Of all the pubs and clubs in Bolton the Top Storey club on Crown Street was one of the shortest-lived but was without a doubt the most tragic after 19 people lost their lives in a fire there 50 years ago today on 1 May 1961.
The club was situated in an old mill close to where the multi-story car park now stands and backed on to the open River Croal. It was opened in December 1960 by Mr Stanley Wilcock, who rented the building for his business, Gregg Construction Company, which made kitchen furniture on the lower floors.
Mr Wilcock had the idea of converting the top two floors into a nightclub but by March 1961 he had sold out to two Manchester businessmen, Denis Wilson and Richard Sorrensen ,although he continued to use the lower floors for the kitchen furniture business.
However, the owners of the building were concerned about the idea of a nightclub in the building having only learnt of its existence after seeing an advert in the Bolton Evening News. They considered that the building was unsuitable for licensed premises and at 10.35pm on Monday 1 May 1961 one of the building’s owners, Mr Norman Balshaw, went to the Top Storey club to give Wilson and Sorrensen notice that the club had to close and that they must be out by 24 June.
Mr Balshaw saw the two men in the club office on the ground floor and Wilson and Sorrensen then went upstairs to join the club’s customers.
The Top Storey club wasn’t particularly large and there can’t have been room for more than 100 people in there. On that Monday night, 1 May 1961, there can’t have been more than about 25 people in the club. The layout was just a few tables and chairs arranged down the two sides of the wall with a small space in the middle of the floor. Customers listened to tape recorded music or played on an elaborate one-armed bandit that was a feature of the club.
In 2001 one of the survivors of the fire, Jack Breen, told the Bolton Evening News that he was sitting at the end of the bar at about eleven o’clock with the club’s manager Bill Bohannon. Bill thought he could smell smoke and went down the rickety single flight of wooden steps that was the sole means of entry and exit at the club. When Mr Bohannon got to the ground floor he noticed smoke coming from under the door which led to the workshops.
He kicked in the door but found himself looking into a blazing inferno. He tried to get back upstairs, but was forced back by the intense heat. Upstairs, the first Jack Breen knew about it was when all the lights went out. There was then an explosion that took all the oxygen out of the room but he managed to make his way to a window that had been blown out by the explosion. He stood on the ledge but passed out and fell 80 feet. He woke up in Bolton Royal Infirmary with 20 per cent burns and a badly-damaged hand but he was one of the lucky ones. Nineteen people lost their lives in the fire, five from falls from the windows and 14 who died in the bar area.
Thomas Cardwell, a fireman on the scene that night, described the scene to the Bolton Evening News in 2001. When the fire brigade arrived they found their turntable ladders were too short to reach the top storey of the building.
"The screams just gradually faded away,” he told the paper.
"The building was full of smoke, more smoke than flames really by then, but it was still very warm. The staircase was completely gone and we had to put ladders up inside the building to get to the top floor."
He goes on to describe the scene in the club itself.
"There were bodies all piled up near the bar. No-one inside that room who had not jumped had lived.
"The bodies weren't very burned, though. They were just quite pink -- almost like they'd been on their holidays.
"But they were piled up in two areas, one with about three bodies and another of about 12. They had panicked when they couldn't get out and were just piled together, like a pack of cards."
Firemen from Horwich, Radcliffe and Leigh joined those from Bolton and it took two-and-a-half hours to get the fire under control. The body of one lad who leapt from the club into the River Croal was found downstream a mile away from the scene of the fire.
The club’s owners, Denis Wilson and Richard Sorrensen, were among the dead as was Sheila Bohannon, the wife of manager Bill Bohannon. It was later suggested that figures in the Manchester underworld had a grudge against Mr Sorrensen and were responsible for the fire though nothing was ever proved.
As a result of the Top Storey fire legislation was written in to the Licencing Act 1964 giving more power to fire authorities to close down clubs considered to be fire hazards, while some fire authorities enacted part of the 1961 Act that had recently come into force.
The cause of the fire was never discovered and an inquest returned an open verdict on all 19 dead.
Crown Street car park now covers the site of the club.
Crown Street, 1 May 2011. Picture copyright Lost Pubs Of Bolton, 2011.
Crown Street car park is on the right-hand side and stands on the site of the mill that contained the Top Storey Club. To the left is the rear of Bank Street Chapel. The culverted River Croal runs in front of the church.