A Perfect Storm
The Bethnal Green tube station disaster, 80 years on.
On the night of Monday 1 March 1943, RAF Bomber Command dispatched 302 heavy bomber aircraft to Berlin. Carrying a mixture of 8,000- and 4,000-pound bombs, along with incendiaries, the attack on the south west of the city was deemed a resounding success. This was the fourth raid on the German capital that year and led to rumours circulating across the East End and at Bethnal Green and Cambridge Heath, an inner London area particularly associated with longterm deprivation and lower than average life expectancy, that – just as with the Baedeker Raids the previous spring – the German Luftwaffe would launch an immediate tit for tat raid on London.
Two days later, just after 8pm, an air raid siren sounded and some 1,500 people, including the crowd from a local cinema and two busloads of passengers, joined the queue to shelter at Bethnal Green Tube station. At first the flow of people was orderly, but ten minutes later the sound of explosions caused by an anti-aircraft rocket test in nearby Victoria Park caused panic. Thinking bombs were falling, people threw themselves onto the pavement, or fled to the entrance of the Tube station, overwhelming the sole elderly warden near the bottom landing. A woman carrying a baby tripped on the stairs, causing others to fall as well. Three hundred people were crushed in the small stairwell.
At the subsequent coroner’s inquest a witness described the scene in full. ‘We all seemed to fall. I think Mr Steadman took the baby out of my arms. Other people fell on top of me … All the time I could see my five children in the pile as well.’ That evening 172 people died, with a further casualty dying later in hospital and 90 left seriously injured. Of those who died, 62 were children, many younger than ten. The post mortems revealed only four victims had fractures; the vast majority died of slow asphyxiation.
The next day at Bethnal Green Town Hall, an emergency meeting was convened by the Ministry of Home Security, along with the London Region Civil Defence organisation. Within hours Bethnal Green Council officials had begun to blame the crush on excitable Jews panicking and pushing their way to the front. In response to this, in the margin of the minutes for the meeting, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, Alexander Maxwell, wrote ‘NO!’ in red pencil.
On revealing the full details to the public, the War Cabinet would go on to note that ‘the publication of the proposed White Paper would give the incident a disproportionate importance, and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids … and that there was no evidence that the disaster was due to Fascist or Jewish elements among the people taking refuge at the shelter’.
Days after, it was also reported by the Home Office that members of the Communist Party of Great Britain had taken to using bereaved children in order to help drum up funds to sue the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, and the head of London Civil Defence, Admiral Edward Evans.
The area had become deeply associated with political extremism: both the Communist Party and British Union of Fascists (BUF) polled well above the national average there. A hard bedrock of BUF support existed and support for Oswald Mosley persisted long after the war around Bethnal Green and Dalston. This left Jews all too often in the firing line.
Though a full report under Laurence Dunne of the Metropolitan Magistrates would eventually seek answers, his conclusions angered both officials and residents. One sentence from Morrison continues to cause offence. Morrison sought to justify his original decision not to publish the Dunne Report on the grounds that ‘a number of people had lost their self-control at a particularly unfortunate place and time’. Some highly sensitive and controversial material on the disaster was retained by the Home Office until very recently and it is notable that Morrison does not mention the disaster at all in his 1960 autobiography.
Although the underground station seemed a natural choice of shelter and could accommodate as many as 5,000 people, its construction was incomplete and had inadequate access from street level for crowds. Given the political mood, however, to have ruled out its use completely would have undoubtedly produced a ferocious reaction from worried locals and from agitators seeking to exploit perceived government indifference to protecting its poorest citizens for their own political ends.
Efforts to provide adequate illumination on the dark set of steps and a central handrail to steady those descending into the station had turned into a bureaucratic log-jam tying up London Transport officials, Bethnal Green Council and London’s Civil Defence authorities. The paperwork produced by all involved shows a lack of inclination to try and resolve the issues.
Gangs of youths prowled the platforms and intimidated the wardens, who were insufficiently trained and who often abandoned their posts, frequently to be found in the Salmon and Ball pub across the road. Incidents including petty theft and even a youth wielding a knife were reported. The ambulance reports from March 1943 describe how rescuers had to continually battle to push these youths aside from the entrance in order to reach the injured.
The result was what looks, in hindsight, like an accident waiting to happen. Bethnal Green Tube station was rated as easily the southeast’s worst, alongside Tilbury Shelter, London’s largest shelter, which was described by one Mass Observation worker as ‘a hell hole’. What is surprising is that the tragedy did not occur earlier.
Commemorated with a permanent memorial in 2017, this preventable tragedy still haunts the folk memory of East Enders. It calls into question the popular and sanitised version of plucky Londoners under attack, and reveals how official indifference to the poorest in society, political extremism and individual behaviours can combine to produce tragedy on a horrific scale.
Niall Devitt is the author of Underground Railway: A New History (Pen & Sword, forthcoming).