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 only been extended as far east as Liverpool Street in 1936, but work had been interrupted by the outbreak of War so it was very much unfinished. However, it offered a big, light space when people were finally allowed to use it as a shelter. There was a community spirit with group sing-alongs, tea was dispatched from large urns and there was even a library, a theatre, a room for various faiths to worship and a sick room. With the track not yet laid, there was plenty of room with up to 5000 bunks and a further 2000 - 4000 people could be accommodated in the tunnels. Many East Enders therefore preferred to go down the station.
Numbers tailed off once the Blitz was over. However, although things had been quieter of late, on the night of 3rd March 1943 there was some concern as the Allies 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, more people than usual were making their way to the shelter. Three buses stopped by the entrance and disgorged their passengers who were making a dash for the shelter entrance. At that same time a woman carrying a baby and a bundle tripped and fell towards the bottom of the slippery, wet steps. A man tripped over her and before they could get up others fell on top of them. A domino effect started and as people entered through the narrow doorway above they could not see what was happening below in the dark. At the top of the stairs came shouted warning of bombs falling when a completely new, unfamiliar, deafening sound was heard as they thought it was a new kind of enemy bomb. It turned out to be a new, secret, anti-aircraft rocket battery being test-fired in Victoria Park nearby for the first time. Nobody knew it was there and nobody had heard it fire before.
People pushed more quickly into the shelter unaware of the horror unfolding below them in the dark of the blackout. Within seconds around 300 people were wedged, five or six deep, jammed solid between the bottom and the top of the landing - an area measuring approximately 15 x 11 feet. They could not move, pinned down by the weight of those above them and soon they could not breathe. There was no handrail in the middle of the wide, uneven steps, no white edgings on the steps and no policeman on duty at the entrance to help out. It was 11.40pm before the last person was pulled out. By that time 173 people were dead – 27 men, 84 women and 62 children. Over 60 of the survivors needed immediate hospital treatment and probably at least another 30 did not seek serious medical help for a few days as they were either too traumatised or looking for missing relatives. Many more, including the rescuers, suffered life-long trauma from their experience. To add to the tragedy, there was no air raid or bombs dropped over that part of Bethnal Green that night. So, if the new rockets had not been test fired or the 3 buses had not arrived at once, and if the lady had not fallen at the bottom of the stairs, all at the same time, maybe the disaster would not have happened. It has since become the forgotten disaster.
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, jammed solid and unable to move.
“By the time it was possible to extricate the bodies it was found that a total at present estimated at 173 had died and that a further 60 were in need of immediate 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, particularly in London.
It has since been revealed that the local council had asked permission to alter the entrance and put in a central handrail and other measures, but had been refused by the Home Office of the day. Bethanl Green Council asked two more times, but each time it was refused. The day after the disaster the council was sworn to secrecy and not allowed to reveal that they had tried to make the shelter safer. They were made to take the blame, rather than the government. The following day new handrails were installed on the steps down to the station. Each step was marked with white paint and a policeman posted at the entrance every day. Other station entrances were also upgraded to make them safer.
The victims were buried in various cemeteries around London, including Manor Park. Several are 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.