Dr Aaron Andrews, Leeds Beckett University
What makes someone a hero? This was a question we asked Bradford pupils at Hoyle Court (years 5 and 6) and Beckfoot Thornton School (year 7). Through written and drawn responses, they told us: strength; kindness; bravery; and a Marvel Cinematic Universe film or two. But the pupils’ own heroes weren’t limited to Hollywood blockbusters. Within their own lives were any number of ‘unsung’ heroes: friends and family; teachers; and even pets. The heroes question allowed us a way into a very difficult issue: teaching a relatively recent tragedy to people whose families and communities were affected by it.
As part of our AHRC-funded project ‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, c. 1800-2000’, we wanted to explore the unsung heroes of the Valley Parade football stadium fire of 11 May 1985. The fire started during the first half of the final match of the 1984/85 season between Bradford City and Lincoln City football clubs. Bradford had already won promotion from the Third to the Second Division, with the cup awarded at the beginning, rather than the end of the match as was usual. The promotion also meant that the club would come under the 1975 Safety at Sports Grounds Act and so, on the morning of the match, the local Telegraph and Argus newspaper carried a story about the safety improvements which would be carried out, including the replacement of the wooden main stand, constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century.
But, to paraphrase Yorkshire TV commentator John Helm as he watched the main stand go up in flames, a day of triumph turned into a day of disaster. A dropped cigarette fell in a gap between the wooden seats and the wooden floor; under the stand, litter, which had been building up for decades, caught fire. Within minutes, the entire stand was ablaze. 56 fans lost their lives, and many more were injured. The disaster was broadcast live on Yorkshire TV, and images of supporters and police officers injured trying to evacuate the stand were plastered across the newspapers.
The tragedy is well-known in Bradford—every year, it is commemorated at events in the city centre and at the football ground—so many of the pupils already knew of it. This was especially true of pupils at Beckfoot Thornton, which lost two of its students in the fire. But the question of how to approach such a catastrophic event and engage young people in our research was an important one for us. Working together with Rachel Wood, Learning Officer at Saltaire Stories (and thank goodness we did—Rachel’s experience in engaging young people shaped the kind of creative activities we were able to offer), we developed a number of activities which used stories of the many acts of heroism during the fire. Getting the students to write about and draw their idea of what a hero is and what one looks like was an important way in.
Project Co-Investigator, Shane Ewen of Leeds Beckett University, then guided students through the history of the stadium fire using a play (The 56), radio commentary (thereby avoiding some of the traumatic images shown on television), and many of the stories we’ve found in the National Archives, Bradford Local Studies Library and newspaper collections. Many of those hurt in the fire received burns injuries to their heads and hands as supporters tried to protect themselves from falling debris. The project’s make-up artist (because every project needs one!), Julia Hyland, then took this time to give all of the students who wanted them—which most of them did—a synthetic injury. Through ethically-sources make-up (the students did check before getting it done), we were able to discuss whether a person was any less ‘heroic’ if they had sustained an injury, and whether physical difference matters in how we treat one another.
Finally, we created our own Top Trumps cards—a game I hadn’t realised was still so popular—using stories of ‘unsung’ heroism. Some of our heroes had received many accolades. Dr David Sharpe, who had treated more than 250 injured supporters at Bradford Royal Infirmary and invented the ‘Bradford Sling’, was made an OBE. 10-year-old Joanne Baron received a number of burns injuries while saving an elderly male supporter; for her bravery, she received the Children of Courage Award from Princess Diana. But others’ heroism was much less well-known and little celebrated. Within the newspaper coverage of the fire were stories of the ‘Asian first-aiders’ who opened their homes to supporters, offering tea and water; making bandages out of towels; and allowing people to call their loved-ones to let them know they were safe—as we had to remind the students, this was in the days before mobile phones!
Building an activity around these stories was important and showed the pupils how communities could be forged in the wake of tragedies, as people who, perhaps, would not have normally interacted, came together. Top Trumps allowed the students to dissect and pick out information from the stories we had discerned from the archives. By giving scores for these heroes’ bravery, pupils were able to evaluate for themselves the contributions these people had made. Being creative meant that difficult stories were easier to tell, and at the end, the students made a number of promises: they would check the smoke alarms at home; help people in need; and treat all people equally.
As promises go, they’re certainly good ones.
About the author: Aaron Andrews is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University working on the AHRC-funded project ‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, c. 1800-2000’. The project team also includes Jonathan Reinarz (PI; University of Birmingham), Shane Ewen (Co-I; Leeds Beckett University), and Rebecca Wynter (PDRF; University of Birmingham). The team are also working on an exhibition on the history of burns injuries in Britain, which will go on display at the St. John’s Ambulance headquarters in London in January 2020 before travelling to other cities in the UK.