It’s been over 80 years since the Bethnal Green tube disaster and it’s still an incident that invokes a lot of emotion for Londoners. It was the worst case of civilian loss in all of the Second World War when 300 people were crushed (173 of them killed) trying to get into the station for shelter. How it could have been avoided and its cover up makes it even more heartbreaking.
Bethnal Green Underground station was one of the new stations being built by the newly formed London Transport as part of the New Works programme to extend the Central Line. It was almost complete when war broke out so it was able to be quickly converted into a shelter for East Enders. Underground stations saved thousands of lives on a nightly basis and Londoners were lucky to have them. It’s easy to talk about the tragedy and ignore how many people the station would have protected during the war.
On 3rd March 1943 the air-raid siren sounded at 8:17pm, but it was accompanied by an unfamiliar sound. As locals panicked to get underground a woman carrying a baby slipped on the wet stairs and it quickly led to a 300 person pile-up.
At 8:27pm 3 packed double decker buses arrived, adding to the chaos of people funnelling down the narrow stairway. There was no police on duty, poor lighting, no paint markings to indicate the steps and no central hand rail. The council were denied government funding for railings 2 years before. They and the paint were added after the tragedy.
Lots of mistakes led to the crush, but the avoidable cause of the panic is heartbreaking. A new anti-aircraft rocket was being tested in Victoria Park and the unfamiliar noise with the absence of the sound of a plane led to people people fearing a new type of bomb.
News of the incident was censored for 36 hours due to wartime restrictions, which only led to talk of a cover-up. More details were released in 1945, it had been kept a secret for those 22 months to prevent the enemy capitalising. The covering-up and denial of details continued for decades, but the secret of those 173 bodies that were carried up and laid out on the cold pavements that night finally came out.
In 2017 a “Stairway to Heaven” memorial was unveiled overseeing that pavement, next to the stairway that hosted the tragedy. Each of the names of those lost, including the 62 children who died that night are carved into the memorial.
This article has been adapted from an Instragram post by the writer. If you would like to read more like this then follow him at @Scott_RebNoise.