At half past one on Saturday 5 April 1902, James Smith and John McLelland set off for from the north of Glasgow for the big match, Scotland against England at Ibrox Park. After a hard working week, the football would be a welcome escape. John was the younger cousin of James’s wife, Elizabeth. He worked as a warehouse porter in the hat department of the wholesalers Arthur & Co and at the age of 25, was still single and living in Duke Street in the east end of the city.
Elizabeth prepared dinner for her cousin and her husband, which they ate before heading out in good spirits. From the Smiths’ home in Petershill Road, the journey to the ground was a fair trek. First they had to make their way into the centre of Glasgow, before crossing to the south side of the river and travelling the two or so miles to Govan.
At Ibrox, they paid their one shilling entrance fee for the western terracing and made their way inside. The ground was filling up fast, especially at the front, and the two men decided to make their way to the rear of the terraces where the crowds were thinner. It was to prove a fateful decision. At some point after their arrival, the pair separated. James never saw John again.
Shortly after the match got under way in front of a crowd of 68,000, a huge hole opened in the wooden terracing and swallowed up hundred of fans. James was safe, but when he returned home at 7pm that evening he told his wife that he feared her cousin may have been among the injured.
John had indeed been standing on the spot where the joists gave way and he plunged fifty feet to the ground below. He fractured the base of his skull in the fall and, although he was rushed to the Western Infirmary, never regained consciousness and died at 4.45am the following morning. His cousin had the heartbreaking task of identifying his body.
John was one of 25 people who died as a result of the catastrophic collapse of part of the Ibrox terracing. At least 500 more were injured. Alexander MacDougall, the contractor who supplied the timber and built the wooden structure, was charged with culpable homicide, the Scottish equivalent of manslaughter, but was acquitted after a trial at the High Court in Glasgow. His defence pointed the finger of blame at the original design of the ground by Archibald Leitch, declaring that his plans were not up to the job.
The new Ibrox Park had opened in 1899 at a time when Rangers were enjoying great success on the field. Throughout this period, they were the country’s best attended club but it was international games that attracted the really big crowds. That was why Ibrox had been built so big and partly why the club were desperate to bring the national team to Govan on a regular basis. It was hoped the Scotland games would go some way towards paying off the remaining heavy debts from the stadium build, although the status these matches would have bestowed on the club were also an important factor.
In 1902, Rangers lobbied hard to host the Scotland v England clash, the most prestigious international in the football calendar. The match was played annually as part of the British Home International Championship, with the venue alternating each year between Scotland and England. The proposed match on 5 April was to be the 27th meeting between the old rivals and Celtic Park had staged the showpiece match on the last four occasions it had taken place north of the border. It clearly rankled with Rangers that they had only once had the honour, in 1892.
Five days before the SFA was due to rule on where the 1902 game would be played, Ibrox architect Archibald Leitch requested the assistance of the surveyor Frederick Holmes to boost Rangers’ case. He wrote, ‘In order to strengthen their hands when applying, it might be advisable that you should inspect their ground with a view to giving them a report, that it is quite suitable for accommodating all the spectators who may be able to find footing. It is quite probable that a crowd of about 60,000 people may attend. Personally I have no doubt that everything is in order, still it might be better that both of us should go on he structure in order to have all possible precautions made for the safety of spectators.’
Holmes duly obliged, visiting Ibrox and passing it fit for such a large crowd. Rangers pointed out in their application the financial hardships they were suffering as a result of the £20,000 investment in the new Ibrox – and pointedly referred to the fact that that they had been passed over for the England match on many occasions in the past. Rangers obviously made a strong case. On Tuesday 11 March, the committee met and agreed by one vote that the game should take place at Ibrox, rather than Celtic Park. It was a decision that was to have fateful consequences.
THE FALL OF A STAND
From all over Scotland, football fans had descended on the south side of Glasgow for the game. More than three thousand supporters travelled from Aberdeen alone and hundreds more made the journey south from Tayside and Fife. Trains from Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Dunbartonshire also carried many fans through for the game.
Ibrox had never seen a crowd like it. The new stadium’s capacity was given as 80,000 but until that day, it had never been more than half full. To cope with the vast numbers, some 200 members of the Govan constabulary were on duty and the Scottish Football Association supplied 50 stewards. The stewards were generally friends of SFA members and it was suggested that some of them actually gave up as ‘a bad job’ the increasingly difficult task of marshalling the crowds as the numbers swelled towards kick-off time. Thousands of fans may have got entry after the stewards departed.
On the western terracing, the fans were growing increasingly excited as the start of the match approached. Among those in the ground was Ernest Tait, a joiner by trade, who lived in George Drive, Govan. Although the stadium was close to capacity he recalled having plenty of room around his position at the back of the terrace. ‘We could light our pipes quite easily’, he told the High Court during McDougall’s trial. Other witnesses also declared that the front of the terracing had been far busier than the rear. Although the ground was by no means full, pressure built up on the terracing and, even before kick-off, some of the crowd burst over the iron perimeter fence that Rangers had specially installed for the match.
At around 3.30pm, the match got under way, with thousands of fans lining the edge of the pitch, kept off the playing surface by police officers. The fans remaining on the terraces, were soon engrossed in the play. From his vantage point in the pavilion in the south-west corner of the ground, Rangers match secretary William Wilton had a good view of the terracing as the game progressed. He recalled later, ‘The crowd was in a very excited condition and they followed the points of the game, stamping and swaying according to their interest in the different parts of the field.’
Scotland were shooting into the goal in front of the western terrace and around 10 minutes into the game the home team had a good opportunity to score. The chance came to nothing but reports at the time suggested that it may have been a contributory factor in the accident. The Scotsman described how the crowd surged down the terracing as the Scots pressed forward, with the fans moving back into their old position when the attack came to an end. Supporters pressing up from the packed stairway quickly filled the open spaces, and according to the paper, ‘an extraordinary congestion’ took place, which put an unbearable pressure on the flooring.
Ernest Tait was standing on precisely the point where the terrace gave way. In his evidence to the trial, he told of the moment of disaster. ‘The floor gave no warning before it gave way,’ he said. ‘There was a sudden crack below us. I had time to look down and see the joists split up and then we fell among them through the gap.’
A huge hole 70ft long by 10 ft wide opened up, sending hundreds plummeting into the abyss through a criss-cross of pine joists and steelwork onto the solid concrete below. The rescuers who arrived at the scene were met with ‘a sickening spectacle’, according to The Scotsman. The paper described how the moans of the maimed and dying mingled with the cheers of the unknowing crowd in other parts of the ground. The wounds suffered by some of the victims left hardened ambulance men physically sick. Injured fans were removed from the wreckage a and laid out on pathways behind the stand, to await the arrival of ambulance wagons. Metal sheeting had to be ripped out to get access to the victims and these were used by rescuers as makeshift stretchers. Parts of the wooden debris were used as splints to hold broken limbs in place.
Meanwhile, back on the terracing, the panicked supporters in the vicinity of the gap, pushed forward fearing a further collapse and causing another incursion onto the playing field. It was this that caused the match to be brought to a halt. It quickly became clear to those in the pavilion that something serious had taken place. Wilton recalled, ‘About 15 minutes after the game had begun I observed that something had happened on the western terracing and I left the pavilion to find out what was wrong. When I got to the ground I was told that there had been an accident and that ambulance vans were required. I was told that part of the terracing had given way and people thrown to the ground, but no details were given. I at once went and did everything I could to assist, sending for ambulance vans and for medical assistance also.’
After a 20 minute delay, SFA officials decided that the game should continue. Judged by today’s standards, it can be seen as a mind-boggling decision given the extent of the carnage, however this was an era when there would have been no way of intimating to the crowd what had happened. Had the game not gone on, the risk of further trouble was real. William Wilton was not involved in the decision-making but he backed the SFA. ‘In the whole circumstances, looking to the danger of riot or disturbance, it was decided that it better just to continue the game, and I personally thought that was the wisest thing to do,’ he said. To the astonishment of witnesses, the area of the terracing around the scene of the accident continued to be occupied.
As the game continued, so did the rescue operation. The area at the back of the west terracing began to resemble a miniature battlefield, as the victims were slowly removed from the tangle of bodies below the structure. With clothes ripped to shreds, survivors emerged dazed and bloodied, some with their arms and legs ‘hanging limp and broken’, according to a newspaper report.
In one particularly gruesome account, The Scotsman described some of the injured as ‘ghastly sights, one man having a big gash in the throat sustained in the fall, another with an eye gouged out and other mutilations of various descriptions’. Many of the injured were carried to the Ibrox pavilion where they were treated before being taken to hospital. Some of the most seriously hurt were taken across the river by ferry to the Western Infirmary. The list of the dead and injured was pinned to the hospital gates and a large crowd arrived to find out news of their relatives. Among them was the wife of George McAuslane, from Cathcart, who had been married for just six months. She had visited all of the city’s hospitals in search of her husband. At the Western, she was taken to the mortuary where she was shown his lifeless body. Ernest Tait was one of the lucky ones. He suffered severe injuries to his arms, several broken ribs and a sprained ankle, spending two weeks in hospital.
Special editions of evening newspapers were produced bringing the first news of the disaster to the wider public. The news quickly spread throughout the country. In Aberdeen it filtered through by early evening that one local man had died and six were injured and the following morning crowds gathered at the railway station to await the return of the special trains that were carrying fans home from Glasgow. There was a similar reaction in Kirkcaldy, Arbroath, Alexandria, Paisley and Ayr. In fact this would have been repeated in towns all over Scotland. It was a truly national tragedy.
A NATION GRIEVES
Messages of condolence flooded into Glasgow from all round Britain in the days following the disaster. King Edward VII led the grieving, passing on his sympathies to the relatives of victims and survivors from Scilly Isles where he was on board the Royal Yacht. His message, signed by his private secretary, read, ‘The King has been deeply grieved to hear of the terrible disaster which happened at the football match, and wishes you to convey the expression of his most sincere sympathy with the sufferers in the accident and with the relatives of those who lost their lives on the occasion. His Majesty would like to know how the injured are progressing.’
A telegram was also sent to Glasgow’s Lord Provost Samuel Chisholm from the Duchess of Sutherland, who wrote, ‘We are so grieved at the terrible disaster in Glasgow. Trust sufferers are progressing favourably.’ Another telegram came from the Glasgow grocery and tea baron Thomas J Lipton. His message read, ‘My heart is full of sorrow for all who have suffered and I hope your Lordship will allow me to express my feeling of deep sympathy with yourself and all my fellow-citizens.’ Similar messages came from civic leaders around the country along with offers of financial assistance.
As well as the grief which had engulfed the city and the country there was a palpable sense of anger. The Lord Provost of one letter he had received, which read, ‘Somebody doubtless ought to be hanged, but that is too good to hope for.’ Such a reaction might have been extreme but there was a huge public desire to find out what had gone wrong and who was to blame.
A criminal investigation was launched into the tragedy, centering on claims that the timberwork contractor Alexander McDougall had used an inferior type of wood in building the terraces. Leitch and Rangers had requested red pine be used in the structure, but it was alleged that the cheaper, yellow pine (also known as ‘bastard pine’) was used instead.
The investigators’ reports were sent to the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief prosecutor, who had to take a decision on whether charges should be brought. In a memo, he stated that the legal papers ‘disclose a grave case of fault in the matter of the yellow pine’. He made it clear that if Leitch and Rangers had specified the use of red pine then they could not be held criminally liable. Likewise, the Govan borough surveyor, who had granted approval for the structure, was not responsible in the eyes of the law, although his certificate ‘may have been negligently given’. Following discussion with the Solicitor General, the Lord Advocate concluded. ‘It seems to us that all points to the responsibility lying on the contractor.’
Two weeks after the tragedy McDougall was charged with culpable homicide and served with an indictment. The charge alleged that McDougall ‘culpably and recklessly and in violation or neglect of your duty’ failed to erect the timberwork of the terracings ‘in a substantial and tradesmanlike manner’. Specifically he was accused of using ‘wood of an inferior quality’ and of fitting the joists ‘all short’ instead of the required alternate long and short method, ‘as was proper and tradesmanlike’. As a result, the charged alleged, ‘the terracings were rendered insecure and dangerous to the lives of spectators’. For his part, McDougall’s defence was based around his assertion that Leitch’s terracing ‘was too light in structure and design and that it was in consequence of these defects that it fell with the result stated in the indictment.’
THE COURT CASE
On Monday 7 July 1902 Alexander McDougall went on trial in Glasgow before Lord Kyllachy, accused of causing the deaths of 25 football supporters. His defence team said prosecutors had failed to draw any link between the timber used and the failure which caused the deaths and injuries but their attempts to have case thrown out before it began failed.
William Wilton was the first witness called for the prosecution. Having gone through the events of the day, he told the court how he had reached the scene of the accident at the end of the match. He said, ‘I visited the terrace about 6pm, and saw a part 70ft long x 10ft wide had given way. I noticed that the wood that had given way seemed to be an inferior quality of wood. I knew the kind of wood that should have been there was red pine and I noted that this was not red pine – it was what is called bastard yellow pine.’
On the afternoon of the opening day of the trial, Leitch took to the witness stand. He told how he had raised concerns with McDougall and his foreman about the use of inferior pine on numerous occasions during the construction of the ground. On the Monday after the accident he discovered that yellow pine had been substituted for red pine and that the joists had not been laid in the specified manner. In his view, had the wood been of the quality demanded, the accident would not have happened. Despite the tragedy, Leitch was firmly of the view that his design was perfectly suitable for the task and that he saw no reason to alter his plans, as long as the correct timber was used. The next day Frederick Holmes, the Govan borough surveyor, told the court that he had approved the plans on the basis that the joists were to be of first-class red pine and that he was satisfied therefore that the design was adequate.
If Alexander McDougall was at all concerned at how the case was progressing, he must have taken some comfort in knowing who was going to enter the witness stand on his behalf. In the context of the case, it’s difficult to imagine a more impressive person to have in your corner than Sir Benjamin Baker. He was a past president of the Institute of Civil Engineers, a laureate of the Academie des Sciences, a doctor of science at Cambridge and Fellow of the Royal Society. His greatest achievements were designing the Forth rail bridge and supervising the design of a scheme to dam the Nile. In his 40 year engineering career, he had been involved in around £20 million worth of public works, at home and abroad.
Baker was in no doubt that it was Leitch’s design rather than McDougall’s workmanship that was to blame for the accident. Having inspected the stand and the plans, he told the court, ‘I had no difficulty in saying at once that this was very much below the usual standard of strength. I mean that just as anyone who saw an omnibus fitted with the wheels off a cab would say that the wheels were light for the work, so in the same way one accustomed to building construction can tell whether a thing is light or not.’ Damningly for Leitch he added, ‘I should not think that the design and structure were safe for a crowd such as would be at a football match.’
After a succession of defence witnesses who all cast aspersions on Leitch’s design, on the third and final day of the trial, Lord Kyllachy summed up the evidence for the jury. Tellingly he told them that no matter how reprehensible they felt McDougall’s conduct had been in using yellow pine instead of red, if they took the view that one was as strong as the other then they must acquit him. Half an hour after retiring to consider their verdict, they did just that, to cheers from the public gallery.
In an editorial, The Scotsman welcomed the acquittal and said that the real cause of the accident was ‘distributed on many shoulders’, including the supporters who crowded onto an already fully occupied terracing. The paper concluded that the deaths and injuries ‘constitute too serious a catastrophe to permit longer toleration of the rough and ready methods of calculation employed in the erection of such stands as that which collapsed at Ibrox Park.’ The writer insisted that it was the ‘duty’ of the authorities to ensure such a disaster was never repeated.
The 1902 disaster had a devastating effect on Rangers, both on and off the field. The club’s reputation had taken a severe battering in the aftermath. Having run up debts of £9,000 building the new Ibrox, the board had to sanction the spending of another £2,000 on emergency works to strengthen the wooden terracing. In the longer term, though, the club knew that they would have to completely overhaul the ground to improve safety and that this was going to require major investment.
As a result, the club was reluctantly forced to put 22 professional players on the transfer market, their wages placing unbearable strains on resources. As a result, the ‘four-in-a-row’ team started to break up bringing to an end a glorious era. Rangers won the Scottish Cup in 1903 but it was to be their last triumph in the premier cup competition for 25 years. The league also proved beyond the Ibrox club, and their demise allowed a revitalised Celtic to take advantage, winning six successive titles.
Despite the criticism of Archibald Leitch during the High Court trial that followed the disaster, the engineer was not abandoned by Rangers. In fact, when it came to redeveloping Ibrox in the early part of the 20th century he was the man William Wilton and his committee turned to. In 1904, Rangers bought the Ibrox site for £15,000 and the following year began the process of demolishing the discredited wooden terraces and replacing them with solid embankments. Coincidentally, a railway freight line was being laid alongside the ground at this time and the earth dug up to create the cutting was perfect for the job of building up the massive embankments. Although this piece of good fortune would have kept costs down, the improvements still brought the total spend on the ground to around £45,000 – almost 300% up on the original estimate of £12,000.
Later in the century, Leitch was commissioned by Rangers to create what would be his masterpiece – the magnificent red brick main stand that still stands in Edmiston Drive today.
Leitch obviously learned from his early mistakes Ibrox. As football rapidly grew in popularity, new stands and terraces were needed to house the massive crowds and he carved out a niche for himself as the man the club chairmen turned to first when they wanted to develop their grounds.
Over the years, Manchester United, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Everton, Tottenham Hostspur, Sheffield Wednesday, Wolves, Dundee, Hearts and Kilmarnock were among the many clubs who called on his services. But it was at Rangers where he made his name and at Ibrox where he enjoyed his greatest moments – as well as his darkest hour.