Skip to comments.The hush-hush catastophe
Posted on 02/15/2003 8:13:11 AM PST by aculeus
It was the worst civilian disaster of the second world war: the night 173 people died seeking shelter at Bethnal Green tube station during an air raid. It was followed by cover-up and rumour. Why? Jessica Lack asks the witnesses
On March 3 1943, 173 people trying to reach the safety of an air-raid shelter were crushed to death on the steps of Bethnal Green tube. It was the worst civilian disaster of the second world war but, unlike such peacetime tragedies as Hillsborough, in which 96 people were killed, it did not attract great public sympathy for the victims and survivors. Played down by a government concerned that citizens might shun the comparative safety of the London Underground, the incident was quickly covered up, becoming a mere footnote in the war's bloody legacy - and leaving one fundamental question unanswered.
For on this particularly drizzly night, no German planes had been spotted, and by the next morning no bombs had been dropped. So what were the residents of Bethnal Green running from? This East End community was famed for its resilience, having brazened out the worst of the Blitz. So why, 18 months later, did they succumb to collective hysteria? This is the story of that night, as told by those who witnessed it.
"We were in the Bug Hole," says Winifred Barrat. "We called it that because of all the cockroaches - big ones, too." The Bug Hole, or the Empire, was a dilapidated cinema on Green Street, now called Roman Road, the same street where Bethnal Green tube station stands. Winifred and her friends had been watching a newsreel about a bombing raid on Berlin two days earlier. Optimistic though the news was, the war-weary East Enders knew there would be a swift retaliation from the Germans; they were uneasy. Bethnal Green had suffered widespread damage during the relentless bombing in the winter of 1940-41, and the residents had learned from bitter experience the necessity of taking cover during an air raid.
Winifred worked in the 88 Cafe on Cambridge Heath Road. "I'd been staying in the tube shelter most nights and my manager didn't half complain about the stink." She laughs at the memory. The overpowering stench of the industrial TCP used to disinfect the underground toilets permeated everything.
In other respects, the tube stations were not such bad places to be. Winifred remembers the time quite fondly. Described as a good-time girl by her sister, she was at the heart of the underground community, often hoisted up on stage to rouse the shelterers in a sing-along. "It was better than sitting at home worrying. Remember, people were down here for the night. We used to have dances and concerts. I think we even had a wedding party once. All to keep up morale."
For four years after the Blitz, Winifred's mother, Winifred Daisy Shurety, lived in the underground. "My poor mother was terrified, she wouldn't come out. Dad would make her Sunday lunch and bring it to the shelter, and she'd creep out and sit on the park bench opposite. As soon as she finished, it was back down the tube." Mrs Shurety didn't vacate the shelter until V-E Day.
Marlene Deathridge recalls the giant urns from which girls would dispense mugs of hot, sweet tea. "I never remember being cold," she says. "We all had our own bunks, and if someone was in yours, you didn't mind - you just made room for them. It became something of a community."
A large community at that, nightly ranging between 500 and 7,000 people. Marlene's father, known as the Curtain King because of his fabric stall on Green Street, would often play his accordion. "A real gent," she says. You can see his legacy in Marlene's tiny bungalow just off Roman Road. Each window is decked in velveteen and brocade curtains so heavy they silence the persistent hum of traffic. She misses the affinity people had with each other back then. "We all looked out for one another - if people didn't turn up to claim their bunks, someone would be sent off the next day to check they were all right. I'm still like that now," she says wistfully, "but others are not."
The evening of March 3 had been dreary and wet. At 8.17pm, the air-raid siren sounded. Just as on previous nights, a large proportion of the population hurried for the subterranean security of the tube station. Today, with streetlights on every corner and neon shop signs, it is difficult to imagine the dense gloom of the blackout, but for those racing to the underground it was like running through ink. Those journeys, coupled with the shrill wail of the alarm signal, were for many the most frightening experience of the war.
Down in the shelter, Marlene was asleep in her iron bunk and Winifred had just arrived to join her mother. Already there were around 500 people in the shelter. Both the Bug Hole and the Museum Picture House on Cambridge Heath Road had disgorged a large number of cinema-goers and three buses set passengers down just outside the station. In the next 10 minutes, a brisk and orderly convergence of 1,500 people went down the steps of the underground.
A couple of minutes' walk away, in Globe Road, 10-year-old Reg Baker was making for the tube shelter with his dad. Many knew an air raid was coming because the wireless had gone dead, often a sure sign of impending alert. Just as Reg and his father reached Green Street, a giant searchlight came on. A couple of seconds later there was an almighty explosion. They flung themselves on to the ground, and Reg recalls people screaming. "We had never heard anything like it before, it sounded like a new type of bomb. My father got me up and we made a dash for the underground, but there was so much confusion that he suggested we try the shelter behind the Salmon & Ball pub opposite." A popular refuge, the arches behind the Salmon & Ball are remembered fondly by witnesses because they were close to a stall that sold ham sandwiches (something even the Dorchester Hotel was at pains to find in the final years of the war).
Reg, like many East End children, had just returned from the country, where he had been evacuated during the Blitz. The population of the area at the beginning of the war had been around 100,000. This had shrunk to 50,000, but now many of the children and women were returning. Parents were perhaps more fearful than normal, which could have contributed to the sense of panic.
Reg is a dapper man, always in a shirt and tie when we meet. He now gives talks at Winston Churchill's Britain At War Experience in London Bridge. We walk past lines of iron bunks covered in coarse, grey blankets in the air-raid shelter, and then move on to a street scene where the aftermath of a bombing raid is recreated. There is a burnt-out cinema and a department store with mannequins hanging out the windows. A burst waterpipe trickles on to piles of rubble. I ask Reg if it is true to life. He looks around and nods. "Yeah, pretty much. No dead bodies, mind." But then he concedes, "It is for kids," forgetting that he was a kid himself during the worst of the bombing.
The explosion that Reg and his father had heard was a volley of rockets discharged a quarter of a mile away in Victoria Park. The army was testing new equipment and had not informed the local population; indeed, it could not inform residents because of the strict security regulations. Thirteen-year-old Alfred Morris and his aunt Lil were halfway down the stairs when the new anti-aircraft guns went off. "Everybody surged forward, shouting, 'There's bombs, there's bombs, get down.' " Alfred was thrown forward and lost hold of his aunt's hand. Pushed by the crowd, a woman slipped on the steps, slick from rain, and a man fell to her left. Outside, those unaware of the accident continued to shove. A Mrs Barber, whose evidence was heard at the inquest, described how she was lifted off her feet and carried down the stairs by the force of the crowd.
Several more rockets exploded overhead, causing the frightened crowd to press forward, sending those in front tumbling down the shelter's single, small stairwell. By the time Reg's sister Dolly arrived at 8.32pm, she couldn't understand why the ground beneath her feet was so soft. She was walking on bodies packed tightly together. Thomas Penn, an off-duty policeman, arrived and, seeing the commotion, tried to crawl over the bodies to assess the situation, but the only light was a dim, 25-watt bulb partially painted black. Twice he fainted in the crush.
The sound of the rockets had almost knocked 15-year-old messenger boy James Hunt off his bike. He had cycled past the tube moments before the explosions and had seen a few men smoking outside. "Everything seemed perfectly orderly," he recalls. But by the time he had reached the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) depot where he was due to report, he was told to head back to the shelter to give assistance. What he saw there was hideous. "I was small for my age, see, so I could only manage the little ones." Most of the babies and children James pulled out had turned blue. The bodies were placed on carts or buses and then taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel hospital. When that became overcrowded, they started storing the bodies in St John's Church opposite the tube station.
What was it like for a teenage boy to face such horror? James pauses. "I can't think about it."
Gladys, his wife of 50 years, holds his hand. "He never even told me about it until years later, when the mayor presented him with a certificate."
"It was a dreadful thing, all those children..." James's voice tails off.
Alfred and his aunt were squashed near the bottom of the stairwell. "An air-raid warden called Mrs Chumley, I'll never forget her name, grabbed my arm. I was hollering and hollering and it hurt, but she didn't let go and eventually pulled me free. My aunt was trapped against a wall. I remember she was wearing a heavy coat and they grabbed hold of her shoulders and pulled her free and she left her coat and shoes behind. She was black and blue all over. Another couple of minutes and she would have been dead." She was the last person to be pulled out alive.
Elsie Oliver was a porter at the London Hospital in Whitechapel where the bodies were taken. "I'll never forget all those poor relations of lost ones coming to the mortuary looking for missing people. Especially when a friend of mine was looking for her daughter who had gone to see a show at the Hackney Empire. She had only got as far as Green Street when the warning went off. She was killed, and how I felt for her poor mother."
Below ground, those already in the shelter were becoming increasingly anxious for their family members who hadn't arrived. Wardens afraid of causing alarm tried to keep the truth from them. A disquieting unease settled on the shelterers, exacerbated by the arrival in the tunnel of rescue workers from the only other entrance, an airshaft a quarter of a mile away in Carpenter Square.
Winifred recalls coming up from the shelter and seeing bodies lying on the ticket hall floor. Alfred describes how keepsakes taken from the pockets of the dead were used to identify the victims. His father was asked if he recognised a little girl called Vera Trotter and her mother. Their faces were so badly bruised that he could only identify the child by her shoe, from which he had pulled a nail the week before.
When Pat Rowe's father, Dick Corbett, the champion bantamweight boxer, didn't come home, her mother, Rose, began to worry. On leave from the army, he had last been seen heading towards Green Street when the siren sounded. Rose contacted her brother-in-law and he began looking for him in the church and the hospital. Jessie Weddell was also frantically searching for her sister, Florence, her husband and their three children, who had not arrived in the shelter to claim their bunks. Dick Corbett and Jessie's sister's family were among the 173 who had died; 27 men, 84 women and 62 children. A further 92 were injured and taken to hospital. Death was, in all cases, due to asphyxiation and only one minor fracture of the fibula was discovered. It was estimated that nearly all had died within 10-17 seconds of being crushed.
We are sitting in Alfred's home in Romford, where he and his wife Vera moved five years ago. Both admit to missing their old neighbourhood. "Alf was a friend of my older brother's," says Vera. "He lived three doors down from me." Her two school friends, Vera Trotter and Gwendoline Quorn, were killed in the accident. She remembers families gathering outside the gates of the school that most of the children killed had attended, to give comfort and support to each other.
For two days the government withheld information about the disaster for fear of a national panic, allowing people to believe the shelter had received a direct hit. Alfred remembers journalists bribing children £5 for their stories: "That was an awful lot of money in those days, but we didn't dare." A secret inquiry was held and the findings concluded that a woman, carrying or holding the hand of a child, had slipped on steps leading down into the underground, which had caused a domino effect. Within 10-15 seconds there were more than 300 bodies trapped in the tiny stairwell some 15 x 11ft wide. The inquest observed that it was a series of contributory causes that led to this tragic event, sparked by the anti-aircraft rockets being detonated in Victoria Park. There was a poignant footnote to the accident: the local council had been asked to put a safety barrier in place several months earlier but, strapped for cash, had turned down the request.
The results of the inquiry were not published until the end of the war, leaving many angered and confused by what had happened. Rumours abounded. Some said that petty thieves, taking advantage of the confusion to pick pockets, were responsible. Others spoke of Jewish shopkeepers taking fright: a malicious tale later found to have been put about by local fascist sympathisers, who had tried to dominate the area before the war. It seemed no one wanted to admit the indisputable truth: that the East Enders, who had battled through the Blitz, simply panicked.
For Dick Corbett's wife Rose, the tragedy of losing a husband was just the beginning. "Dick was a giver," says his daughter Pat. "People loved him." Dick's success in the boxing ring had earned him a pretty penny and he spent extravagantly. If his wife professed an interest in a dress, Dick would buy one in every colour. Described by the boxing fraternity as modest and sportsmanlike, he was intelligent and quick-witted, once wryly observing that you didn't grow up a ginger in Bethnal Green without learning a thing or two about defending yourself.
Pat's husband, Dave, remembers Dick's humour. "As a young kid, I wanted to fight him, so he got down on his knees and told me to give him a good belt. He turned round and put a ring of soot around his eye and I went running down the road shouting, 'I've just knocked out the champion'." Pat describes how her parents had chauffeurs and would go to the races. "He'd take half the street with him and blow all his earnings, and then the family would have nothing until his next fight." She sighs. "You know, I think he knew he was going to die young. I think he chose to live life in the here and now."
Rose was widowed at 31 and left with three children to support. With no savings and no husband, life became one long, hard slog. "We went from being terribly popular to the point where people would cross the street when they saw us," says Pat. "Dick had been so generous with his money, I think people felt she might want it back now she was a widow with three children to support."
Sandra Peters, Jessie Weddell's daughter, recalls the difficulties the victims' families experienced. "There was no counselling then - you just got on with it." Was there anger at the way the inquest was handled? Yes, says Sandra, "I think there was bitterness at the way it was sort of pushed under the carpet, but there was a war on, what could you do?" Unusually for the time, the relatives did receive compensation, but it was a long time coming. "I think my mum got £100," says Pat. "Quite a bit of money in those days, but nothing could replace Dick. She never married again. She could have, but Dick was her one true love."
We are back in James Hunt's terraced house just off Bethnal Green Road, the house his wife has lived in all her life. She points to the cupboard under the stairs where her family used to shelter during the bombing. Above the mantelpiece in the front room is a china plate with a picture of the Queen Mother on it. We've seen several others like it in many of the other witnesses' houses. I ask James why she is held in such affection. James speaks of solidarity, staying power and the comfort she gave during the Blitz.
Above the tube station is a little commemorative plaque to the victims of the 1943 disaster; it was put there just 10 years ago. In recent months, there have been reports warning of possible terrorist threats to our transport system. Bethnal Green station, a stop on the Central line that cuts a red gash through the heart of London, is considered high risk. The people of Bethnal Green have been here before.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
Just a reminder of what civilians used to put up with during the last big one. It may well come to that again.