The Top Storey Club: The Deadly Fire of 1961

It seems a little strange that a fire in Bolton town centre could have taken 19 lives only for it to have drifted back into the mists of time over the 50 years since it happened.    Let’s take a look at those events and the repercussions from them.  

See top right image of The Top Storey Club,situated on the top floor of old warehouse bounded by Crown St and the River Croal.  

May 1st 1961 was a Monday.  This was fortunate, because it meant that by 10.30 p.m. there were “only” 24 people in the club.   In the three months of its existence, it was not unusual for the Top Story Club to have more than 200 people in the premises, particularly on a Saturday evening.   The club was popular, part of its attraction being the tortuous route from the front door on Crown Street up to the second floor where, after passing through a commercial property occupied by the Harker and Howarth Piano Workshop on the ground floor and its store rooms on the first floor, visitors would emerge abruptly into a plush nightclub environment on the second, top, floor.    

Personnel of the Bolton Fire Brigade had expressed their concerns regarding the safety of the club if a fire occurred.  The owner of the nightclub was Stan Wilcox.   He was among those present on this fateful Monday evening. Stan had agreed to make improvements when the place made some money, an oft-heard approach from many a business owner.   It is perhaps surprising to realise that there was nothing more that could be done to force matters along.   The lack of fire precautions was blatant and obvious to any person with half an eye for such matters.   Access to the club was via a stairway that had no effective fire separation from the rest of the building.  There was no other exit from the top floor.  The building did not have the benefit of a fire alarm.   It seems that the only nod towards fire safety was the provision of a few extinguishers.  You might correctly assume that nobody had considered staff training or fire procedures.  

The manager of the Top Storey Club was Bill Bohannon.   He was assisted by a doorman, a local character called Pedro Gonzales.   It was around 10.30 when someone smelled smoke.  The manager went to check it out and everyone else stayed right where they were.  He looked into the piano workshop at ground level and found it to be on fire.   First reaction, shout to the doorman to come and help, which Pedro promptly did, and to call the Fire Brigade.   And everyone else stayed right where they were.....    Pedro tackled the fire with a nearby extinguisher but had little effect on it.  You can imagine the varnishes, solvents and generally large amounts of timber that would be in use in such a place.   He was driven back as the fire grew.    

The Fire Brigade were there in less than three minutes, the station being less than half a mile away.  By the time they arrived the disaster had run its course.  

Separation between the stairway and the piano workshop was by means of hardboard.   The fire grew and quickly broke through into the stairway.   Heat and smoke billowed up to the club room.  The remaining 22 people suddenly realised they were in mortal danger.   Two main effects were afterwards apparent.   Firstly, there was a scramble to the windows at the side of the building as the occupants desperately sought fresh air.  These windows looked out over a horrible drop, with the River Croal, hardly more than a stream in fact, running through its cobbled channel about 50 feet below.   Eight people were either forced out, or maybe they decided to leap and take their chance on landing in the water.  Three people survived this awful descent, which was in itself amazing.  

See the below image showing the side view of the building and the approx. 50 ft drop into the river

Now the Top Storey Club was in a building that was once a warehouse.  There were loading doors over the front of the building and the second effect of the fire was that some of those trapped made a desperate attempt to open them.     Loading doors open inwards.  Nightclubs have dance floors.  The doors moved about an inch before hitting the edge of the dance floor.   A number of casualties were found lying against these doors.  They can only have had a few seconds to get the doors open.   A supreme irony was that the hinges would have allowed the doors to lift and open up.   A furniture van parked outside offered a drop of about 9 feet (2,75 metres) onto its roof.   While nobody would seriously plan such a drop onto a vehicle as a means of escape, it was in this case infinitely preferable to the drop from the side windows. 

The local fire-fighters fought their way in but there were no survivors other than the three badly injured persons who had survived the jump. 

As the dust settled and the appalling nature of this incident became apparent, there was a sense of national shock.  This was at the time the worst loss of life in a fire since the Second World War.   Why did it happen?   Something must be done about this!     An investigation was carried out as to the cause of the fire.  The materials in the workshop that contributed to such a rapid build-up and spread of the fire were such as to be expected in that place.   It was never established whether deliberate ignition, an electrical fault or some other cause set that terrible train of events in motion.

My own view is that the demands for improvements were watered down.   The (nearly) immediate outcome, under the Licensing Act 1963, was that Fire Authorities were for the first time empowered to object to licensing applications if the premises were not “suitable and convenient” for the purpose.  This gave no on-going control of fire safety in such premises. 

The Government’s own Fire Department, then part of the Home Office, drafted out a new Act that would give Fire Authorities the powers they needed.  This was shelved, only to emerge 10 years later when controls over fire precautions in hotels were needed – the Fire Precautions Act 1971.  That Act finally introduced a power whereby Fire Authorities could prohibit or restrict use of a building if there was imminent risk from fire to persons therein.  That was Section 10 (Fire Prevention Officers would henceforth refer to a building of high fire risk as a “Section 10”) and a similar power now applies under Section 31 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.   A clear legislative thread comes down from the fire at the Top Storey Club to directly affect present-day UK fire legislation. 

The loss of 19 lives is not acceptable.   Owners of properties, who are not necessarily conversant with fire precautions, sometimes have to be forced to bring about improvements.   Modern legislation allows Fire Authorities to enforce fire precautions where necessary.    We should stay aware of the Top Storey Club disaster – to forget it is to risk it happening again.        

Pictures courtesy of the Bolton Evening News. 

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