Horror in The Dark – The Bethnal Green Tube Station Disaster of 1943 and its Memorial
It’s funny- you can live in London for years, and every so often you still come across an area of the city you have never been to and know nothing about. I have lived on the outskirts of London for most of my 32 years, and I had never been to Bethnal Green Tube Station until last month. I found myself there for work, and I needed to hit two particular locations that were difficult to reach from the same station. Using Google Maps, I worked out a route that involved alighting at Mile End, visiting my first location, then walking down Roman Road to Bethnal Green and getting the Central Line to my next destination. This meant that I would reach Bethnal Green on foot, and given that the current book I had on the go was Walk The Lines – The London Underground OVERGROUND by Mark Mason, it seemed fitting to discover a new part of London in this way.
In the book, Mason walks the routes of every single Tube line (except the DLR, which he considers not to be a proper Underground line). He does this above ground. On the way, he keeps up a detailed commentary of the neighbourhoods he passes through and the people he meets. It’s incredibly interesting.
On this day, I had boarded a District Line tube at Victoria, and I had a good few stops to go before reaching Mile End, so I decided to read up on Mason’s experiences of the sections of the lines I would be encountering today. And that’s how I learned about the Bethnal Green Tube Station Disaster of 1943.
You can read an account of what happened on the night of 3 March 1943 here.
Bethnal Green station, which had only opened in 1936, was an enormous bomb shelter, and a lot of people sought refuge inside it during air raids. The tragedy was that on this night, it was not an air raid that caused the sheer scale of death that occurred, but a series of circumstances that led to a lot of people being in one place at once, and one tiny accident that caused a domino effect.
‘This was the station that in 1943 saw the Second World War’s largest loss of UK civilian life. With a horrible irony it wasn’t due to bombing itself, but rather to someone falling in the scramble to get into the station after an air raid siren. In the resulting crush, 173 people were killed.’ – Mark Mason, Walk The Lines, 2011
How can you live in a city your whole life and not know that something like this had happened? Yet I previously had no idea. Because I was on the Tube when I read about it, I had no signal to call up the Internet on my phone and do any further research. When I got off the train at Mile End, I went on my way, and didn’t think about it again until I was reaching Bethnal Green on foot, an hour or so later. As I approached, I saw Bethnal Green Gardens coming into view, and wondered if there was a memorial to the disaster somewhere in there. I decided to take a few minutes out of my schedule to have a look. And that’s when I found the Stairway To Heaven Memorial.
I’m always interested to know how people learn about things, and as a result, I like to document in this blog not just the information that I want to share with you, but how I came to know about it. I’m sure many of you reading this have long known about this memorial and are wondering, perhaps aloud, how it was that I did not. I think that learning what I did, in the way that I did it (by reading a book and then discovering the memorial for myself) is rare nowadays. We are more likely to read about things Online. I felt like I had really DISCOVERED something, an important part of London, just waiting to tell me it’s story. Which is why I’m sharing it here.
The Memorial was hard to miss. Winding across almost one whole end of the Gardens, it listed the names of the people who had lost their lives at one end, and had facts and figures, as well as individual stories documented along the length of it, on bronze plates. It was covered with wreaths. A few other people had stopped to look at it. But most walked on by. Either they had long known it was there, or hadn’t noticed at all. In London, the propensity to not notice things that are right in front of you, in favour of getting where you are going, is strong.
I stood for a few minutes, trying to be respectful. I thought about the death toll. 173* people is a huge amount. Think about tragedies that have occurred in recent memory. 7/7 claimed 52 lives, and that is huge enough. 173 in one Tube station crush seems impossible, and definitely unbearable to think about. I looked at the names and ages of some of the victims, engraved on the memorial. So many were children. It was incredibly sad.
Then, pushed for time, I was on my way, having learnt something new about this great city, and the ways in which it honours and remembers the lives of those claimed and swallowed by it.
If you find yourself passing through Bethnal Green, step out of the Tube station and into the sunlight. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial is right outside. Go and have a look.
All photos by Christina Owen March 2016.
You can also donate to ongoing work on the memorial here.
*The death toll is variously given as 173 or 178, depending on which source you read.