The Valley Parade Fire: Arson?

April 18, 2015

by Martin Odoni

Over the last two and a half years, when we have heard that there have been startling new revelations over a major British stadium disaster, it has been exclusively about the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. Therefore – insofar as it is possible for such a grim topic to be ‘refreshing’ – it could be argued that it would make a ‘nice’ change, were there a revelation about a different disaster.

Well chin up then, everybody – this week, it appears to have happened.

The Valley Parade Fire, which took fifty-six lives in Bradford in 1985, has long been widely seen first and foremost as a dreadful misfortune. While Bradford City Football Club, whose stadium was the venue for the tragedy when its timber-framed main stand burned down in just a few minutes with many people trapped within it, received considerable criticism for the appalling safety standards of the ground, there was never any real suggestion at the time that the club was guilty of actual foul play.

This week, however, the accepted story of what happened in Bradford on the 11th of May 1985 has been quite loudly challenged by one of its survivors – a man who lost four of his family at Valley Parade, and who states coincidentally that he witnessed the Hillsborough Disaster first-hand as well. A book published on Thursday the 16th of April, titled Fifty-Six – The Story Of The Bradford Fire, and written by Martin Fletcher, asserts that the terrible inferno was just one of at least nine industrial fires to befall businesses run by, or closely associated with, the then-Bradford City chairman, the late Stafford Heginbotham. It also states, apparently, that Heginbotham made considerable money in the aftermath of these fires from insurance claims, and that he had realised that the expense of improving Valley Parade’s safety standards to make it adequate for hosting football matches in the old Second Division (to which the club had won promotion in the 1984-85 season) would be beyond what he could afford.

In short, Mr Fletcher appears to have uncovered considerable circumstantial evidence that, at the very least, invites a re-investigation of the Fire’s causes. The original Inquiry, by Justice Oliver Popplewell in the summer of 1985, concluded that the blaze was an accident probably started by a carelessly discarded cigarette or match that was dropped through gaps in the floorboards onto mounds of rubbish that had built up over the years in the void below the stand. Without apparently making any explicit allegations, however, Fletcher has asked, perhaps rhetorically, whether anyone could be as unlucky as Heginbotham seemed to be.

Now, I have not read the book as yet – I may well write another blogpost assessing it once I have done so – and so I do not wish to sound totally dismissive of any possible implication that the Valley Parade Fire might have been an act of arson aimed at cashing in on the insurance. However, for a number of reasons, I do think that people should treat the story with a great deal of caution; –

The most important reason is that Heginbotham had already arranged the part-demolition of the main stand at Valley Parade for the 13th of May, 1985 – just two days after the Fire. Not only did this invalidate any insurance policy on the stand, but it would also take the destruction a great deal further than the demolition; most of the planned dismantling work would have been to replace the ageing timber roof with a much safer metal structure, while the wooden floorboards would be replaced with a concrete surface. And most importantly, the materials for the new stand had already been purchased – the order had been placed back in the March of that year in fact. Having already procured the needed materials, it sounds very strange to suggest that Heginbotham would then try and burn the stand down, meaning it would have to be rebuilt entirely from the ground up, meaning far more materials would have to be purchased. It was bound to cost a lot more, and to take an awful lot longer, than just replacing the roof would have done. (As indeed was the case; because of the Fire, Valley Parade went completely unused for the 1985-86 season, with Bradford City sharing a stadium with the local Rugby League club.) It should be mentioned that the club did receive a few hundred thousand pounds in insurance pay-outs after the disaster, but not for the destruction of the stand itself. It was to cover damage to other facilities within the stadium.

Another question mark over the implied foul play is that it sounds needlessly ruthless of Heginbotham to have a fire break out actually during a game, especially one that was effectively a promotion party. Not only would he have known that a bigger crowd than usual would be there, but also he knew that Yorkshire Television would have cameras in the ground. It would be an open invitation to discovery. Why not just have the fire break out in the dead-of-night in the middle of the week, when there would be no match on and no one around to see that it was an act of arson? Or even a few hours after the game ended.

Other doubts are worth raising. Why would Heginbotham have the fire break out in the main stand and not in the tiny, one-storey stand on the opposite side of the pitch, which would be far quicker and cheaper to replace, would endanger far fewer lives, and was not scheduled for demolition and was therefore still covered by the stadium’s insurance? Why, for that matter, would Heginbotham risk a fire breaking out in the corner of the stand that was right next to the Directors’ box, thus endangering his own life, and those of his family, who were sat in the main stand too?

Popplewell’s conclusion that rubbish that had built up under the stand for over twenty years previously had caught alight was supported by analysis of some of the items that had survived the blaze; one of them was a discarded peanut-wrapper priced at ‘4d‘ (four old pence) per bag. Did Heginbotham go scavenging on rubbish tips to find bits of litter from the pre-decimal era that he could secretly plant in the stadium before setting it on fire, just so that accusations aimed at him would be reduced to gross negligence instead of mass-murder? Gross negligence can still result in a long prison sentence.

Either way, no evidence was ever found after close investigation by the police and the fire brigade to suggest arson, and from what I have been able to read so far, Fletcher offers no direct evidence of such a crime happening either, only a pattern of misfortune surrounding Heginbotham that might or might not be seen as suspicious.

Fletcher apparently alleges that Heginbotham ‘lied’ to the Popplewell Inquiry that he never saw a letter sent to Bradford City by the Health & Safety Executive warning that the main stand was a fire-hazard. But Heginbotham was not lying. The letter in question was sent to Bradford City in June 1981, at which time, Heginbotham was not associated with the club; he had been a chairman in the late-1960’s/early-1970’s, but had left in 1973. He only became chairman again in 1983, after the bankrupt club had been liquidated, and he had bought up the assets and formed a new company to keep the team playing. A second letter was received, this time from the West Yorkshire County Council, in July 1984, again arguing that the stand was unsafe and needed extensive redevelopment. Far from ignoring this, Heginbotham had presented it as evidence that the club should receive a grant from the Sports Ground Trust, a request that the Trust upheld; this was how the money had become available for rebuilding the roof in the first place.

As I say, I am not going to dismiss the arson idea completely, at least not until I have read this book and found its ‘wavelength’. If there turns out to be substance to the idea, then I hope that the long-running cries of “Justice For The 96” will soon be joined by cries of “Justice For The 56”, as it would establish that there are matters from that horror-day in 1985 that are still not settled. But at present, my position has to be that the innuendo against Heginbotham sounds somewhat implausible, and what evidence there is against him appears entirely circumstantial and indirect.

Whichever way that pans out, one thing I would like to suggest is that Popplewell is a man who has some past remarks to reassess. Until this week, he had been noticeably silent since the Report Of The Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, unseating his previous insinuation that Hillsborough campaigners are just paranoid conspiracy theorists who lack the dignity of the Valley Parade bereaved. I would suggest, with all due respect to those affected by the horrors of the Valley Parade Fire, that the biggest conspiracy theory by far has come from Bradford.

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