Bethnal Green Memorial Copyright Marcela Spadaro 2018
Bethnal Green Memorial. © photo by Marcel Spadaro 2018.

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 baby 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 sectret official report, and the suming 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.

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The 79th anniversary Memorial Service for the Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster was even more emotional this year. Whilst the names of the victims were read out (mostly by members of their family), 173 candles were lit on the altar to represent them. Fr. Alan Green, Rector of St. John’s Church, spoke of the 173 lives lost trying to seek safety in the underground shelter at Bethnal Green tube station in 1943.  In remembering them, he said, that we had hoped that nothing like it would ever happen again. Yet here we are today, with thousands of people seeking safety in shelters in Ukraine. He quoted the Dalai Lama as saying ‘Never Give Up. No Matter What Is Going On’ and asked us also to also pray for those suffering in Ukraine. We hope that our prayers will help keep many safe during these heart-breaking times.

Secretary of the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, Sandra Scotting, reported their additional sadness as: “Two of our survivors had died in the last year – Margaret McKay and  Joseph Walker. Margaret was the youngest survivor, whose mother, Ellen Ridgway, was trapped in the crush.  She passed baby Margaret to a policeman to take her out of the station to safety, but by the time he returned Ellen was dead.  It was good to see other survivors though, in particular George Johnson aged 92, attending the service for the first time”. 

Sandra also announced that next year, the 80th anniversary of the disaster, would be the last time a Memorial Service would be organised here in the church after 15 years of the charity doing so. After that, everyone would be welcome to come to the Memorial itself on the actual anniversary – 3rd March – for a blessing instead. So, it was hoped that as many people as possible will join us for the 80th anniversary Memorial Service on Sunday 5th March next year at 2pm, to ensure it will be a memorable event to finish on.

After the Service Nick Ridsdale carried the CDA standard, leading the parade across the road to the Memorial for a blessing and a minute’s silence. He was joined by several Pearly Kings & Queens, relatives of the victims, plus survivors and local MP Rushanara Ali, Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs and local councillors. Firefighters from the local Bethnal Green Fire Station formed a guard of honour at the side of the Memorial. After this everyone returned to the church for refreshments and to share their stories and experiences. The drinks were provided by the wonderful staff of Starbucks from across the road and they plus members of the charity committee and other supporters had supplied the  cakes.

Survivor George Johnson aged 92 years. Attending the Memorial Service in 2022 for the first time

Memorial Architect, Harry Paticas MBE, with the RIBA award for designing the Memorial