Stories: Marie Reid

Mary Stevens by Marie Reid
(granddaughter of Mary Stevens)

The day started as a happy one as Mary was going with her new daughter-in-law to meet her youngest son, John, who was coming home on leave from his job as cook in the Army in Orkney Isles of Scotland.

After meeting they were on the way home when some new guns started up in the nearby Victoria Park. No-one had ever heard these guns before and they were being tried out. People panicked even though the air-raid warning hadn’t sounded. The panic caused virtually a stampede to the tube station which was being used as an air-raid shelter. Bethnal Green Tube station was one of the newest on the Central line and not yet finished. It made a good shelter because there weren’t even railway lines laid yet so the space for people to shelter was very large. Platforms, track area as well as stairs etc. Also because the station hadn’t yet been finished there was no central handrail down the Roman Road entrance stairs so when a woman carrying a baby and a bundle tripped she had nothing to hold onto. Neither did the man who fell over her. Or all the others who fell over them both and then each other. And still the people kept coming, in the blackout they could see nothing. It was an inky blackness and the first they knew would be that the ground became soft underfoot. They were walking on other people.

John was part way down the stairs, facing up against the left-hand wall. Eva, his new wife was on a step higher and his mum, Mary, was on a lower one holding his right hand.

The stampede increased and everyone was pushed harder and harder. He felt his mother slipping her grip on his hand but he was crushed so tight he couldn’t move to grab her more strongly. After what seemed like a decade some of them were eased out of the entrance and John was sure he could locate his mum again, if only they’d let him back down there, and save her. They didn’t let him return, they couldn’t, and it was too late. Mary had suffocated, she was dead.

My mother, Caroline, John’s only sister and second eldest child of Mary, was contacted to go to the crypt of the local church - St.John’s, I believe - to identify her, which she did on 4th March, travelling from our home in Gidea Park, Essex. The other 3 sons were all in the forces, Alec in the Navy and the next 2, Sid and Albert, in the Army.

My mother and I moved in to nan’s temporary home, she had already been bombed out, as her body had to be brought home because there was no space in the chapel of rest, so many had died.

Mother and I saw her every morning but after about the 4th day we discontinued as discolouration had set in. We had to put onions under her coffin to keep the smell away, a smell that can still evoke those memories for me even now.

We arranged the burial with English the Undertakers and waited for quite a while for a funeral, witnessing many others while we waited.

It was a mild spring with plenty of sun all the time and daffodils everywhere.

Our black mourning clothes were purchased down Petticoat Lane and they let us buy without using up valuable coupons. A big issue at the time.

John was later invalided out of the army but not before a lengthy enquiry at the Tower of London! He couldn’t be in large crowds and suffered with his nerves but they thought he was swinging the lead so locked him up until a doctor saw the boils that were appearing on his back and neck and realised how distressed he was.

His wife, Eva, was treated for bruising on her chest but eventually recovered, if that’s what anyone achieved. The physical injuries healed but the mental ones would scar for life.

The one wish my grandmother had was that if any of her family had to go then let it be her. She got her wish as the rest of us survived the war unscathed.

Her wedding ring became mine, her then only grandchild, eleven years later.

Draft written by Marie Florence Reid (née Good), final copy typed by her daughter Anna Caroline Reid.

Footnotes from Anna.
I’ve grown up hearing the story of the Bethnal Green Disaster but asked mum to write her memories of it down for me to type it up properly. This she did but found it more emotional that I think even she was prepared for. It was a rough letter she sent me with this note at the bottom of it “Anna I changed the format of the letter as it was her day not mine. Have just written it and sent it, could not go over it”
I think the memories become more poignant the older we get, mum is 79 and appreciates that Mary didn’t even get close to that age. I am not far off Mary’s age myself now. Having known John, as Uncle Johnnie to me, and Eva and, of course, my nan makes it more real to me too.

Here is a photo of happier times and a poem I wrote to accompany it in memory of my own dear nan, Mary’s daughter. I hope it conjures up the spirit of the era and the people. When you think of the awful things they saw on and after that night it puts some of our petty woes into perspective, doesn’t it?

Come On Grandma!
By Anna Reid 2007
(Dedicated to my own Grandma, Albert’s sister Carrie)

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‘Come on Grandma, you’re never too old’
Albert said as he whisked her around and she’d scold,
‘Ooh, Albert, you bad boy! Sid, put that thing down!’
She’d add to his brother with a humorous frown
‘I’m still in me pinny, me hair’s all awry.
Me teeth ain’t in’ she’d laugh till she’d cry
‘And if Sid takes that picture, I’ll box his ears’
Sid took it and ran! She’d fulfil his fears!
Their ma watched on in her best party titfer,
Not knowing that shortly they’d all sorely miss her.
She died in the Bethnal Green crush with her youngest,
He lived but suffered the grief the longest.
She’d often said ‘If anyone’s to die in this horrid war,
I’ll go, not Carrie, the boys or me ma’
She got her wish, that no one denied,
But those of us left, how we cried and cried.
So the picture of her with her mum and a son
The memory of the day, the laughter lives on
Reminds us of the need to all take a chance
Whatever life brings, it’s important to dance!

A list of family names at the time:

Mary Ann Elizabeth Stevens (killed), had recently married Tom Stevens and was previously Mary Scotcher (married to Charles who died age 41), nee Benjamin.

Her son John Henry Scotcher, with her at the time. Also his new wife Evelyn nee Rutherford (Eva) also involved.

Mary’s daughter Caroline Emily Good (also known as Carrie or Carol), identified her mum. Carol’s daughter Marie Florence Good stayed with her at Mary’s temporary house.

Mary’s mum was still living, Caroline Benjamin, nee Fletcher.

Mary’s other sons:

Charles Alexander Thomas (Alec), Sidney Daniel And Albert Scotcher.

Mary’s son-in-law Frank John (Jack) Good had been away in the Navy but was blown off his ship (HMS Hardy) in the Battle of Narvik and returned with loss of fingers and an eye and was now managing a pub in Shepherd’s Bush (The Bush Hotel). He accompanied his wife Carol to the crypt to identify her mother on 4th March.