The Bethnal Green disaster of 3rd March 1943 was a defining moment in the history of the East End of London.
During the winter of 1940-41 the pounding of London had been relentless during the Blitz, with the city being hit 57 nights running at one time. Then on 29th December 1940 the ‘Second great Fire of London’ occurred as firebombs rained down on the capital. Air raid sirens went off regularly, but quite often it was a false alarm, people just got used to going down the shelters for the night just in case it was another raid. However, most Andersen or Morrison Shelters situated in back gardens were cramped, with little air, no light and a chamber pot for a toilet. So, many preferred to shelter in the Underground.
Bethnal Green was a new station as the Central Line had been extended from Liverpool Street in 1936, but work had been interrupted by the outbreak of War. The Tube was big, light and there was a community spirit with group sing-alongs, tea was dispatched from large urns and there was even a library. With the track not yet laid, there was plenty of room with up to 5000 bunks and a further 2000 people could be accommodated. So, many East Enders preferred to go down the station.
Although things had been quieter of late, on the night of 3rd March 1943 there was some concern as we had bombed Berlin quite heavily two nights earlier and people were expecting reprisals. With the sound of the Siren and the closure of the cinema, 3 buses had just disgorged nearby and their passengers dashed for the shelter. A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she went down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect started. At the top of the stairs came shouted warning of bombs falling and when a different deafening sound was heard they thought it was a new kind of bomb (it turned out to be a new, secret, anti-aircraft rocket battery being tested in Victoria Park near by).
People pushed more quickly into the shelter unaware of the horror unfolding below them in the dark. The way was blocked but still people poured down. There were no handrails in the middle, no white edgings on the steps and no police on duty. It was dark and the steps were slippery from the rain. Around 300 people were wedged into the stairway – an area measuring approximately 15 x 11 feet. By the time they were pulled out 27 men, 84 women and 62 children were crushed to death. Over 60 of the survivors needed hospital treatment. The tragedy was that there was no air raid or bombs dropped that night in the East End.
According to the official statement by the Ministry of Home Security: “According to accounts so far received, shortly after the air-raid Alert sounded, substantial numbers of people were making their way as usual towards the shelter entrance. There were nearly 2000 in the shelter, including several hundred who had arrived after the Alert, when a middle-aged woman, burdened with a bundle and a baby, tripped near the foot of a flight of 19 steps which leads down from the street. This flight of steps terminates on a landing. Her fall tripped an elderly man behind her and he fell similarly. Their bodies again tripped up those behind them, and within a few seconds a large number were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway. Those coming in from the street could not see what had taken place and continued to press down the steps, so that within a minute there were about 300 people crushed together and lying on top of one another covering the landing and the lower steps.
“By the time it was possible to extricate the bodies it was found that a total at present estimated at 178 had died and that a further 60 were in need of hospital treatment. Statements from a large number of eye-witnesses and members of the police and Civil Defence services make it clear that there was no sign of panic before the accident on the stairs. No bombs fell anywhere in this district during the evening. Preliminary reports received by the Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security indicate that police, wardens, soldiers, W.V.S. and civilians worked hard and well to rescue the victims. Mr. Morrison has instituted the fullest inquiries to establish in greater detail what took place and to see whether any structural or administrative weaknesses have been brought to light”
The government enquiry was later convened, but it was kept quiet until the end of the war to avoid propaganda for the enemy and loss of morale for the country.
Apparently the local council had asked permission to alter the entrance and put in a central handrail, but had been refused the funds by the Government of the day.
After the tragedy new handrails were installed on the steps down to the station. Each step was marked with white paint.
Many of the victims were buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, which was cleared by members of the Drapers Company with help from the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery in time for the 60th anniversary. Others are buried in Manor Park Cemetery and possibly elsewhere.
Alf Morris and his aunt were squashed near the bottom of the stairwell. “An air-raid warden called Mrs. Chumley, I’ll never forget her name, grabbed me by my hair. I was hollering and hollering as it hurt, but she didn’t let go and eventually pulled me free by grabbing me from under my arms. My aunt was trapped against a wall. I remember she was wearing a heavy coat and they grabbed hold of her shoulders and pulled her free and she left her coat and shoes behind. She was black and blue all over. Another couple of minutes and she would have been dead” She was the last person to be pulled out alive.” Alf was told to keep quiet and not say what had happened, even though he was terrified and crying. There was no counseling in those days. People were told to just get on with their life.
Below ground, those already in the shelter were becoming increasingly anxious for their family members who hadn’t arrived. Wardens, afraid of causing alarm, tried to keep the truth from them.
Alf describes how keepsakes taken from the pockets of the dead were used to identify the victims. His father was asked if he recognized a little girl called Vera Trotter and her mother. Their faces were so badly bruised that he could only identify the child by her shoe, from which he had pulled a nail the week before.
Alf Morris’s wife Vera, remembers her two school friends, Vera Trotter and Gwendolin Quorn, who were killed in the accident. Families gathered outside the gates of the school where most of the children who were killed, attended, to give comfort and support to each other. Alf said that journalists were trying to bribe children with £5 for their stories. “That was an awful lot of money in those days, but we didn’t dare. We were told to keep it a secret.”
Witness Marlene Deathridge recalls “the evening of March 3 had been dreary and wet. At. 8.17pm the air–raid siren sounded. Just as on previous nights, a large proportion of the population hurried for the subterranean security of the tube station. Today, with streetlights on every corner and neon shop signs, it is difficult to imagine the dense gloom of the blackout, but for those racing to the underground it was like running through ink. Those journeys, coupled with the shrill wail of the alarm signal, were for many the most frightening experience of the war.”
A Mrs. Barber, whose evidence was heard at the inquest, described how she was lifted off her feet and carried down the stairs by the force of the crowd”
Thomas Penn, an off-duty policeman, arrived and, seeing the commotion, tried to crawl over the bodies to assess the situation, but the only light was a dim 25-watt bulb partially painted black. Twice he fainted in the crush.
15-year old James Hunt was almost knocked off his bike by the sound of the rockets. But when he reached the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) depot where he was due to report, he was told to head to the tube station to give assistance. What he saw there was hideous.: “I was small for my age, see, so I could only manage the little ones” Most of the babies and children James pulled out had turned blue. The bodies were placed on carts or buses and then taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel hospital. When that became overcrowded, they started storing the bodies in St. John’s Church opposite the tube station. The experience for one so young must have been horrendous.
When Pat Rowe’s father, Dickie Corbett , the champion bantamweight boxer, did not come home, her mother, Rose, began to worry. He had last been seen heading towards Green Street when the siren sounded. He was on leave from the army. Rose and her brother-in-law began looking for him in the church and the hospital. He was later found to be one of those who died. Rose was widowed at 31 and left with 3 children to support. “With no savings and no husband life become one long, hard slog”
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