76 years ago today (March 3), 173 people died in just 15 seconds in Britain’s biggest ever Tube disaster, but the government covered up the story.
Bethnal Green tube station is one of central London’s busiest undergrounds, but few know of its tragic history.
The incident occurred during WWII, a time when many civilians would respond to air raid sirens by taking cover in the Underground.
On March 3, 1943, rumours of a night-time air-raid from Germany and Italy caused many to head to Bethnal Green station, which was unused at the time. There was room for 5,000 people to take cover, and the station also housed a make-shift hospital, library, toilets and a canteen.
Aldwych tube station in Westminster used as an air raid shelter during the London Blitz pic.twitter.com/F9saVqXn1o
— Lost In History (@HistoryToLearn) February 19, 2015
Sirens began to wail, and loud bangs started to sound outside. The noise was actually from new anti-aircraft rockets being tested, but as no one had been made aware they were going to be fired, naturally the crowd assumed the sounds were bombs.
Those still exposed rushed to get into the shelter, making their way down the station’s 19 steps and into the entrance hall, which measures just 15 x 11 feet.
The steps were dimly lit, had no central rail, and were slippery from recent rainfall. Someone at the bottom of the steps slipped, resulting in a domino effect which caused many others to fall.
There’s some dispute as to exactly who fell first. According to The Sun, the official report says a woman tripped while carrying a baby and a bundle of bedding, but eyewitnesses have said a child fell a few steps from the bottom.
Babette Clark, who managed to escape the disaster, told Sky News ‘a lady had slipped at the bottom of the stairs and pulled a man with her’.
It was pitch dark because of the black-out, raining like mad, and suddenly there was this terrible noise like thousands of rockets going up and, as they went up, they whistled like bombs did.
And what was happening was they were testing a rocket gun in Victoria Park, but nobody knew.
Unbeknownst to us at the top [of the stairs] a lady had slipped at the bottom of the stairs and pulled a man with her. And of course there were 19 steps going down and it was like a domino effect. They all fell on top of one another.
Before those who’d fallen had a chance to get back up, other bodies piled up on top of them, trapping and suffocating those underneath, resulting in the death of 27 men, 84 women and 62 children in a mere 15 seconds.
The tragedy saw the biggest loss of civilian life during the Second World War, and not a single bomb had fallen.
The dead were quickly loaded onto lorries to be taken away, while the injured were taken to hospital. By the following morning there was no evidence of the shocking events which had occurred.
Today is the 76th Anniversary of the Bethnal Green Tube disaster which I believe occurred just before 8.30pm on the evening of 3rd March 1943. Here is "The Entrance to Bethnal Green Tube Station" & a photo of the artist, Albert Turpin, who became Mayor of Bethnal Green in 1946. pic.twitter.com/wVbWi6mMUY
— EastLondonGroup (@EastLondonGroup) March 3, 2019
Dr Joan Martin, who was a Casualty Officer at a nearby hospital when the disaster took place, saw dozens of injured and dead brought into the ward.
Speaking to Sky News, she said:
It was quite the most awful thing that happened, and the awful thing was that it didn’t need to happen.
We were sworn to secrecy about it. The most important thing was that we didn’t tell anyone.
Officials examine the stairwell at Bethnal Green tube station following the disaster of March 1943. 173 people lost their lives crammed into the 10ft by 12ft landing… https://t.co/Iox1wK0bBA pic.twitter.com/Xx3tMIfoHV
— The Ripper (@The_East_End) August 2, 2018
The government used the Official Secrets Act to hide the scale of what had happened, and at the time, the papers weren’t allowed to report any news which could harm the war effort.
Media were forced to keep silent for two days, and when stories were finally released into the news, details about what had happened had been changed.
Outlets weren’t allowed to identify the station, and they were made to claim the loss of life was caused by a direct hit from a bombing raid, rather than the panicked stampede.
A more truthful account of the events was told a couple of years later, but there were reportedly still some holes in the story, with people questioning why there were no police on duty on the steps and why people who were so used to the Blitz got so spooked.
According to a memorial website, the official report revealed two years prior to the disaster, the local council had asked the government three times for permission to alter the station’s entrance to make it safer, but they’d been refused.
— Dave Phillips (@BeefeaterDave) March 3, 2017
After the disaster a central rail was installed, and the steps were painted to help visibility.
Until 2017, the only tribute to those who lost their life was a small plaque placed above the station’s entrance, but after years of campaigning by a local charity, a proper memorial was installed.
Let us never forget those who lost their lives in the horrific disaster.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.