On 3 March 1943 the siren sounded at 8.17pm. People made their way in the pitch dark of the blackout to file in an orderly manner down the steps to the unfinished Bethnal Green underground station, which had been used as an air-raid shelter since 1940. At 8.27pm the searchlight went on and 3 buses unloaded their passengers at the shelter entrance. Suddenly those waiting to enter the single, narrow doorway heard the unfamiliar, deafening sound of a new anti-aircraft rocket batter firing nearby. They assumed it was deadly enemy bombs exploding. At that same moment a woman with a child fell at the bottom of the wet, slippery stairway and others fell on top of her. The crowd above continued pressing forward, unable to see what was happening below in the dark. Before anyone could get up more people were falling on top of them. A complete jam of about 300 people, five or six deep, built up within seconds. People couldn’t move, pinned down by the weight of those above them – and then they couldn’t breathe. It was 11.40pm before the last of the 173 dead were pulled out – 84 women, 62 children and 27 men. Over 90 were injured. Many more suffered life-long trauma, particularly the rescuers.
The Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster turned out to be the worst civilian disaster of the 2nd World War yet no bombs were involved. The official report (published after the war) revealed that the local Council had asked the government 2 years earlier for permission to alter the entrance three times to make it safer, but had largely been refused. These measures might not have made any difference to the tragedy – we will never know.
In the book ‘Mr. Morrison’s Conjuring Tricks’ the author Rick Fountain sets out the evidence of a government cover up. He states that in 1941 Bethnal Green Council had written to the government asking for permission to alter the station entrance and make it safer if a lot of people wanted to use it. The Government department refused and the Borough Engineer wrote a stronger worded letter explaining that the entrance and stairway needed several measures to make them safer. Again the government refused permission. The Council’s borough engineer wrote a third time to plead for permission to alter the entrance, but was largely refused. The day after the disaster all these measures sought by the Council were put in place. However, Bethnal Green Council was made to keep their earlier letters secret, under the Official Secrets Act. Statements given in Parliament, after the secret official inquiry had taken place, hinted that the victims were to blame. This ensured the event was kept as secret as possible. This was partially to prevent the enemy using it for propaganda purposes and to ensure that people continued to use the tube stations as shelters to keep them safe. Apparently, according to the book, it also saved the Home Secretary of the day, Herbert Morrison, from having to resign. The Mayor of Bethnal Green was not allowed to defend herself and was largely blamed for the tragedy.
The secret official report, and the summing-up by the judge in the one court case that followed, largely agreed that there had been no panic on the part of the victims so they were not to blame. The final statement about the report was read out in Parliament by another MP as Herbert Morrison had a cold on that day. So no questions could be asked. By suggesting that the victims were to blame it was the Hillsborough of its day.
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