Fifty years of coping for the bravest of the brave.
On Bethnal Green Underground station today, posters carry the familiar warnings about crush: the improbably tiny figure beneath adult feet and the reminder that children are vulnerable. You would walk past it without thinking, if it were not for a particularly grim anniversary to be marked next Wednesday. It happened on March 3,
1943: another Wednesday, at the height of the London blitz.
On that day, hurrying for shelter from an air raid, 173 people were killed on this staircase without a single bomb falling. In all, 62 children, 84 women and 27 men died with a terrible simplicity: at the enquiry, the magistrate said that ``the stairway was, in my opinion, converted from a corridor to a charnel house in from ten to 15 seconds. Death was, in all cases examined, due to suffocation and the vast majority showed signs of intense compression''.
Newspaper reports of the time explain it, baldly. At 8.17pm, the alert sounded and, in the next ten minutes, over 1,500 people went safely down the stairway (the shelter, an unfinished Tube station, held 9,000 people, with bunks for 5,000).
At 8.27pm, a salvo of anti-aircraft rockets a new type, unfamiliar to the public caused a panic surge. At the same time, a woman carrying a baby tripped near the bottom of the 19 steps, starting off a domino effect. People lay, unable to move, their plight invisible to the pressing crowd above because of the blackout. ``There was built,''
said the official Home Office statement, ``an immovable and interlaced mass of bodies five, six or more deep.''
It took until 11.45pm to clear the scene, even in the middle of a war. The disaster was the Hillsborough of its time. The home secretary, Herbert Morrison, urged stoicism. ``Shocking as this blow is, it falls upon a people tested and hardened by the experiences of the blitz and as well able to bear loss bravely as any people in the world.''
Mr Morrison also promised an enquiry but warned, with that bygone wartime arrogance which modern politicians might secretly envy, that, ``no good Londoner will want to indulge in any scapegoat-hunting. It is not dignified and it is not necessary.'' Talk of missing handrails, of wardens downstairs playing cards, and of ``fascists and criminal persons'' fomenting panic was sternly quashed.
Fifty years on, a group of survivors and relatives have asked the local authority for a memorial. So on Wednesday, the Bishop of Stepney and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets will preside over a service at the church alongside the station, St John's, and at the unveiling of a plaque on the staircase.
Other survivors, who may have spoken little about it for decades, choose this moment to retell the story to a generation which takes disasters Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford, Zeebrugge with perhaps less stoicism, and certainly no shortage of scapegoat-hunting. It is a fit point to remember their loss: they want the story told.
Ivy Brind certainly does. Although that night left her with a violent nervous tic which required nerve surgery and physiotherapy after the war and left her with a partially-paralysed face, she has survived the blight well: worked, borne a daughter, nursed three relatives including her husband through their last illnesses, and raised money for charitable causesranging from lifeboats to guide dogs. She still lives a stone's throw from Bethnal Green station, in east London, and the only obvious symptom of what happened to her there is that she has never used it since.
In 1943, Mrs Brind was a lively 25-year-old, at the heart of a close extended family. ``My husband, Ted, was a quartermaster-sergeant in the Royal Fusiliers. I lived in a flat just below my mother's, and I had a brother and a sister single at home and two brothers married.''
Worrying unduly about air raids was not in her nature: she rarely bothered with the shelter. ``When my husband was home once on leave, we were sleeping at the alert, and he rolled over close to me. Just as well. At the all clear, he had a lump of concrete lying on his pillow. My brother was in the other room on the sofa, and all the cupboards shook out pepper and salt all over him. Somehow, you could laugh.''
But on the night of March3, ``my sister, May, was nervous. My brother's two daughters were evacuated, and my sister-in-law was pregnant they sent you out of London at eight months to have it somewhere. So my Mum and May and I were looking after her little boy.
Barry.'' Mrs Brind is a fast, lively talker, but stops at his name.
``He was two years and nine months old. I loved that baby. He'd come into bed with me. We'd play. Anyway, my sister said we had to go down the Tube because we'd bombed Berlin the night before, and if anything happened to Barry, she'd kill herself.''
Still reluctant, Mrs Brind walked to the top of the steps, and then the rockets fired. The Berlin raid, as the enquiry later pointed out, had caused fears of terrible reprisal. ``There was a terrific bang, and I don't know where all the people came from. I thought it was too much, I turned back with Barry in my arms. But we were thrown like a pack of cards. I stood ...'' Mrs Brind stands suddenly, reliving it, her arms across her chest ... ``like this. For 31/2 hours. Barry
said: `Aunty Fivy!' He called me that always. And he never spoke again.''
She did not know the child was dead. ``Just perhaps that he couldn't speak you see the fear, the screaming it could do something to a child. They climbed over us,'' she adds, quietly, ``over us, to get down. They pulled people out, no time to take pulses, just laid them on the street. I think some of them died of cold.
``Then someone took Barry away. I thought he and my mother and sister must be at the hospital. I walked through the wards. Then the sister just patted my shoulder ...'' again, an illustrative pat of her own shoulder, as Mrs Brind remembers the callous wartime briskness, ``and said, `Have a look round the mortuary tomorrow morning'. My sister said my mother had cried, `They're killing me'. People were kicking her.''
In the mortuary, ``My mother's black hair, I shall never forget, it had gone white. There was Barry, third one along. Never a mark on him, as if I'd just bathed him. I went into shock. It wasn't like bombs. In bombs you said `I'm lucky to get out alive'. I didn't think I was lucky. My brother came and he wouldn't tell my sister-in-law until she'd had the new baby. He changed out of his black after Barry's funeral to see her.
``When they did tell her, she turned and said to me, `Well. Barry's dead. How did you get out?' She never spoke to me for years. Not until her daughter was 21.''
Ted Brind was not allowed home until the war's end. For his wife, official help was limited to a medical check-up and Pounds 100 compensation for the tic and her six months off work. ``The counsellors they have now for disasters, I'd have liked that. You see, when you're talking to family and neighbours, they're in it too, the tears flow. At the funeral, my sister said to the vicar, `Don't mention God's name to me, if he was real, he wouldn't have let that happen'.
``But to talk to someone, like I'm talking to you now. Someone who isn't in it. That would help.'' Another pause. ``We loved that baby.
And my mother was just getting to the age we could have given her a more comfortable life at last. She'd given everything for us. For years, I went over and over everything that happened, thinking I could have saved Barry. But then I think of Dickie Colbert, the boxer. He was killed down there. He couldn't save himself.''
Blame, compensation claims, the suggestion, years later, that she should sell her ``true life story'' to a women's magazine, are things Mrs Brind dismisses out of dignity, as much as she dismisses the idea of forgetting. ``We'd all had a bad time. But we helped one another.
My mother used to say about the bombs, `You got to be brave'. That Tube, my mother, the baby ... even now, if I sat around this flat thinking about it, I'd be in the madhouse. So I get on with it.
What's the good of being miserable?''
Ivy Brind will be in church on Wednesday, to pay tribute. Her sister, she says regretfully, so far refuses to go. Fifty years on, she will still have nothing to do with the God who let it happen.
Copyright: Libby Purves, The Times. Friday 26 February 1993.