As architect Harry Paticas walked down the steps into Bethnal Green tube station one day in 2006 he noticed a simple memorial plaque to victims of the 1943 Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster (placed there on the 50th anniversary in 1993). Finding it extraordinary that 173 people had died in the space of the steps he decided to find out more.
Asking people living nearby and from reports documenting the event, he began to learn of the many stories about the dreadful night of 3 March 1943. Retracing his journey into the tube days later, the design for a memorial struck him. He could take a cast of the space where so many had died, turn it upside down and suspend it over the stairs creating an immediate relationship between where the people had died and a memorial to them directly above.
Not only would a fitting memorial be created, but unlike most commemorative tributes, this one would overhang the precise location of the disaster itself. Harry sent his design to the local paper, the East London Advertiser, who published it under a headline describing a ‘stairway to heaven’ - later used as the name for the memorial fundraising charity. The newspaper faxed Harry the single letter they received in response to their story. Difficult to read, Harry managed to make out the name of Alf Morris and the following week Harry visited him at home in Essex. Alf opened his front door and with tears in his eyes, said, ‘I’ve waited 50 years for someone like you to come along’. Alf loved the memorial design; he and Harry arranged a public meeting in St John on Bethnal Green church hall at which Harry told Alf’s story, reducing much of the 250-strong audience to tears. This was a rare public mourning for the 173 people who died in the disaster.
None of the names of the victims were recorded on the existing plaque and there was overwhelming support for a more ambitious and fitting memorial. Harry estimated the cost toward £500,000 and from the back of the hall Denise Jones, then Leader of Tower Hamlets Council, announced its support for the project. This was a major breakthrough and despite many obstacles over the years, the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust has been raising money ever since. As time went by the design was also adapted and improved. Harry’s original plan for the memorial stairs to overhang the station steps was not allowed, but placing it within Bethnal Green Gardens adjoining the underground station enables the public to circulate around the sculpture affording a richer experience and bringing people closer to the story.
It was agreed that the roof of the newly positioned inverted memorial stairs would house 173 small conical light shafts that would allow sunlight to shine through, each one representing a person who died. Dispersed at one end, and more tightly packed at the other, the conicals would reflect something of that terrible night in 1943 while simultaneously shining light on the disaster, so long after the event.
An early desire for the stairway to be made in bronze had to be abandoned both for its expense and its weight; it would be too heavy without an unsightly frame. Teak was decided upon as both a sustainable and attractive wood that would also complement the teak bench alongside the memorial. It took three months to carve the complex conical design on the underside of the stairway. Family surnames were carved in the side of the memorial and the name and age of each of those who lost their life were inscribed at eye level on the memorial plinth. The memorial stairway in the gardens would now have a dramatic impact from all parts of the Cambridge Heath crossroads.
Memorials often lack space for remembrance offerings, but in collaboration with the Stairway to Heaven Trust, the design for this memorial plinth of pre-cast concrete was developed with this in mind. Projecting discs provide places for the laying of wreaths and recesses were designed for bunches of flowers. Keen on sustainable design, Harry sourced Scottish whinstone for the dark paving needed at ground level, and noting a skateboarder's advice, steel studs were placed in the ground to deter skateboarding around the plinth.
The memorial needed to be inviting; it should draw people toward it so they would gain a sense of the personal tragedy, not just of those who died, but of their families and local communities left behind. So it was decided that personal testimonials would be engraved on the plinth, as well as the names and ages of the dead.
It was later decided to offer an accompanying memoryscape audio trail, to give more detailed information about the disaster and include excerpts from interviews with witnesses and survivors. The children's trail was recorded with young people at local schools that lost pupils in the 1943 disaster. Harry designed the plaque advertising the memoryscape on the railings next to the memorial, so it would fit sympathetically with the memorial itself.
At the memorial service held every year in March at St John on Bethnal Green, Harry sometimes reads out some of those names. Working nearby Harry often passes the memorial, clears away any litter, has sanded off a rare piece of graffiti, and is always delighted to find someone looking at the memorial or sitting on the bench. The memorial was completed in December 2018 and has already become a significant landmark in East London. It raises awareness of the tragedy and serves as space for individuals and the community to meet, contemplate and reflect on the disaster and the terrible impact war can have on civilian populations.
You can read an edited interview with the architect in the the project oral history book and listen to the full interview below. You can also download the transcript here: harry_paticas.transcript2.pdf