Margaret was the youngest survivor at just 6 months old at the time of the disaster. Her mother died in the accident and she was looked after by her grandparents until her father returned from military service. She wasn't until she was an adult that she found out about her real mother and the circumstances of her death. Margaret lived almost a lifetime before finding about the person who rescued her. We also interviewed Tom, her husband, who gives his perspective on the extraordinary journey Margaret has taken trying to find out the truth about her mother. The summary includes both interviews.
Read the interview SUMMARY below, or click on the icon to download: margaret mckay summary.pdf
The summary gives timed sections which direct you to specific parts of the recording.
You can listen to the interview RECORDINGS below:
Interviewee: Margaret McKay
Interviewer: David Williams
Date: 9th Oct, 2013
Location: Chatham, Kent
Margaret McKay is now in her early 70s and lives in Kent with her husband Tom.
Margaret explains that she has pieced together the circumstances from speaking to relatives and friends. Her mother was bombed out and moved in with another family with a spare room.
[4.25] Margaret explains that was rescued by an off-duty policeman, Thomas Penn who was passing with his pregnant wife and made several attempts to get people out. She explains that her mother used to go to an Anderson shelter regularly and when she didn’t arrive Mrs James (who lived in her house) made enquiries and discovered the baby had been rescued. She had to identify the mother’s body and could only recognise her by her distinctive hands. They took the baby to her grandparents, and she was looked after by them n Dagenham until her father came back from war service.
[10.06] She explains that she took part in a BBC programme called Missing Life and was put in touch with Thomas Penn’s son. He said his father didn’t talk about disaster much except saying that he wondered what happened to the baby. She asked him for a photograph of his father, and he said his sister had some. Eventually she met his sister, who had been brought over from France by the BBC to meet her.
In the early years of the war, Margaret’s mother lived in Bethnal Green but moved around after being ‘bombed-out’ during the blitz. Friends often provided a temporary home and in Brierley Street she lived with Mr and Mrs James. This was before the disaster.
After her father returned from the war Margaret went with him to live first in Dagenham and later in Blackfriars. Her grand-parents, her mother’s parents, were also there.
Margaret’s father re-married but she thought the new wife was her real mother. She didn’t learn the truth until she was 20 years old. She wanted to emigrate to Australia so the local council arranged for a trust fund to finance her trip with five other children from Bethnal Green. But the council refused because Margaret was under 21.
NOTE: Margaret has the letter explaining the reasons for the trust fund money.
It was when the trust fund wanted confirmation of Margaret’s background (ie. birth certificate) that her father revealed only the briefest details of how her natural mother died at Bethnal Green in the disaster. He said that she had died because there was ‘pushing and shoving’ and there was no central rail on the stairs at the station.
Only once previously had Margaret got any indication of her past life. She was nine years old when another child said – “you’ve got a step-mother”. When Margaret told her father he denied the story – so she had to wait until the age of 20 to find out the truth.
Margaret describes this as devastating news. It was something she had never heard about before. No-one said anything. Her father never mentioned the disaster and what happened that night. He had made another life for himself.
Margaret said no-one would speak about it yet she did manage to emigrate to Australia and spent six years there. During that time, Margaret was shown a newspaper which had all the details of the tragedy in 1943. She believes it was the best article she has ever read on the disaster.
So Margaret knew nothing about her real mum; did she have a family; what was she like? There were no photographs or memories she could cling to. She didn’t know if she had a family and couldn’t even tell her husband Tom (they met in Australia) any details.
After speaking to Aunts and Uncles she began to find out more about this “ lovely lady” (she gets upset when telling this story). Recording paused.
TOM MCKAY (separate recording)
Introduction on the start of the tape. This interview continues the story from the end of Margaret McKay’s account (part 2)
Tom knew ‘nothing at all’ about Margaret’s past. They got married in Australia although he was aware she had a step-mother and step-brother. They returned to England in 1969.
He then met the step-mother – and said he could understand why Margaret had decided to go to Australia. He did not like the step-mother or the father. He felt Margaret’s home life with her father and step-mother must have been unhappy. There was little love and affection.
He couldn’t understand why Margaret’s father had never said anything about the disaster until Margaret was with him on the tube to go and collect a cheque from the Town Hall. It was this money from the Trust Fund that would eventually pay for Margaret to go to Australia. He was clearly shocked to meet the stepmother and her father. From what he says during the interview it is possible to get the impression that he then understood why her childhood years were so difficult and unsettling.
By the mid 1970s, Tom still knew very little about Margaret’s mother except that she had died in Bethnal Green. He then tells the story of going to Manor Park cemetery to try and find the grave. They couldn’t find it. On that occasion they met a strange man who appeared and offered to show them the way out of the cemetery. He gave their young son (Adrian) a silver coin. Then the man disappeared. Tom describes himself as an ‘evolutionist’.
It took 39 years altogether to find the grave. It wasn’t until August 2013 that it was located in the exact position where they had met and spoken to the strange man years earlier. It is neglected, no headstone and overgrown. Probably 4-5 people are buried in the same plot. The area is like ‘a bombed site’.
Tom believes they found out more about Margaret’s mother and her family in the last six months than all the previous 70 years.
It was only when they were shown a story in North London newspaper that they became involved in the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ trust and met Sandra Scotting and Derek Spicer. The amount of family background information they have learned since then has been ‘immense’.
He believes that Margaret now knows she has a family. After the disaster she was virtually an orphan – no mother and her father was abroad at the time and only came home for a brief time after the tragedy before returning to serve in the military.
Margaret McKay back on mic
he talks about closure. Feels much more as though she belongs somewhere. We could never find anything before. No-one would come forward with information.
Her father died in 1981 – age 69. Didn’t have much contact with him after coming back from Australia. Could never get close to him. He rarely if ever talked about his first wife, Margaret’s mother.
It was only after becoming involved in the Memorial Trust that she met people who had memories and stories of the disaster. She then met Eileen Sanders (an 11 month old baby at the time of the tragedy, she and her mother were survivors) and also met Susan Lechmere (she took Margaret from the policeman).