On 3 March 1943 a crowd of people entered Bethnal Green tube station which was used at the time as an air-raid shelter. After the searchlights went on and an anti-aircraft battery a few hundred yards away in Victoria Park launched a salvo of a new type of anti-aircraft rockets the crowd surged forward. Someone tripped on the stairs causing many others to fall. 300 people were crushed into the stairwell within a few seconds, 173 of them died and over 90 were injured. The worst civilian disaster of the 2nd World War. In a book published last year we recently discovered that there was also a government cover-up after the Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster.
Rick Fountain’s book ‘Mr. Morrison’s Conjuring Tricks’ sets out the evidence that in 1941 (so, two years before the disaster) 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 once more 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. The Council was therefore made to take the blame. Statements given in Parliament suggested 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, but apparently 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 public enquiry, 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 enquiry was read out in Parliament by another MP as Herbert Morrison had a cold on that day. So no questions could be asked. It was the Hillsborough of its day.
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