was very hot.
The fire started about five minutes after he left.
When he was asked about the bricked up windows on the top floor he noted that when he had first least the property that they were not bricked up. When he was asked whether there was anything in the lease to provide for anyone wanting to carry out structural alterations the building owner noted that there was no lease and that the owner of Gregson Construction had occupied the building on a quarterly basis to begin with, the agreement being that a lease would later be drawn up but that it never was and that as soon as he found that the building was being used as a club that a letter was written to them protesting the use of the building as a club.
The building owner noted also that two days before the fire, on 28 April 1961, that he had received a letter from the Borough Engineer's Department regarding planning permission and the lack of a fire escape and stating that they had had a difficult time of finding out who managed the property but said that he had replied stating that he had no intention of applying for planning permission and that he wanted the current tenants out, noting that they had additionally not been paying any rent.
He noted that he was very concerned over the matter. He said that he had received the letter on the Saturday but had been away when it had arrived and that he had telephoned the Borough Engineer by 9.15am on the Monday morning and got a 4pm appointment with him that day which was why he visited the club that Monday night.
The inquest heard that whilst it was of small comfort to relatives of the victims that the medical evidence seemed t make it quite clear that those who died in the club room were probably overcome by the effects of carbon monoxide quickly. It was further noted that it was quite possible that some of the people in the club might have known that they might have been able to open the door in the south wall that was obstructed by the false floor and carpet by lifting it but that they might have simply become overcome by the smoke and fumes before they were able to do so.
When the cause of the fire was considered, it was noted that the man that carried on his business in the workshop had left at about 5.35pm, but that the premises were probably not as secure as he thought they were with access possible from the club premises simply by crawling under or removing a shutter and then going through a door at the foot of the staircase. It was further noted that there was also access via a door in Back Crown Street although the fire brigade had had to force an entry there.
When the Coroner summed up, he said, 'The question you have to ask yourselves is, what was the cause of this fire? I think that when you consider the evidence before you, you will think it still remains a mystery. Every effort has apparently been made to determine the cause of this fire, both by the Factory Inspector and by the Chief Inspector. Both carried out their inspections immediately after the fire and the Factory Inspector tells us that in his opinion the fire was not of electrical origin. The Chief Inspector tells us that whether the fire started accidently or not, it was not a fire which smouldered but one which started very rapidly.
There is no evidence before you of anyone having been seen or heard in the premises of the Gregg Construction Company immediately before the fire. You must remember that access could fairly easily be obtained to these premises, and I think that in the absence of some very , very definite evidence of someone being observed in those premises, or against some very definite evidence that the fire was accidental, your only possible verdict is an open verdict, there being insufficient evidence to determine the cause of the fire'.
The Coroner went on to note that it seemed quite obvious that the local authority and the fire brigade had been quite rightly seriously concerned about the use of the premises as a club to the extent that steps had been taken to point out the fire risk and the necessity for an alternative fire escape in the event of fire. He then noted that there might then be some suggestion of negligence on the part of the proprietor in inviting persons into the premises knowing the risks, but added that he could not feel that if there was any negligence that the question was then whether it amounted to criminal negligence which he said he thought the jury could dismiss from their mind, adding that he thought that it appeared from the evidence that the means of escape depended entirely on the buildings siting and that it was one of those things where one could only be wise after the event.
The entire building was later demolished and the site now has a multi-story car park in its place.