I have been long fascinated with the London Underground. To say that I’m obsessed is a bit of an understatement. It surprised me that until recently, I didn’t know about the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster during World War two. I came upon it initially through the film Atonement, where Cecilia Tallis played by Keira Knightley dies in the Balham Tube Station flooding. A bomb ruptured water and sewer mains and flooding the station, drowning 63 people sheltering there. As it was in the film, I thought it was fictional, but looking up my history of the Tube (yes, I have one of those), I found it there. More so I was surprised to read about Bethnal Green, and the disaster that took 173 lives.
Bethnal Green was a new Tube station, which had been used, as many were, as air raid shelters. On the night of 3rd of March the air raid sirens sounded. The cinema had just closed, and three Double Decker buses had just let their passengers off. All were proceeding down the stairs to the station. There was no light. A woman with a baby tripped, then an elderly man, and people started to trip, fall on top of each other. The sound of a new anti aircraft gun was mistaken for a bomb, and people outside surged forwards. People in the stairwell were crushed, and in the end 62 children, 84 women, and 27 men died in the crush. In the end, no bombs were dropped on the east end that night.
A government inquiry was convened, but the findings not released, on the grounds of morale, and not wanting the enemy to use it for propaganda. Survivors were told not to talk about it, despite their obvious distress. Just get over it, many were told.
My friends, colleagues and fellow memorial tragics, Shona Whitton and Kate Brady told me about the memorial that had been planned for the station. It was partially complete. Shona had met with the Stairway to Heaven Trust, who were planning the memorial, as well as providing ongoing support to survivors and their families. Given the way the survivors were treated during the war, this was a forgotten group. The cover up around the disaster, had it likened to that era’s Hillsborough Disaster. The council prior to the war had pleaded for the entrance to be made safer, but this fell on deaf ears. There were no funds available. The day after the disaster, the requested handrails were installed, and the council’s letters on the matter were marked top secret. It was as though it had never happened. But, of course for the survivors, it had, and they felt as though their experience was never validated.
As I climbed the stairs from the Tube station, I found it hard to imagine the disaster. It was a warm, breezy London summer day. I have always struggled to rationalise crowd crush situations. How can they happen? The rational part of me thinks, surely you could just…..But, of course no, you can’t, that is the issue. Add blitz conditions, winter, night time, no light, and thousands of people, and a crush, you begin to see a disaster. My dear colleague, Anne Eyre knows all about it, as a survivor of Hillsborough. A few years back we were at the first White Night in Melbourne, an all night cultural event. The event had bands playing on the steps of the main station, which in theory was good. Except the trains stopped at midnight, and there were 5 times the number of people than expected ie 500,000. It was a very uncomfortable 20 minutes as we crossed the intersection, one daughter on my shoulders, the other with her arms around me. The emergency manager in me was scared. I thought all it needed was for someone to trip…
The memorial, in the gardens, is a simple concrete structure, with the names of those that died. It also has inscriptions from people about their experience. I like this in memorials, to educate, as well as to acknowledge the survivors. The Stairway to Heaven Trust have finally received permission from the local council to finish the memorial, and timber stairway construction, that will have 173 holes in it, so that light can shine through it. There have been battles with the council over completing the memorial but these are now resolved and the memorial is progressing.
It is, of course over 70 years since it happened, and many who survived are no longer with us. But the fight for justice and recognition has continued to this date. Justice is so important in healing.
Frank Tovey and the Pyros captures the story, in what Paul Kelly would call a newspaper song: