Bolton Wanderers were founded as Christ Church FC in 1874 by the curate of a church of the same name and a schoolmaster at a nearby school, writes Malcolm Johnson.
The club was initially run from the church until there was a disagreement over the use of church premises, and changed its name to Bolton Wanderers in 1877. The name is said to have been chosen due to the difficulty in finding a permanent ground to play on, having used several venues in the first few years of the club’s existence, including Bob Woods Field, Smithfield, The Park Recreation Ground and Dick Cockles Field.
In 1881 the club started playing regularly at Pike’s Lane, spending £150 on pitch improvements. This ground initially had banking on both sides of the pitch, and later developments included a grandstand on one side and wooden terracing behind one of the goals.
In 1888 Bolton were one of six clubs from Lancashire invited to become founder members of the Football League and their first game in that competition saw a 6-3 defeat to Derby County in front of a crowd of 5,000 at Pike’s Lane. The ground was the venue for the first-ever goal to be scored in a Football League match when Bolton’s Kenny Davenport netted after two minutes. A week later, in another home defeat, those present also witnessed the first-ever Football League hat-trick when Burnley’s William Tait scored three goals in a match won 4–3 by the visitors.
Pike Lane’s record attendance of 20,000 was set for an FA Cup third round match against Liverpool in February 1894 but the ground was unsatisfactory due to a poor pitch and inadequate spectator facilities and after the club became a Limited Company in the same year money was raised to build a new ground.
Land in the Burnden area of Bolton on the site of a former chemical works and with a railway embankment at one end was leased from the council at £130 a year. Approximately one mile from the town centre, Burnden Park was completed in August 1895 at a cost of £4,000. It had a cycle track around the pitch and a stand with 1,600 seats and room for 5,000 standing called the Darcy Lever Stand on the east side of the ground. The new ground was officially opened in August 1895 with the staging of an athletics event in front of 20,000 spectators and it was later to be the venue for events such as national cycling championships and a brass band contest.
The first ever football game at Burnden Park was a benefit match against Preston North End on 11th September 1895, with the first League match taking place three days later when a 15,000 crowd saw Everton beaten 3-1.
In their last season at Pike’s Lane Bolton had reached the FA Cup Final for the first time, losing 4–1 to Notts County at Goodison Park. Although Bolton reached the semi-finals two years later their league form began to deteriorate leading to relegation to the Second Division at the end of the 1898/99 season. This brought a first visit to Burnden Park in September 1899 for Lincoln City who were embarking on a purple patch of three successive top half finishes in the second tier. On this occasion, however, the Citizens as they were then known suffered what was to be their heaviest defeat on the ground, losing 4-0 as Bolton went on to make an immediate return to the First Division.
Burnden Park had the distinction of hosting the replay of the 1901 FA Cup Final between Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United after the two clubs had drawn 2-2 at the Crystal Palace stadium. The ground had been chosen due to the unavailability of Goodison Park in Liverpool and an attendance of 20,740, the lowest ever for a cup final in the 20th century, saw Tottenham then of the Southern League win 3-1.
Bolton now began to develop into something of a yo-yo club, and after three seasons in the top flight were back down playing Lincoln again with the game at Burnden Park in December 1903 producing the Citizens’ first win on the ground. The goals in the 2-1 scoreline came from that season’s top scorer Freddy Simpson and left winger Harry Parker.
Placed third in the table at the time Bolton’s form perhaps began to suffer as a result of an FA Cup run which saw them reach the final for the second time, losing 1–0 to local rivals Manchester City at Crystal Palace. The revenue gained from this enabled the building later in 1904 of a new main stand on the Manchester Road side of the ground. Costing £3,500, this provided accommodation for 6,000 spectators including seats for 3,420.
The 1904/05 season was to see Bolton return to Division One in second place behind Liverpool and that was the position they already occupied when Lincoln visited Burnden Park in mid-November. For the second time in three visits to the ground four goals were shipped by the Citizens with a solitary strike by centre forward John Martin in reply.
Further improvements to Burnden Park saw the cycle track around the pitch removed in the summer of 1905 to make more room for spectators and the following year the Great Lever End was terraced and covered.
After three seasons in the First Division Bolton were back down to the Second again for 1908/09 but avoided a meeting with City as they were then undergoing a year in the Midland League. Up and straight back down again went Bolton so Lincoln were at Burnden Park again on April Fool’s Day in 1911. In a top v bottom clash a third defeat in four visits to the ground saw the Citizens go down 3-1, the goal coming from inside left ‘Tosh’ Barrell. With the two clubs exiting the division in opposite directions at the end of the season, City for another year in the non-league and Bolton for a much longer spell in the First Division it was over twenty years before the two clubs met again.
In 1915 the freehold of the ground was purchased and following this an angled extension to the main stand was constructed at the south end of it.
As well as several top eight finishes in the First Division Bolton became one of the most successful FA Cup sides of the 1920s, starting with victory over West Ham in 1923 in the first ever Wembley FA Cup final. Another win came in 1926 against Manchester City, but two years later the club were in financial difficulties and were forced to sell top scorer and England international David Jack for a world record fee to Arsenal to raise funds. However, there was some disquiet among supporters when the money raised was used to pay for more than half the £20,000 cost of building a new stand rather than on players. The stand was a replacement for the 33-year-old Darcy Lever Stand opposite the main stand and was named the Burnden Stand. It featured over 2,500 seats with a terraced area at the front.
The FA Cup was won for a third time in seven seasons with victory against Portsmouth in 1929 but a series of lower half finishes ended with relegation from the First Division at the end of the 1932/33 season. Despite this, the official record attendance for the ground was set with 69,912 present for the visit of Manchester City in an FA Cup 5th Round tie in February 1933.
Bolton’s relegation led to a visit from Lincoln City who were enjoying the second of the two seasons they spent in Division Two in the early 1930s. The game at Burnden Park two days before Christmas 1933 saw the bottom of the table Imps, as they were now known, put an end to a run of seven away defeats in a row with a surprise 2-1 win. The goals came from right winger Alf Horne and centre forward Johnny Campbell recently signed for a record £1,250 fee from Leicester City with the first of over 100 goals that he would score for the club.
At the end of the 1933/34 season the two clubs once again exited the division in opposite directions as Bolton went on to establish themselves as a First Division side for around the next thirty years and one of the leading clubs in the country in the 1950s.
Tragedy struck in 1946 when Burnden Park was the scene of the worst disaster at a British football ground up to that time with a loss of life later exceeded in numbers only by events at Ibrox, Valley Parade and Hillsborough. On 9th March it was estimated that around 85,000 turned up for an FA Cup quarter final tie with Stoke City at a time when it was still the practice to pay at the turnstiles rather than buy tickets in advance. Although 15,000 were locked out of the ground when it became clear it was full this did not stop people climbing in from the railway embankment and over the closed turnstiles. The banking at the Railway End consisted only of dirt with some flagstones for steps, and soon after the game started two barriers collapsed and the crowd fell forward, crushing those underneath. With people spilling onto the pitch the game was twice halted, the second time after the referee had been informed by the police there had been a fatality. The players then left the pitch while casualties were taken from the Railway End terrace Those who had died were laid along the touchline and covered in coats, but amazingly less than half an hour later the game was restarted with them still there, separated from the players by a new sawdust lined touchline.
For the record, the game ended goalless, but the casualties numbered 33 Bolton Wanderers fans crushed to death, and 400 injured.
Following a public inquiry, it was recommended that local authorities should inspect grounds with a capacity of 10,000 spectators and agreed safety limits should be in place for grounds of more than 25,000 capacity. At Burnden Park the following year saw the spending of £5,500 on the Railway End, improving the turnstiles and gates, adding barriers, and fencing off the railway line.
In 1953 Bolton reached the FA Cup Final again, losing 4-3 to Blackpool in what became known as the Stanley Matthews Final. That same year Burnden Park was featured in a painting by the northern artist L. S. Lowry entitled Going to the Match. When bought by the Professional Footballers’ Association in 1999 it was worth £1.9 million and nearly 25 years later has now been valued at £8 million.
Two years later, in another branch of the visual arts, the ground was featured in the comedy film ‘The Love Match’, with Arthur Askey as an engine driver who takes his train past the stadium to get a view of the match from above the Railway End.
In August 1957 floodlights were installed at a cost of £25,000, being used for the first time two months later for a friendly match against Scottish side Hearts.
A fourth FA Cup win came in 1958 when a post-Munich Manchester United side were beaten 2-0 but as with Lincoln a division lower a decline in Bolton’s fortunes began after the end of the 1950s, no doubt partly linked to the retirement of their talismanic centre forward and record goalscorer Nat Lofthouse.
Burnden Park was again featured on film, providing the background for scenes at a football match in the 1962 drama ‘A Kind of Loving’ starring Alan Bates.
Relegation to Division Two for Bolton came at the end of the 1963/64 season with a further drop into the Third Division for the first time in their history in 1971. However, two years later they were back up as champions as their fortunes began an upward trend again. 1975 saw improvements made to the floodlights and the installation of fences behind the goals.
At the end of August 1977 Bolton Wanderers were already at the top of the Division Two table in a season which would see them finish as champions when Lincoln City paid their first visit to Burnden Park for over 40 years in a second round League Cup tie. With his assistant George Kerr having replaced Graham Taylor as manager in the summer the Imps had made a poor start to the season other than beating Mansfield to earn the cup visit to Bolton. Although it was a good performance by the Imps, they were unable to find a response to the deflected third minute goal by midfielder Alan Waldron that won the match for Bolton. What was doubly unfortunate was a knee injury suffered by leading scorer John Ward which caused him to miss most of the rest of the season. Attendance figures for the pre-First World One period are not readily available, but otherwise the 11,467 at this game was the highest to see a City game at the ground.
A year after promotion to the top flight pitch improvements were made which saw undersoil heating and sprinklers installed at a cost of £70,000. Also, seats were bolted to the terracing in the Great Lever End.
After just two seasons in Division One Bolton’s fortunes then took a downward turn again and they were back in the second tier for another three seasons until further relegation to Division Three. This brought the first league meeting with Lincoln City since 1934, and in mid-February 1984 Colin Murphy’s side came away with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Gordon Hobson and John Thomas as they achieved their biggest win on the ground. With both teams finishing in mid-table City were back the following November with my only ever visit to the ground. The home side took the lead in the second half followed by the usually reliable Ross Jack seeing a penalty saved minutes later which might have rescued a deserved point for the Imps. As it was the defeat put the Imps in the relegation zone, but they recovered to finish alongside Bolton in the lower half of the final league table.
The longest ever run of meetings of the two clubs in successive seasons ended at three in the following season. City’s visit to Burnden Park for what was to be the last time in a Football League match came in September 1985 with the only drawn game between the two sides at the venue. Now managed by John Pickering in succession to Colin Murphy City had made a moderate start to the season and a goal by Warren Ward was enough to earn a point against a struggling Bolton side. The attendance of 3,928 at this match was the lowest to see a City game there. City slumped to relegation in 21st place with Bolton themselves again well in the lower half of the league table.
With average attendances down to below 5,000 Bolton were now in an increasingly dire financial position and it was decided to sell off part of the Railway End to the Co-op for them to build a Normid superstore. The railway past the end of the ground had been closed in the early 1970s and the supermarket was originally intended to be built on land reclaimed following the removal of the railway embankment with room for a narrow stand in front of it. However, a condition of the grant obtained for the clearing of the derelict land was that the store would have to be built on the site of the terrace. With it already out of use due to the lower crowds the terrace was therefore cut in two with the supermarket taking up the western half of an end which had once had room for 26,000 people.
Also in 1986 there had been plans to install an artificial pitch for community sport facilities but this came to nothing when the Football League halted the installation of any new such pitches. As the grass pitch remained, Burnden Park then became a venue over the next few years for Rugby League semi-finals and finals sometimes attracting crowds of over 20,000.
At the end of the 1986/87 season, Bolton were relegated to the fourth tier for the first time in their history, but bounced back straight away with the help of 22 goals from former Imps striker John Thomas.
January 1990 saw Lincoln City’s last visit to Burnden Park with a first round game in what was then known as the Leyland Daf Cup. Both teams were just outside the promotion places in their respective divisions at the time with Colin Murphy now in his second spell in charge. Gordon Hobson became the only Lincoln player to score more than one goal on the ground but Bolton ran out 2-1 winners.
By now with ambitions for a higher grade of football again the directors decided in 1992 that it would be too difficult to convert Burnden Park into an all-seater stadium as was now required for first- and second-tier clubs. A decision was therefore made to build a new stadium in the town of Horwich, around five or six miles from Burnden Park.
In 1993 Bolton achieved promotion to play in the second tier for the first time since 1983 and two years later reached the Premier League via the play-offs for their first season in the top flight for 15 years. Although immediately relegated they bounced straight back again, marking the last season of football at Burnden Park by winning the championship of what was then known as Division One in 1996/97. To very marginally boost the capacity of the ground for this season a small stand of around 250 seats was installed in front of the supermarket. This made the capacity of the ground in its final season 22,616 compared to 41,646 prior to 1982.
The last game played at Burnden Park saw a 4–1 win over Charlton Athletic on 25 April 1997. At the request of Nat Lofthouse, one of the penalty spots from the ground was dug up and planted at the new multimillion-pound 29,000-seater stadium named the Reebok Stadium located on a road named Burnden Way in honour of the old ground.
Ironically, the Normid superstore at the former Railway End closed shortly after Bolton’s departure for the Reebok and after lying derelict for several years it was finally demolished in 2001. Travellers camped in its car park and Burnden Park itself fell into disrepair, with demolition not taking place until two years after the last match had been played.
The site, as so often with the locations of former football grounds is now a retail park with the biggest outlet store being an Asda superstore which opened in 2005.
Compared to some away grounds Lincoln City’s record at Burnden Park is not too bad, albeit they only played ten games there. Of these six were lost, two of them in cup ties, with just one draw. The Imps (or the Citizens) never managed to score more than two goals in a match which they did on three occasions, while on the other hand they only conceded more than two goals on three occasions. No City player scored more than one goal in a match for City with Gordon Hobson the only player to do so twice as they averaged a goal a game with 18 conceded.
Photos credit (please contact for removal):
A Kind of Loving – from You Tube
Scene from The Love Match – from DVD of film
Going to the Match – www.kingandmcgaw.com
Great Lever end – www.stadiumguide.com/burndenpark/
Burnden Park in 1895, Railway End in the 1970s – www.lionofviennasuite.sbnation.com
Burnden Park – www.bwfc.co.uk
Superstore in 1991 – www.pixels.com
Site of the ground today – www.metisrealestate.com
Main stand 1991 – www.fineartamerica.com
The Burnden Stand – www.telegraph.co.uk
Burnden Park in Later Years – www.theguardian.com
Railway End – www.dailymail.com