There’s an oddly shaped war memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens, the park next to my local tube station. It looks like an upside down staircase, made of what I’m assuming is wood but looks to be brick; inscribed on it are surnames. Aarons, Asser, Bailey, Baker.

I’ve passed this structure a dozen times a week for nearly five years now, and never given it a second thought. War memorials, after all, are ten a penny in this country: every community has one, sometimes several. On one, in King’s Cross Station, I once spotted something unnervingly close to my own name – J. R. Ellege, my initials on a surname very nearly my own – and, having watched too much dreadful sci-fi involving time travel, this did some pretty bad things to my brain.

The Bethnal Green memorial, though, turns out not to be the usual list of the war dead. It commemorates a specific disaster which passes its 80th anniversary this coming Friday. The dead it names are not soldiers, but civilians. And it wasn’t a German air raid that killed them.

Bethnal Green memorial base, plaques, firemen. Stairway to heaven trust

The eastern extension of the Central Line was still under construction when the war broke out – passenger services would not begin until 1946 – but that didn’t mean it wasn’t already useful. This was a densely populated bit of the East End, after all, and lying near to both docks and City it was bombed fairly heavily. So a new, deep level tube line, bored deep into the ground beneath London, provided local families with somewhere apparently safe to shelter while the bombs started falling. Without interruption by trains, the new tunnels could hold thousands.

By 3 March 1943, with the war over three years old, all this must have begun to feel almost routine – so when the sirens began to sound just after 8.15pm, over a thousand eastenders made their way to the tube station as normal. That night, though, something was different. Firstly, for some reason, only a single entrance to the half-finished station was open – no staff seemed to be on duty – forcing everyone to enter down the same narrow stairway. Secondly, a few minutes after the sirens began, there was an unfamiliar sound in the air: as loud and terrifying as the bombs, but which arrived long before the planes could be heard.

station entrance days before disaster. Tower Hamlets Archives

No one in the crowd trying to get into the tube station knew what could make such a sound; and so, they panicked, as crowds are wont to do, and surged forward. Towards the bottom of the stairs, a woman holding a child lost her footing, pulling an elderly man down with her. More people, apparently propelled by the momentum of the crowd, fell on top; those behind, unable to see what was causing the blockage, kept pushing forward. More and more bodies were crammed into a space that could not contain them.

It was nearly midnight before the last casualties were brought out and laid on the pavement. Those who witnessed it later told stories of bodies turned purple by asphyxiation, of children identified by their clothes because they’d been left so unrecognisable by the crush. In his account for Historic UK, Brian Penn – whose 16 year old mother lived a few minutes’ walk from the tube station, and whose grandfather had luckily decided it was a false alarm that night – tells that they included his uncle George, who’d returned on leave that very day, excited to see his wife Lottie and three year old son Alan for the first time in months. On being told that they’d gone to shelter from the air raid, he rushed to follow them down the tube. None of them made it out again. 

In all, 173 people died in the crush, 62 of them children – the worst civilian disaster to take place in Britain during World War Two, and the single greatest loss of life in the tube, all at the same time. But there were no bombs that night. The noise was not that of a terrifying new German weapon that could arrive without warning, though those would be landing soon enough. It was the sound of new anti-aircraft guns being tested up the road in Victoria Park. 

This fact, that it was the actions of the British military which sparked the panic that caused the disaster, was something that led the government to cover up the disaster for decades. Its reason for doing so, it claimed, was to protect morale. But reading accounts like Penn’s, and that of Joan Martin – a doctor who handled the bodies that arrived after the disaster, and whose inability to discuss what she’d seen gave her nightmares for decades – I can’t help but wonder if that was the only thing that decision was meant to protect.

Anyway. The memorial was unveiled in December 2017, and it is quite genuinely rather beautiful; even more so, once you realise what it’s for. If you find yourself in the East End, it’s worth checking out. I can recommend a pub if you find you need a drink afterwards.

Jago Hazzard also did a video of the disaster and the memorial. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust is a charity that built and maintains the memorial, whose website has more background history, images, and information on the victims.

Jonn Elledge is a former writer and editor at the New Statesman, as well as the founder and editor of the CityMetric website for many years (now CityMonitor.ai). He is now publishes his thoughts on The Newsletter of (Not Quite) Everything, and freelances for other publications. This piece was first published on his Newsletter.

The post The Stairway to Heaven: the greatest disaster ever on London’s Tubes appeared first on London Reconnections.

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