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Call for government apology after 75 years for Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster that killed 173 people

PUBLISHED: 07:00 06 January 2018 | UPDATED: 08:07 08 January 2018

Stairway to Heaven memorial at Bethnal Green Gardens.Picture: Mike Brooke

Stairway to Heaven memorial at Bethnal Green Gardens.Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

New Year preparations to mark the 75th anniversary of the Bethnal Green wartime air raid shelter disaster could be overshadowed by a looming campaign for a long-awaited government apology.

Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust secretary Sandra Scotting, also one of its founders. Picture: Mike Brooke Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust secretary Sandra Scotting, also one of its founders. Picture: Mike Brooke

People seeking safety during a German air-raid alert were “wrongly blamed” in official reports for panicking when 173 men, women and children were crushed to death trying to get down the narrow staircase to the underground shelter.

Now the charity that finally unveiled the Stairway the Heaven memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens last month is using the March 3 anniversary of the 1943 disaster to “right an historic wrong” with government recognition that the people of Bethnal Green were not to blame for lack of public safety.

“The Home Secretary of the day blamed victims, which wasn’t right,” the memorial trust’s secretary Sandra Scotting tells next Thursday’s East London Advertiser.

“He was in charge of the Civil Defence that refused Bethnal Green Council permission to make the entrance safe. Herbert Morrison blamed the victims which was hurtful—it’s time for this to be addressed.”

1941 warning letter from Bethnal Green Council 18 months before disaster that claimed 173 lives. Picture source: Rick Fountain 1941 warning letter from Bethnal Green Council 18 months before disaster that claimed 173 lives. Picture source: Rick Fountain

Sandra’s grandmother Sarah Seabrook and two-year-old cousin Barry Seabrook were among those crushed to death.

A warning was given to the government by Bethnal Green borough council 18 months earlier that there would be disaster unless the stairway down to the public shelter was made safe.

Letters uncovered by author Rick Fountain when government papers were released in 2012 show the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green formally asking for funds as early as 1941 to remove wooden hoarding and install railings.

But the Civil Defence authorities refused—and Britain’s worst civilian disaster occurred 18 months later.

Author Rick Fountain gets support from ex-Bucks Fizz star Sheryl Baker for official government apology for Bethnal Green wartime disaster. Picture: Mike Brooke Author Rick Fountain gets support from ex-Bucks Fizz star Sheryl Baker for official government apology for Bethnal Green wartime disaster. Picture: Mike Brooke

What made the 1943 tragedy worse, according to Rick’s research, was Herbert Morrison’s cover-up in Parliament, blaming panic and issuing a defence gagging order to stop the council saying anything about its previous safety warnings.

Rick said: “It’s another ‘Hillsborough’ or ‘Glenfell Tower’, blaming the victims for the lack of public safety. It took 23 years to apologise to the Hillsborough families—it’s time the people of Bethnal Green had the same after 75 years, to right an historic wrong.”

The coroner concluded at the 1943 inquest that there had been no panic, Rick’s research found. Even police gave evidence that the people didn’t panic.

He added: “Those who perished were mostly old men, housewives and mothers and children of various ages. The government had a duty as far as able to protect these harmless people, but instead shirked that duty. “It set about blackmailing the local authority when calamity struck which had issued warnings and vilifying the victims as panic-stricken. This was a disgrace.”

Henrietta Keeper, now 90, with daughter Leslie behind... Henrietta was 15 when she turned back from the stairway just in time and survived, but saw her friend Dolly Warrington killed. Picture: Mike Brooke Henrietta Keeper, now 90, with daughter Leslie behind... Henrietta was 15 when she turned back from the stairway just in time and survived, but saw her friend Dolly Warrington killed. Picture: Mike Brooke

Rick, a former BBC journalist, is calling for Bethnal Green’s MP to raise the issue with thew Prime Minister after having sent letters to Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, Home Office, the Commons Home Affairs committee and the Parliamentary Ombudsman which “has brought anything other than a curt, evasive response.”

Former Bucks Fizz star Sheryl Baker who grew up in Roman Road just yards from the scene of the 1943 tragedy has given support decades later for an official apology.

She said when Rick published his book Mr Morrison’s Conjuring Trick: “It’s shameful that warnings about the unsafe staircase were ignored. They said people of Bethnal Green had panicked—but East Enders were a stoic bunch.”

The last remaining survivors were guests at last month’s memorial unveiling, including Henrietta Keeper who turns 91 today.

Former Tower Hamlets civic mayor Anne Jackson (left) with Cllr Denise Jones at the memorial unveiling. Picture: Mike Brooke Former Tower Hamlets civic mayor Anne Jackson (left) with Cllr Denise Jones at the memorial unveiling. Picture: Mike Brooke

Henrietta was at the top of the staircase with a friend on that fateful evening when she feared the surging crowds and changed her mind about going into the shelter.

“The 15-year-old turned back to join her mother sheltering under the railway bridge by the Salmon & Ball pub instead. It saved her life, but not her friend Dolly Warrington who was killed in the stairway crush.

The move for an apology after 75 years is gathering interest from politicians including former Tower Hamlets civic mayor Anne Jackson, who made the memorial fundraising appeal her official 2007 charity, and Cllr Denise Jones who was council leader that year.

Cllr Jones told the Advertiser: “An apology like the Hillsborough disaster is a good idea. Today’s government shouldn’t be blamed, but could give an apology because it’s time.”

Bethnal Green’s MP Rushanara spoke last month to the Advertiser of a “double tragedy of losing loved ones, then being blamed for it”. The people of Bethnal Green, she believes, “didn’t get justice”.

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