Friday 26 August 2011

The Friday Column: Bethnal Green Tube Disaster 1943

The worst civilian disaster of the 2nd World War.

You may not have heard of this story before, at the time it was hushed up for fear of it being used as propaganda for the enemy and loss of morale for the country.

On 3rd March 1943 300 people were crushed into the stairwell at Bethnal Green Tube Station, within a few seconds, 173 of them had died and over 90 were injured.

It happened as a crowd of people entered Bethnal Green tube station which at the time was being used as an air-raid shelter. A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she went down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect started. At the top of the stairs came shouted warning of bombs falling and when a different deafening sound was heard they thought it was a new kind of bomb (it turned out to be a new, secret, anti-aircraft gun being tested in Victoria Park nearby). People pushed more quickly into the shelter in a panic. The way was blocked but still people poured down. There were no handrails in the middle, no white edgings on the steps and no police on duty. It was dark and the steps were slippery from the rain. Around 300 people were wedged into the stairway – an area measuring approximately 15 x 11 feet. By the time they were pulled out 27 men, 84 women and 62 children had been crushed to death. Over 60 of the survivors needed hospital treatment. 

The tragedy was that there was no air raid or bombs dropped that night in the East End, it was just the sound of the new gun that had been secretly placed nearby and tested for the first time that night that caused the panic.

This subject is close to my heart because my Great Grandparents died in the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster. Their children were left orphans. My Grandmother was away at the time, she was being trained to be a Land Girl, on the day she was given the sad news that her parents had died she was in a field learning to drive a tractor.

Last night I read the full story of what happened. I read the individual stories from eye witness accounts and the survivors and was literally shaking, in tears. I don't think anyone can read it and not be moved. The youngest victim was just 5 months old and one family lost six members in this awful tragedy.

The reason I am raising awareness is that a trust has been set up with the aim of building a fitting and lasting memorial for the victims of this disaster. The plans have been approved by Tower Hamlets Council all that is stopping it being made are the funds required. They currently need to raise £40,000 by the end of this year. 

Behind the design  

Two young architects regularly used the underground station to go to work and noticed the small commemorative plaque above the stairs where the tragedy occurred and decided to find out more. Harry Paticas and Jens Borstlemann wanted to create a fitting memorial to the 173 people who died that evening. They have therefore designed a massive bronze cast of the staircase, which will appear to float alongside the stairs where the people actually died, with 173 small beams of light which will represent those who lost their lives. The memorial will vividly describe the historical facts of the Bethnal Green tragedy and will provide shelter form the rain as well as illumination for people entering or exiting the station. It will create a landmark at an important junction on an Olympic Route.

I would love to see this memorial erected and wondered...Can you help?

A plea

I would be so grateful if you could spread the word by linking to this post, through twitter, facebook, even emails to your colleagues  and help the trust members to gain more coverage and raise the funds that are so desperately needed.

To read the full story please click here 

If you wish to donate to the memorial fund or get involved in raising funds please click here.

Update: January 2013

Photo Source:

I am very pleased to report that the Memorial is now very much taking shape and should be looking "spectacular" ready for the 70th anniversary Memorial Service, being held on Sunday 3rd March 2013, 2pm at St. John on Bethnal Green church.

Donations are now being sought for the final "stairway" element, so please see how you can help by clicking here


  1. What a terribly sad tragedy. My heart goes out to all concerned. Hope the memorial is successful in being erected, and in raising awareness of the event and lives lost.

  2. How awful, good luck to all those raising awareness xx

  3. I am sure I heard something about this on R4, it completely amazed me, so much was covered up in WW2 and WW1, and it flummoxes me. Thanks for raising this. Jan

  4. How sad, especially for all those affected, such an awful tragedy.

  5. Go in and out of Bethnal Green tube station all the time - in fact, it used to be everyday.

    I've never heard this story before and it made an interesting but sad read.

    Thanks for posting about it

    Emmie x

  6. Ah this is genuinely moving, and I never knew of it! The memorial sounds lovely and definitely will be interesting to look at! I've retweeted the post for you on Twitter :) xx


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