The disaster

Shortly after an air-raid warning on the evening of 3 March 1943, hundreds of people in Bethnal Green fled for shelter. In East London many houses had no garden or space for an Anderson Shelter, and the London Underground offered protection. In nearby Victoria Park the Royal Artillery fired an unfamiliar rocket-based anti-aircraft weapon. A tremendous, unexpected 'whoosh' filled the air just as several buses emptied of passengers near the underground shelter. There was rush to get to shelter through the only entrance - down 19 wide steps without a central handrail - which led to the ticket hall. The dark, wet staircase was ill-lit by a single light bulb.

Suddenly a woman with a child stumbled and tripped; an elderly man fell over her; others couldn't stop themselves tumbling on top. Very quickly the crush of bodies was five or six deep. Pinned down by the weight of those above them, people couldn't move - and they couldn't breathe. According to the official magistrate's report, which was not made public for two years, 'the stairway was converted from a corridor to a charnel house in ten to fifteen seconds'. 173 people lost their lives, mostly women and children, and many more were injured. It was one of the worst civilian disasters in modern history. At the time many people were told not to talk about the disaster and many did not discuss the terrible event for the rest of their lives. See the disaster section of this website for more details.