Walking down the 19 steps into Bethnal Green tube station, you barely notice the discreet plaque above the staircase; ask the station staff where the memorial is and you’ll be met with a blank look. It’s not exactly what you’d expect to mark the disaster with the largest civilian death toll of the Second World War – the night of 3 March 1943, when 173 people were crushed to death trying to get into the station during an air raid.
But that could be about to change after two young architects spotted the plaque and pledged to build a proper memorial. “About two years ago I caught sight of the plaque on my way down to the Tube,” says architect Harry Paticas, 35. The fact that he’d been living in Bethnal Green for six years is testament to the modesty of the memorial. “I did some research and once I found out the story, I wanted to do something about it. It’s amazing that people don’t know about it.”
On that tragic night in 1943, the residents of Bethnal Green were making their way into the deep underground station to shelter during an air raid as they’d been doing for more than two years.
Some 1,500 people had made it safely underground when the searchlight went on and army missiles started firing. Survivor Alf Morris, who was 13 at the time, remembers it like it was yesterday: “Somebody said, ‘It’s a bomb’ and everyone surged forward and blocked the entrance.”
The steps were wet with rain, the centre handrail was missing, and the only light source was a single 25 watt bulb. When someone at the front stumbled, the crowd, not able to see, piled on top. 300 people were crushed in the stairwell; in just 17 seconds, 173 were asphyxiated – more than the victims of the Paddington, Moorgate and King’s Cross disasters and the 7 July bombings combined.
“I was three steps from the bottom, holding my aunt’s hand,” says Morris. “Everybody was screaming and we got separated. I was carried downstairs by the surge and somehow managed to grab hold of the side rail and pull myself against it. There were people falling on top of me.
“I was rescued by an air raid warden called Mrs Chumley – that name will stay with me until the day I die. She pulled me out by my hair and I was screaming. When my aunt got out, she’d lost her shoes and coat and she was black and blue down one side.”
The disaster was so bad that most of the battered bodies had to be identified by their clothes. “The scale of what had happened didn’t really sink in until the week afterwards, when the funerals started,” says Morris. “We were having 15 a day. Seven members of one family had gone down and only one came back up.”
The disaster was kept quiet. Newspapers reported the incident as a “direct hit” on the station. An official report blaming an air raid would not be published until 1946 – after the war.
For half a century nothing was done to remember the tragedy. Then finally, in 1993, the 50th anniversary was marked with the unassuming plaque above the staircase. On the 60th anniversary, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets tied a wreath to the railings. “It is disgusting,” says Morris. “There should have been a proper memorial from the start.”
Paticas agrees. “This is an entire community we’re talking about,” he says.
Along with fellow architect Jens Borstelmann, 33, he has designed a bronze cast of the station stairs containing 173 lights. It will be inverted and suspended above the stairway, with 173 beams of light shining downwards. There will also be a bronze-covered support and a two-seater bench in the garden next to the station. The plan, backed by 2,000 locals, including survivors and relatives of the dead, is to inaugurate the “Stairway to Heaven”, as it’s been tagged, next year, on the 65th anniversary of the disaster. But first they need to raise £600,000 to build the memorial.
Positive noises have been made by Tower Hamlets council and Metronet, which maintains the Central Line. London Underground, which owns the station, is still considering the proposal.
If the residents don’t get permission for the monument to be built on London Underground’s property, it will have to be transferred to the adjacent garden – under the auspices of Tower Hamlets council.
But Alf Morris and the Bethnal Green residents plan to keep fighting. “I survived for a reason – God let me go so I could get this memorial. I’ll be happy when people can go there and lay a wreath. If I have to tell the story every day for the rest of my life to get it, it’ll be worth it.” With Paticas and Borstelmann on board, a more fitting memorial might finally be on the cards.
By Julia Buckley. Monday, 15 January 2007
Copyright The London Paper