It’s the third of March 1943, the clock has just struck a quarter past eight in the evening and families are settling down for the night, when air-raid sirens are heard across East London. German planes have been spotted heading this way and it’s time to get to the shelters.
The planes went elsewhere and no bombs were dropped on East London that night – but within 20 minutes, 173 people would be dead and 60 seriously injured in the largest single civilian disaster of the war.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the Bethnal Green Disaster.
The popular story that is often repeated is that as the air raid warning had been sounded and people were filing into the Bethnal Green tube station for protection, a new gun in Victoria Park started firing into the sky, sparking a panic that bombers were close at hand. As people rushed into the tube station to get under cover, 173 people were crushed on the steps of the station entrance.
The largest loss of life in a civilian action during the war – and even more tragic as there were no German planes over that part of London at the time. It was a false alarm.
You would also often be told that the story was covered up to prevent a loss of morale, and the true nature of the event wasn’t fully uncovered until much later.
As with most tales told down the pub, there are elements of truth, and myth in the story.
Certainly, there was a disaster, and an air-raid siren sounded at 8:17pm which caused people to flow to the station.
According to the memorial trust that has more recently been set up, some 7,000 people could be accommodated in the station – which was part of the then-unfinished Central Line extension. As the air-raid siren sounded, both a local cinema closed and three buses all stopped outside the entrance and people started heading downstairs.
Now, here is the confusion – was there a panic caused by an anti-aircraft gun?
Some eye-witnesses say there was. But, none of the news reports at the time — and despite claims of a cover-up, it was reported in the news — say anything about a panic. It is possible that the news, being censored at the time may have been told to avoid reporting that fact, but subsequent court cases also said there wasn’t any panic.
But what is not questioned is that someone, thought to have been a mother with a child tripped at the bottom of the stairwell. In the air-raid blackout, people behind tripped over her, and themselves fell, causing more carnage as people behind surged forwards unthinkingly. Unaware of what was happening below, more people pushed their way forward, adding to the mass of bodies being crushed under their own weight.
In total 27 men, 84 women and 62 children were crushed to death and a further 60 needed hospital treatment.
A government report into the disaster was prepared, but as with most government reports of the time, was not published immediately — which is probably what lead to the claims of a government cover-up. It was more a case of conventional war-time policy not to publish such things.
But the disaster was not a secret. In fact, it was reported in the newspapers – such as The Illustrated London News the following Saturday.
So, we know that someone tripped and that triggered the crush, but was this a tragic accident, or can a finger of blame be pointed anywhere?
Quite fascinatingly, there was a court case shortly afterwards by one of the survivors that was covered by The Times of July 18th, 1944, and that reveals quite a bit about some underlying problems with the entrance.
First, let’s see two photos from the ILN just after the disaster – and you are looking at the entrance, which is a staircase covered over with a thin wall. Then inside is the wide staircase.
Note the lack of handrail in the middle, just a white line. This is important.
The staircase was made of unfinished concrete steps, and it appears that the upright wooden slats used to form the stairs were still in-situ. Two years after the concrete had well and truly set. In that time, the wooden slats had rotted a bit in the weather, were warping and were in places peeling away from the steps.
Anyone looking at the condition of the stairs would have seen they were in an appalling state.
So, an uneven, wet staircase with bits of loose wood on them – in an air raid and with very dim blackout lights.
Now we come to the missing handrail. That is a wide staircase, and the people in the middle would have had nothing to hold on to when going down these dark uneven steps. There are very good reasons why staircases have handrails – and even then it was widely understood that they were a safety requirement.
During the subsequent court case (Baker v Bethnal Green Corp) the following year, it was claimed that the warden and assistant had been told about the problems with the stairs, but they denied this. The Judge, in politer language, basically called them liars.
The case was found against the local council, and a subsequent appeal was also thrown out – especially as the council then tried to have the matter reviewed in-camera, which the Judge rejected outright saying that an open justice system was essential.
Another aspect of how widely known this disaster was, at least at the time was that there was a public relief fund set up, and by February 1945, it had raised £7,415 – including £1,000 that came all the way from Canada following reports of the disaster in the Toronto Evening Telegram.
According to Hansard (17th May 1949), it was noted by the Public Accounts Committee that 265 claims for compensation were filed with the government, of which 151 were by relatives of the dead, and the remainder regarding injuries. At that point in time, all but four of the death claims were settled – to a total of £42,000.
That all this was reported in newspapers, and quite openly does make me wonder how the myth that the whole thing was covered up as a wartime secret came from. There were even letters to the editor in The Times about it during the war.
But back to today – the 70th anniversary.
The staircase is still there, with a handrail running down the centre. A memorial service will be held in the church that sits directly opposite the fateful staircase this afternoon at 2pm, but the most significant addition to the area is a formal recognition of the disaster in the form of a huge — if still unfinished — memorial.
There is a small plaque on the staircase marking the disaster — sadly ironically positioned next to a flashing warning sign for people not to crowd down the stairs.
But this frankly overlooked slab of bronze has never satisfied people, and so funds were raised for something more fitting to the scale of the deaths caused.
The memorial is part complete, but they are still fund raising for the most dramatic part to be added – the “stairway to heaven”, an upside-down set of stairs in bronze that will be cast from the stairs where so many died.
Hopefully, in the near future, these needless deaths will get their lasting recognition.
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