On her way home from her evening class on 3 March 1943 Iris saw a commotion outside Bethnal Green tube station as she alighted from a bus. She had no idea what was going on. The following morning she found out. Her friend, later to become her husband, said he didn’t know where his mum was. They later found his mother’s body in the crypt of St John’s church.
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Date of Interview:
25 January 2015
Length of interview:
Any other info:
Introduction. Iris talks about being born in the East End of London and her mum owning and working in a toy shop in Hackney Road.
Iris remembers her primary school in Mowlem Street and helping her mum in the shop when she was 8 or 9 years old.
Memories of bombing in the East End during the Blitz. Iris was there when St Paul’s cathedral was photographed with incendiaries all around it.
Recalls her mum’s shop being flooded the day before the tube station disaster.
Iris explains how she got a job at Bethnal Green Town Hall. During the War you had to go to the Labour Exchange and get a ticket for a job.
Iris’s mother wouldn’t let her go to work in the Black Country which is why she took the job in Bethnal Green Town Hall.
Iris took a shorthand/ typing course at Pitman’s in Southampton Row.
Iris explains how she had just got off a bus outside Bethnal Green tube station when she saw the commotion following the disaster.
She recalls that when she went to work the next day she found out what had happened. She accompanied her friend (and future husband) to the crypt of St John’s church in Bethnal Green and saw dozens of dead bodies laid out there – including the mother of her friend.
Iris explains that the Bethnal Green tube wasn’t a working tube line in the war – it wasn’t yet connected to Liverpool street. So people used the station as a shelter. Recalls her friend from work’s sister Jean – who was 8 years old – being pulled out alive from the crush by an ARP warden.
Iris explains how she and her husband moved out to Theydon Bois. You had to get permission to build a house.
Repeats memories of shorthand course.
Memories of ARP workers and people looking for their relatives at the tube station after the disaster. Repeats story of what she did when she got off the bus that night.
Iris remembers the flying bombs and the atmosphere of fear they caused during the war. Recalls they were bombed every night for 57 nights.
Recalls her family sheltering in an air raid shelter built under their shop. They didn’t use the tube station as a shelter. Repeats her story of going to the crypt of St John’s.
Iris says that they blocked the tube line off after the disaster.
Recalls that people talked about the disaster for a long time after it happened but then got on with living.
Explains that when she got off the bus the night of the disaster she walked home from under the railway bridge to Hackney Road.
Says that she saw 8-10 ambulances lined up along the road outside the tube station waiting for the dead bodies. Recalls being very scared.
Iris thinks that the warning siren was not sounded until after the disaster. Her mum had said there had not been an air raid that night and Iris didn’t see any bomb damage. The atmosphere was very frightening. Police and ARP wardens were all helping to pull people out from the crush. Lots of children were killed that night.
Memories of her wedding in a church that was standing in for her local one – St. Jude’s – that had been bombed.
Iris talks again of working at the Bethnal Green Town Hall and talking to a soldier from the Honourable Artillery Company who were stationed in a building backing onto the town hall. Says she knew one Irish soldier from there who dug up a bomb from under St Paul’s cathedral.
Iris says she worked at the town hall for 22 years.
Memories of going out in the West End where she saw a bus tipped on its side in a bomb crater near John Lewis Oxford Street.
Memories of her Mum’s life in the toy shop with two children to bring up on her own. Was no support or help from Social Services or any Old Age Pension. Her mum worked in the shop until she was 80.
Iris talks about going to the Intermediate School in Sewardstone Road after primary school. Then she took the 11+ exam and won a scholarship to go to George Green grammar school in East India Dock Road.
Tape paused and restarted. Repeats story of working in town hall.
Memories of primary school again.
Memories of celebrating Empire Day in primary school. It was a big day and a girl was chosen to be the May Queen. Then she was pulled round the school grounds on a cart decorated with lots of flowers and pulled by a donkey. There was also dancing around the Maypole.
Memories of the teacher asking children if they could bring in spare shoes as there were children who couldn’t go to school because they were too poor to afford them.
Iris reiterates how poor the East end was when she was a child. Lots of the men worked at the docks so were often out of work. Explains that the only holiday people ever had was hop picking in Kent.
Iris describes the bombing of Sewardstone Road and how her friend was evacuated out to Thundersley near Epping.
She recalls the only time she left London was when she was a girl and her mother paid the ‘egg man’ from Rayleigh for her to go and stay with him and help him out. Says he was very poor.
Memories of her half-brother being angry when people pronounced his surname – Coan – as Cohen.
Memories of her mother making wine – and crushing the grapes with her feet.
Iris says that the shopkeepers in Bethnal Green had lots of Jewish friends.
Iris talks about hearing flying bombs. She remembers being in Bethnal Green Town Hall when a bomb dropped a few metres away and all the windows were blown out.
She says that it was a very poor community but very friendly. Everybody knew everybody else.
Tape paused and restarted.
Iris repeats memories of primary school. Talks about winning the class prize and being in quarantine by sitting in the corner of the classroom because her brother had rheumatic fever.
Iris’ daughter Jan helps her out with the name of a book. Iris is confused and calls her ‘mum’.
Interview is restarted. Iris talks about visiting her brother who went to Scotland for his National Service in the Air Force.
Iris talks of her husband being too young to have fought in the war. She then confuses a memory of him with a later story about her boyfriend who was a navigator on one of the bombers that took part in the thousand bomber raid on Berlin during the war. She explains how ‘Bomber Harris’ went round all the aerodromes collecting all the best pilots and their crew for the raid. She said that they were all given silver or gold wings to wear on their hats.
Iris then says that her husband was a navigator in the Air Force after the war and went to India.
Iris’s daughter interjects about the Berlin Raid and Iris confirms that it was her boyfriend who was the navigator on this – not her husband. She explains that her boyfriend was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force and was shot down over Berlin during the raid.
Iris recalls that all the boys she knew who were over 18 during the war had to do National Service.
Memories of her boyfriend coming home on leave. After 28 flights over Germany Air Force crew qualified for one week’s leave. He was due to come home on leave when he was shot down. Iris remembers how everyone dreaded the ‘knock on the door’ and the pink telegram telling you that someone was missing. Her boyfriend’s mum received a telegram telling her that he was missing. They were all hoping he’d been taken prisoner but they never heard anything else.
Iris’s daughter asks what it was like with all the men away. Iris replies that it was terrible.
The tape is paused and then restarted and Iris explains that the night of the disaster there was a new anti-aircraft gun in Victoria Park. It had a different sound to the old ones and so everyone thought it was the Germans and panicked. She says that there was no warning that this gun was going to be used. The new gun splintered in the air to damage enemy aircraft. So it sounded like a firework rocket. Afterwards that’s what people said caused the panic on the tube station stairs.
Iris says that no one said much about the disaster at the time. Everyone knew there had been no air raid warning and no bombing so couldn’t understand what had caused it. When Iris got off the bus opposite the tube station she did not see any bomb debris or damage.
Iris has no memory of the Dunne Inquiry. At first no one realised so many people had been killed.
Iris recalls that her brother’s wife’s family were all killed down the tube shelter that night.
Iris recalls her half-sister was killed when her house in Leytonstone was bombed.
The tape is paused and restarted. Iris remembers reading in a magazine that if you subscribed £5 a memorial tree would be planted in Hertfordshire. So she had one planted in memory of her boyfriend and her husband.
Iris has seen the Bethnal Green Memorial but doesn’t like it. She thinks it’s weird.