On 3rd 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 brand new anti-aircraft rocket batter firing nearby. Never having heard it before 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 pulling an elderly man down with her. Before they could get up others fell on top of them. The crowd above continued pressing forward, unable to see what was happening below in the dark. With more people falling on top of them a complete jam of about 300 people, five or six deep, built up within seconds between the floor and ceiling. 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 person was pulled out. By then 173 were dead – 84 women, 62 children and 27 men. Over 90 were injured. Many more suffered life-long trauma, particularly the rescuers, from the dreadful experience.
The Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster turned out to be the worst civilian disaster of the 2nd World War yet no bombs were involved as there was no plane recorded in that part of London that night. The official report (published after the war) revealed that the local Bethnal Green Council had asked the government three times, 2 years earlier, for permission to alter the entrance to make it safer, but had largely been refused. These measures might not have made any difference to the tragedy – we will never know - but they were put in place the day after the disaster.
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 the 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 apart from allowing some recycled word to be used to shore up the entrance. The day after the disaster all the 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 keep up morale. Apparently, according to the book, it also saved the Home Secretary of the day, Herbert Morrison, from having to resign. The Lady Mayor of Bethnal Green, Margaret Bridger, 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, 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.
The 2021 Memorial Service took place on Sunday 7th March at St. John on Bethnal Green Church. It was beauitfully conducted by Fr. Alan Green despite the empty church. It was very moving and lots of people were able to watch it online. You can watch the service through this link: https://youtu.be/75tIuX1py2k.
The local firefighters from Bethnal Green Fire Station formed a guard of honour at the Memorial on 3rd March, with a blessing from Fr. Alan Green, and to lay flowers on behalf of the Station in memory of the victims.
The funeral of Sid Harris, brother of victim Olive Harris took place on Friday 5th March 2021. His family and friends kindly made donations in his memory to our charity. Siddy will be very much missed by us all as he and his wife attended our Memorial Services every year. We send our deepest sympathies to Eileen and all his family and friends.
Text and photos Copyright Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust 2021.
The super Blue Watch at Bethanl Green fire station helped by washing down the Memorial recently, to dispel its winter dust. Our Gardeners, Isabel, Len & John, tidied up the garden area to make it look very colourful and spring-like.