On the evening of 3rd March 1943, following the sounding of the air raid sirens in Bethnal Green, the local population began to move towards the underground (the station was not in operation at this time and was being used as an air raid shelter as there was no line, so trains could not run through it). As they descended the stairs in the rain and poor light, a woman with a baby slipped on the wet, uneven stairs pulling an elderly man on top of her. Before they could get up others fell on top of them. More people fell on top of them creating a blockage between the floor and the ceiling on the landing at the bottom of the 19 stairs going down to the tube shelter. After hearing the unexpected and terrifying salvo of a new kind of anti-aircraft rockets fired by British Forces in Victoria Park the crowd surged forward crushing the people that had fallen on the stairs as they were unable to see in the dark what was happening below. By the time the last person was pulled out 173 were dead. Approximately 90 more were injured and many of the rescuers suffered life-long trauma from their experience as there was no counselling available in those days. One East London family lost seven members. It was the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.
Two young architects regularly used the underground station to go to work and one day they noticed the small commemorative plaque above the stairs where the tragedy occurred in 2006 and decided to find out more. Very little was known about the tragedy then, so Harry Paticas, initially helped by Jens Borstlemann, wanted to create a fitting memorial to the 173 people who died that evening. They therefore designed a massive teak cast of the staircase, which appears to float alongside the 19 stairs where the people actually died. It is the exact dimension in which 300-400 people were crushed. It has 173 conicals in the roof that allows sunlight to shine through to represent those who lost their lives. The memorial vividly describes the historical facts of the Bethnal Green tragedy. It has individual plaques along the plinth narrating what happened on that fateful night from relatives of those that died, from survivors and officials on duty. The full names and ages of the victims are also listed. The design was printed in the East London Advertiser, who headlined it 'Stairway to Heaven'. The architects called a meeting of interested parties, along with survivor Alf Morris, in November 2006 and it was agreed that this was what survivors, relatives and rescuers wanted - recognition that this had been the worst civilian disaster of WW2. A charity committee was set up in March 2007, planning permission approved and then fund-raising commenced. A lot of trials and tribulations followed, but the Memorial was built in 2 stages and was finally completed and officially unveiled in December 2017. It has created a landmark in Bethnal Green Gardens, next to the Bethnal Green underground station entrance where the disaster occurred.
Five founding Trustees formed the charity committee in 2006 to run the ‘Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust’ charity. It received its charitable status in March 2007. The Charity’s main aim was to build a memorial to the memory of the 173 people who lost their lives on the night of 3rd March 1943 on the stairway leading down to Bethnal Green underground station, as well as to the survivors, and the Emergency Services personnel – the firemen, policeman, ambulance, wardens, clergy and hospital staff who helped the injured and dying as well as the survivors and families in the aftermath.
They original founding Trustees were:
Alf Morris – Founder. A survivor of the disaster who helped to campaign for a lasting memorial to those who died.
Sandra Scotting – Honorary Secretary. Sandra’s grandmother and cousin were killed and her mother and aunt survived with injuries. She has remained the honorary secretary since the charity was first set up.
Derek Spicer (fund-raising coordinator) whose sister and brother were killed. Derek sadly died in 2019 and is a great loss to the charity as he worked so hard from the beginning of the project as the fund-raising trustee and treasurer.
Lee Scotting (honorary accountant).
Fr. Alan Green (pastoral advisor), Rector of St. John on Bethnal Green Church, next door to the underground station (the Church was used as a mortuary at the time of the tragedy). Fr. Green has conducted the Memorial Services every year and the church has been used for many fund-raising events.
Various others have joined the charity committee over the years. The current committee in 2021 consists of Joyce Hampton (Chair), Maria Bottono (Treasurer), Lorraine Smith, Frank Summers, Sandra Scotting (Hon. Sec), Lee Scotting (Hon accountant), Kate Thompson, Anna Reid, Babs Clark (survivor), Edna Austin, June Cray and Sarah Richards.
None of the committee, trustees, officers, volunteers or helpers have ever been paid a salary or expenses. All have paid their own expenses ever since the charity was set up and continue to do so to this day.
Many trials and tribulations were experienced during the project to build the Memorial. With various problems over the years, including adapting the design to save money, renewing planning applications, original building company going into liquidation, building materials that had been promised no longer being available and of course raising the funds. However, the important thing is that the Memorial now stands proudly next to the stairs where the disaster occurred and many visitors and relatives visit it regularly. It has become a new landmark at a busy junction in Tower Hamlets, next to Bethnal Green tube station. At the annual Memorial Service on the first Sunday in March many supporters, survivors and families attend and lay wreaths and flowers to mark the occasion. The names of the 173 victims are read out at each Service while candles in their memory are lit on the altar.
Text and pictures © Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust 2021.
Donations are still needed for the upkeep and maintenance of the Memorial and the Memorial Garden and to organise the Annual Commemoration Services each March. So, your continued support is very much appreciated. If you would like to donate please do so on the red ‘donate’ button on the opening page.
Please make your cheques payable to “Stairway To Heaven Memorial Trust” and send them to:
Little Charlton, The Warrens, Hartley, Kent DA3 8DB
Registered Charity Number 1118618