The Disaster

Shortly after an air-raid warning on the evening of 3 March 1943, hundreds of people in Bethnal Green fled for shelter. Hurriedly leaving their homes and the pubs and cinemas where many were enjoying a night out, they made their way to the nearest shelter. In East London many houses had no garden or space for an Anderson Shelter, and the London Underground offered protection. That fateful night approximately two thousand people bedded down in Bethnal Green Underground shelter. Bethnal Green Shelter bunk beds. Photo: courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and ArchivesBethnal Green Shelter bunk beds. Photo: courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

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 screaming; some shouted that it must be a bomb. There was a 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. Entrance to the Bethnal Green Underground Shelter. Photo: courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and ArchivesEntrance to the Bethnal Green Underground Shelter. Photo: courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

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'.

This appalling tragedy was one of the worst civilian disasters in modern British history that was not caused by enemy action. There were 173 deaths, 62 of whom were children. The death toll was greater than the 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy and the 1966 disaster at Aberfan.

The day after the disaster central handrails were installed on the underground shelter stairs. A year later the Bethnal Green Corporation was successfully sued for negligence. 

Installing handrails after the tragedy. Photo: courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and ArchivesInstalling handrails after the tragedy. Photo: courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Given the scale of the disaster, it is perhaps surprising that the location and many details of the event were successfully kept from public knowledge during the war. The newspapers were not allowed to report the full details of the tragedy and survivors were told not to talk about it for fear of undermining the war effort. 

Since then the tragedy has been rarely discussed and the event is absent from many popular accounts of the Home Front which, like the newsreels of the time, tend to emphasise the more positive aspects of life sheltering underground from the bombing. 

The official records of the event are relatively sparse; government discussions concerning the suppression of the full results of the subsequent enquiry, liability and compensation have only recently been released under the Official Secrets Act and are available at the Public Record Office. local archive collections include oral history recordings, censored press accounts and Corporation records.

Since the launch of a memorial appeal in March 2008, contact has been made with survivors, witnesses, those who treated the injured, and family members. They have photographs, written records and personal memories of the victims, the disaster and its aftermath. Much of this personal material still remains in family homes.

Until recently the event has been memorialised only by a small plaque over the stepsDisaster Memorial plaque installed above Bethnal Green Underground Station steps in the 1990s.Disaster Memorial plaque installed above Bethnal Green Underground Station steps in the 1990s.leading down to Bethnal Green Underground station. Following a sustained funding campaign by survivors and relatives, money has been successfully raised for the installation of an impressive and stirring memorial, providing a significant site of remembrance adjacent to the Underground station. 

See the charity website www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org for further details of their campaign. Click here to DONATE towards the final stage of the memorial, yet to be completed. 

Model of the Bethnal Green Disaster Memorial. Photo: Aboreal ArchitectureModel of the Bethnal Green Disaster Memorial. Photo: Aboreal Architecture

The memorial design is architecturally and artistically striking and will be a prominent feature on the Bethnal Green landscape for years to come. It has already been registered for the London Open House programme. The memorial records the names and ages of all the victims. An annual commemoration is held at the memorial on the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the disaster, and the story of the idea, design and building of the memorial has been recorded for posterity.

For a more detailed account of the disaster and the aftermath you can download a new book about the disaster: The 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster: an Oral History and you can find more information about the memorial here.