By Toby Butler
This weekend marks the 75th anniversary of the Bethnal Green disaster, one of the worst civilian disasters in modern British history. One dark, wet evening in 1943, 173 people were crushed to death in London’s East End as they attempted to gain refuge from a German attack in Bethnal Green’s underground station. Most of them were women and children.
The Bethnal Green Memorial Project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the University of East London, was established to collect and preserve records relating to the disaster and its aftermath. For several years a team of researchers and volunteers have been working to examine these records and interview survivors and witnesses to better understand the circumstances of the disaster and the astonishing impact it had on so many families and the wider community.
The circumstances of the disaster
On the night of 3rd March, 1943, clusters of people were milling around outside the entrance to the station as they often did when expecting a raid; they stood chatting, smoking and drinking tea. The air-raid siren sounded at 8.17pm and as crowds filed in, floods of people left nearby homes, pubs and cinemas to make their way to shelters. Within ten minutes, three buses had unloaded their passengers at the entrance to the station, drivers following instructions to drop passengers at the nearest shelter as soon as they heard a warning.
When bombing was frequent, policemen were posted outside large shelters, but the comparative lack of raids by 1943 and a reduction in police numbers because of conscription meant that there had not been permanent police posts at shelter entrances since the summer of 1941. Because of blackout laws, the first staircase into the shelter was also ill-lit by a single, low wattage light bulb. These 19 steps led to a landing, after which there were seven more steps to the right going down to the booking hall and the escalators. There was no central railing to hold on to.
Suddenly, a woman with a child stumbled at the bottom of the steps and tripped over, pulling an elderly man on top of her. Before they could get to their feet, other people began falling on top of them, and the crowd above, unable to see in the gloom, pressed on down the stairs, unaware of the horror unfolding below them. In a matter of seconds hundreds of people, five or six bodies deep, were piled on top of each other. In the stairwell at the bottom, the pile of bodies was five feet high. People couldn’t move, pinned down by the weight of those above them. The pressure of the crush meant that chests could not expand sufficiently to breathe, and within seconds most were unconscious. Wardens coming up from the booking hall found it almost impossible to extract people; a few babies were carried out and one or two people who were only partially trapped by their legs.
Staff, rescue services and volunteers attempted to pull corpses and injured people from the top of the staircase. The darkness and the pressure made extricating people extremely slow, difficult work. It took more than three hours for the last casualty to be pulled out. Over the next few hours the true horror of the accident became clear: an unimaginable 173 people had lost their lives – 62 children, 84 women and 27 men. Over 90 people were injured, and although many were taken to local hospitals that night, others were too busy looking for their loved ones to be treated until days later. Astonishingly, one of the last to be removed was a seven-year-old girl who was not only alive, but walked down to the first-aid post unaided.
The scale of the disaster was appalling. It was the deadliest civilian incident of the entire war. The death toll was greater than the much better known 1966 landslide disaster at Aberfan and the 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy. The event inevitably had a dreadful effect on the survivors and witnesses, many of whom suffered long-term trauma as a result. Bethnal Green was a close-knit community and almost everyone in the borough knew somebody who was affected by the disaster: someone who had lost a loved one, or suffered injuries, had witnessed the accident or been part of the rescue effort.
The impact of the disaster
In practical terms, the disaster led directly to safety improvements in underground stations that are still in use today. Safety recommendations were sent out to all area technical advisers to check access to all deep shelters with a description of the entrance to the Bethnal Green shelter; it recommended better lighting of staircases and slopes, crowd control using concertina metal gates between pillars, the installation of handrails at the sides of stairways, and a way for staff and police to communicate with each other.
There was also a considerable impact on the local community when attempts were made to identify the cause, and lay blame, for the disaster. A report commissioned by the Home Secretary exonerated staff and, controversially, partly apportioned blame to the victims for ‘losing their self control at a particularly unfortunate place and time’. This blaming is reminiscent of that wrongly apportioned to victims in the Hillsborough stadium disaster, and was contradicted by many witness statements given to the enquiry. Because the cabinet decided not to publish the report until after the war, council officials were also threatened with the Official Secrets Act when they asked to make the findings exonerating them public. This made it extremely uncomfortable for officials in the aftermath of the disaster. The project collected an account from Steph Brammar who was the granddaughter of the mayor of Bethnal Green (her grandmother) and the shelter warden (her grandfather), and recalled how council officials were spat at in the street, how her grandparents moved away as a result, and that her grandfather suffered from a nervous breakdown.
Of course, the most terrible impact was on the victims and their families. The circumstances were so traumatic that some survivors did not speak about it for the rest of their lives. For some survivors, the project was the first time that they had spoken publicly about what happened, and for many it has been the first opportunity to discuss the impact of the disaster on their own lives and that of their families. Many survivors told us that they were told by officials not to speak about the tragedy. Some said that they felt it was hard to discuss, when so many others had suffered losses throughout the war. Many of the interviews we conducted were very moving. Participants showed us items given to them by authorities after the disaster – a purse, a single earing – or memorial cards given out at the funeral. With no counselling and little opportunity to share stories, the memory of the disaster had stayed deeply buried in the individual and communal consciousness for decades.
Collective remembering of the disaster
It was not until some 50 years later, in 1993, that a small plaque was installed above the tube station steps acknowledging the deaths and a memorial service organised at a nearby church. In 2006 Harry Paticas, a Bethnal Green-based architect, felt strongly that a more fitting memorial should be designed to acknowledge the personal tragedy of the lives lost and the impact on those left behind; the survivors, families and people from the emergency services. A charity, Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, was established in 2008 to raise money for the construction of the memorial, which was completed in December and stands next to the staircase where the tragedy happened. The oral history interviews conducted as part of the project have been used to create an audio memorial to augment this physical memorial. We hope the incorporation of stories and memories on the memorial gives an insight into the terrible impact of war on the civilian population.
The entire oral-history interview archive has now been made publicly available to coincide with the anniversary of the disaster. The dedicated team of staff and volunteers have also produced an oral history book, two audio trails, and education resources for schools and youth groups, as well as a touring exhibition. The campaign has attracted national and international media coverage, and gratifyingly the disaster is now far better known.
◊ This week photographs of the victims will be projected onto the memorial after dark (until Friday 9th March, 2018). The memorial is immediately adjacent to Bethnal Green Underground station, on the corner of Roman Road and Cambridge Heath Road.
Dr Toby Butler is a freelance historian and heritage consultant and an editor of History Workshop Journal. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org