For my ‘culture’ gig for this week I didn’t have to roam too far from my home base, and the topic in question is completely different for the norm.
It concerns an event that, as a kid, I was often made aware of – but I never took any great interest in, even though I frequented the area many times in my teens and then later in my career, when I was working in the Hackney area.
The event in question is the “Bethnal Green Tube Disaster” which happened on 3rd March 1943 – and it is a story of terrible tragedy, political manoeuvring, and finally ‘justice’!!!!
At the outset of WW2 and during the winter of 1941/42, London and particularly its East End, had been subjected to almost continuous bombing by the German Luftwaffe – in their effort to totally immobilise the metropolis the docks and its industries.
However, by early 1943, the regular bombings started to ease off a bit – although civilians and the military were still very much on their guard, bearing in mind what they had endured throughout the previous 2 years.
This caution and awareness was very much on people’s minds at the very beginning of March, because on the night of the 1st March 1943, the RAF had completely blitzed Berlin, and as a result many Londoners were half expecting a revenge attack from the German Luftwaffe – so there was a lot of tension and fear about the place.
Bethnal Green Tube Station had been built in 1936 as the Central Line had been extended out to there, from Liverpool Street station. However, because of the outbreak of war, the construction work on the Central Line extensions had stopped, leaving Bethnal Green station without any tracks, but it then became an ideal place for people to use as a shelter from all the bombing. As an air-raid shelter, Bethnal Green tube station could hold up to 7000 people, and it provided up to 5000 bunk beds.
On the evening of 3rd March, the military had been testing new anti-aircraft rockets in Victoria Park-Hackney, about a mile or so up the road from Bethnal Green – and at around 8.27pm a frightening roar went out as the anti-aircraft battery fired its salvo of 60 rockets, which produced a new unfamiliar sound. – At the very same time, they had also been testing out a new anti-air raid siren.
Because of the blitzing of Berlin just 2 days earlier and the heightened tension around London for fear of a reprisal from the Germans – hundreds of Bethnal Green locals naturally started to panic and many, who were in the area, made their way hurriedly towards Bethnal Green tube station for shelter.
Because of the ‘blackout’ restrictions at that time, the entrances and stairwells to subways at tube stations were very dimly lit, and also, for Bethnal Green station in particular, there were no dividing rails down the stairwells, even though this deficiency had been formally reported and flagged as a ‘high risk’ to the authorities some months earlier.
The staircase located at the Bethnal Green Gardens entrance to the tube station only had 19 steps to go down and although the locals were used to coping with the crowds on the stairs leading down to the station, a woman carrying a child fell over near the bottom of the staircase. An elderly man following her stumbled over her body and a horrifying domino effect started to take place. People at the top of the stairs panicked and surged forwards, falling over each other, and in the matter of just “15 seconds” the poorly lit, and damp stairwell measuring just 10ft by 12ft was filled with over 300 people, being crushed to death by the weight of bodies.
The emergency services and loads of locals nearby rushed to the scene to help, but by the time the bodies were removed from the stairway – 173 were dead!!!
The 173 bodies comprised of 27 men – 84 women – 62 children…….and an additional 62 people were taken to hospital with severe crush injuries – Making the event the deadliest civilian incident of World War Two – and it wasn’t even as a result of any military action!!!!
The bodies of the dead were put onto carts and taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel Hospital, and when that became over crowded, St John’s, the local church opposite the tube station was used as a temporary resting place.
What happened next is saddening, and could be considered somewhat unjust – but I guess understandable for the time.
For fear of damaging the morale of the general public, Winston Churchill and his Government, put a complete ban any reporting of the incident in the media, which included the press, the radio and television broadcasting – and survivors were asked not to talk about the incident at all. Worse still, within 24hrs the stairway had been completely cleared up and cleaned, and stair barriers/railings had been installed.
Legally, there is no evidence to say that this tragedy was caused specifically by the activities that took place at Victoria Park – however, morally there is certainly evidence that the disaster could have been prevented.
Because the 173 dead were not ‘killed in enemy action’ – there was opposition against there being a formal memorial to honour the dead.
However, the 173 dead are all recorded by name by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission among the 527 “civilian war dead” in the Bethnal Green Municipal Borough
A small plaque is on display at Bethnal Green station, on the stairway where the tragedy occurred and survivors of the disaster and their families return to the station every year on March 3rd to lay flowers by the staircase.
The disaster at Bethnal Green was not marked with any ‘formal’ memorial until the 1990s.
The “Stairway to Heaven Memorial” group was set-up to actively raise funds to build a more fitting memorial tribute, which was finally unveiled at the station in 2013. This memorial is located in Bethnal Green Gardens right next to the stairway where the incident occurred – and its design is based around an inverted staircase, that lists all the names of those who lost their lives on that fateful night.
Although this was a solemn topic to blog – before I made my way back home, I did frequent the local ‘Salmon & Ball’ pub, directly opposite where the tragedy took place – where I raised a glass to the memory of those who died and the relentless efforts of those who ensured that their memory will never be forgotten.
I hope that my accompanying photographs give this story historic tragedy the respect it deserves.