Above: View looking north at the stone memorial, with the church of St John, Bethnal Green in the background. The original entrance to the underground station is immediately outside the gates of the park (on the left). The memorial extends along the ground to the right-hand side of the exotic palm tree. The names of those who died are inscribed on the sloping part.
It may well be that you have never visited Bethnal Green Underground Station. It is situated beside a large open space which was the original ‘Bethnal Green’ – now turned into a large public open space. It is situated at a crossroads where Cambridge Heath Road is met by Bethnal Green Road and Roman Road. The last two roads do not quite meet opposite each other.
Although built before the Second World War, Bethnal Green Underground Station was not opened as a station for trains until 1946. During the War it was used as a public air-raid shelter which, at the time, only had one entrance – at the SE corner of the cross-roads, beside the open space just mentioned.
The greatest loss of life at a single incident during the Second World War occurred not because of German bombs being dropped but because people in Bethnal Green panicked – thinking that bombs were being dropped. The result was that 173 people lost their lives during an incident on 3 March 1943 and, as a result, many of them suffered life-long trauma until their deaths. A few people who remember that fateful evening are still living with memories so painful that it is affecting their lives even today. Because the Government of the day did not want the story to become common knowledge, the disaster was never reported in the newspapers and people were told never to talk to anyone about it.
It was not until 1990 that a plaque was placed at the original entrance to the underground station commemorating those whose lives were affected. Since the end of the War an annual service has been in the nearby church of St John, Bethnal Green. On 3 March 2013 the 70 anniversary was marked and by then sufficient money had been raised to erect a permanent memorial which was incomplete but was also unveiled on that day. It is to be seen at the top of this article, with the church of St John in the background. It has a long inscription on it recording the facts of that fateful night which is reproduced below:
“On 3 March 1943 the air raid warning sounded at 8.17 pm. People made their way in the pitch dark of the blackout to file in an orderly manner down the steps of the single entrance to the unfinished Bethnal Green underground station next to this memorial. It had been in regular use since 1940 as a deep air raid shelter.
“Over the next 10 minutes local pubs and cinemas emptied so that some 2,000 people were already in the shelter by 8.27 pm when the searchlight went on. Those still waiting to enter were alarmed by the deafening sound of a new anti-aircraft rocket battery opening fire for the first time nearby. They assumed it to be enemy bombs falling. At that time three buses set down their passengers at the unsupervised shelter entrance. The crowd hurried down the poorly-lit 10 foot wide first flight of 19 concrete steps which had no central handrail. On this wet, slippery stairway a woman with a child fell on the third step from the bottom and others tumbled over her. The crowd above continued pressing forward unable to see the horror of what was happening below. Within seconds the whole staircase was a solid, tangled mass of 300 people trapped five or six deep.
“Despite heroic efforts, rescuers working above and below found it difficult to release them before they suffocated in the crush. It was 11.40 pm before the last of the total 173 dead was pulled out – 84 women, 62 children and 27 men. Sixty-two people were hospitalised and at least 30 more walked away wounded. Many more suffered life-long trauma. This was the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.”
In 2006 an architect called Harry Paticas was walking down the same steps into Bethnal Green Underground Station when he noticed the overhead memorial plaque to victims of the disaster. Finding it extraordinary that 173 people had died on those steps he decided to find out more. By 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 of ‘stairway to heaven’, which was later used as the name for the memorial fundraising charity.
The long stone base of the memorial is now completed. There is a tall sloping part with a rectangular block at the end. It faces the camera on the above view. The block is where the inverted replica of the stone steps will be mounted – when sufficient funds have been raised for its completion. Instead of stone, the shape of the steps will be made of teak. It is also intended that 173 lights will be used to illuminate the steps – one for each life lost.
There are a few people alive today who still live with the terror of that night even now. Not only those who were there but relatives and medics who either attended the scene or who were affected by it professionally. It is very fitting that a memorial is being erected. It records the greatest loss of life anywhere in London during the Second World War. Today there are additional entrances to the underground station from street level but the original steps also remain. With the excellent lighting at night on the street and in underground stations that is provided today it is hard to imagine how such a tragedy could happen. London was a very dark and frightening place at night during the War, with a minimum of lighting called ‘the blackout’. It is right and proper that a memorial – which has been a long time in the planning – is at last becoming a reality.