Seventy years ago the biggest civilian disaster in Britain’s history occurred at Bethnal Green Tube Station. PETER FROST is not the only one determined the victims should not be forgotten.
Seventy years ago on the evening of March 3rd, 1943 Bethnal Green Tube station was the horrendous scene of what is still the worse civilian disaster in Britain’s history.
Thousands of East Enders hurried down the station steps to avoid a threatened air raid. Suddenly a young woman carrying a baby lost her footing on the stairs. An old man stumbled on top of her and soon total chaos ensued.
In the resulting crush and pile up of bodies 173 people died, 62 of them were children and the vast majority of the others women, many of them young mothers. Hundreds more were injured.
Most nights up to two thousand people bedded down in Bethnal Green Underground shelter. Initially the Colonel Blimps at the War Office had tried to ban working people using the deep tube stations for shelters.
The War Office wasn’t concerned about safety. Their fear was that all those people sleeping on the platforms would slow down night-time troop movements.
It was a huge campaign led by the Communist Party and orchestrated and publicised by the Daily Worker, predecessor of today’s Morning Star, that forced the Government to open up the Tube stations as air raid shelters.
Heading the popular campaign for effective air raid precautions was Professor JBS Haldane, a leading geneticist and pioneering environmental scientist.
Jack Haldane was a Communist. He was the chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Worker. Haldane had first seen air raid shelters in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.
Now Britain was under attack from those same Nazi bombers that had demolished the Basque town of Guernica.
Haldane and his communist comrades knew they must campaign for shelters in working class areas of British cities including London.
The incident that started the rush to get underground at Bethnal Green that night wasn’t actually a Luftwaffe bombing raid. In fact it was the testing of a still secret rocket-based anti-aircraft weapon.
The Royal Artillery was testing it in nearby Victoria Park. The first firing set off a huge and suspiciously unfamiliar whooshing noise. Worried locals hurried for safety.
The authorities may have been reluctantly forced to allow the hoi-polloi on to the platforms but they weren’t going to make it easy or safe.
The station entrance had nineteen steps with no safety rails. The entire entrance was lit by a single light bulb.
The result was predictable. It is best summed up by a contemporary official (but suppressed) magistrate’s report. “The stairway was converted from a corridor to a charnel house in ten to fifteen seconds”.
It was the worst civilian disaster in modern British history. More died or were injured than at Hillsborough stadium in 1989 or at the 1966 disaster at Aberfan.
The Government tried to hush it up of course. Newspapers were not allowed to report the tragedy. Survivors were told not to talk about it. Reports were censored, banned or simply filed away.
The location and many details of the event were kept secret. For that reason the Bethnal Green Disaster has been little talked about ever since.
The day after the deaths railings and that essential central handrail were hurriedly installed. It was too late for at least 173 citizens of Bethnal Green.
Official records of the event are hard to find. Documents have only recently been released under the Official Secrets Act.
They tell a disgusting story of government cover-up.
Not to worry, straight after the war those Colonel Blimps and other important people got their knighthoods and their medals.
Eventually the people of Bethnal Green got a discreet plaque at the Tube station. Neither the Government nor the Local authority has ever sought to mark this huge disaster properly.
Seventy years after the disaster, survivors and relatives have done it for themselves. An impressive memorial next at Bethnal Green station now records the names and ages of all the victims.
At last they can be remembered and honoured as they should.
Find out more at http://www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org
First published in the Morning Star, March 2013