Call for ‘Hillsborough’-style apology for 1943 Bethnal Green air raid shelter disaster
PUBLISHED: 18:34 04 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:51 04 March 2013
Calls for the government to finally apologise to the people of London’s East End for a wartime civilian disaster wrongly blamed on crowds panicking were made in public at yesterday’s unveiling of the long-awaited memorial.
Campaigners want the Prime Minister to re-examine the 1943 Bethnal Green shelter tragedy when 173 people died in a surge down an unsafe, narrow and badly-lit staircase during a false air raid alert.
The incident was hushed-up by wartime national security censorship for the sake of public morale and was largely forgotten.
But survivor Alf Morris, 83, chairman of the Stairway to Heaven trust who began the campaign for a memorial, told the unveiling: “The government failed to make the public shelter safe and also stopped Bethnal Green council defending themselves from accusations of neglect that hung over the Town Hall.
“We hope the people will receive a government apology as we were wrongly blamed, much like Hillsborough.”
He was a schoolboy of 13, when he recalls air-raid warning sirens going off and crowds in the street headed down the darkened staircase. A woman carrying a baby tripped in the dark and they fell on top of her, resulting in the crush.
Sadly, it was a false alarm, caused by a lone aircraft seen over London and rocket guns being test-fired in Victoria Park. There was no air-raid that day.
Former Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker, who was born in Bethnal Green, said at the memorial: “The government denied funds for proper lighting and safety rails. It wasn’t safe for a public shelter—the proof is that 173 people died.”
Wartime Home Defence Secretary Herbert Morrison prevented Bethnal Green borough council defending itself against allegations of negligence, while a secret inquiry put the cause down to crowd panic, according to investigative journalist Rick Fountain in his recent book on the affair who was at Sunday’s memorial. It was similar the 1989 Hillsborough disaster half-a-century later which finally led to a government apology last year.
TV personality builder Tommy Walsh, Memorial Trust patron, said: “Victims in the Bethnal Green and Hillsborough disasters s were wrongly accused of being the perpetrators—but they were innocent victims of circumstance.”
Cheryl and Tommy appeared with Bethnal Green’s MP Rushanara Ali at a Parliamentary reception last Tuesday to urge MPs to help raise the £117,000 needed to complete the memorial.