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Joan Martin, hospital doctor on duty during 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid disaster, dies aged 102

PUBLISHED: 12:16 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 13:23 01 February 2018

Dr Joan Martin at the Stairway to Heaven Memorial unveiling. Picture: Mike Brooke

Dr Joan Martin at the Stairway to Heaven Memorial unveiling. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

A retired doctor who was the oldest person involved in the wartime Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster in east London has died this week aged 102.

Dr Martin (centre) cuts the tape at the memorial unveiling on December 7, 2017. Picture: Mike BrookeDr Martin (centre) cuts the tape at the memorial unveiling on December 7, 2017. Picture: Mike Brooke

Dr Joan Martin cut the ribbon at December’s long-awaited unveiling of the Stairway to Heaven memorial at Bethnal Green Gardens to the 173 men, women and children killed heading into the underground public shelter during an air-raid alert.

She was the junior casualty officer on duty at the Children’s Hospital in Hackney Road on March 3, 1943, when the dead and those injured in the crush were brought in.

Dr Martin attended the annual memorial service at St John on Bethnal Green parish church every year since 2007 with her memories of that fateful night, telling her story exclusively to the East London Advertiser in 2014, when she was 99.

Dr Martin greeted by Margaret McKay, 74, the youngest survivor from the 1943 Bethnal Green disaster who was a baby of six months old. Picture: Mike BrookeDr Martin greeted by Margaret McKay, 74, the youngest survivor from the 1943 Bethnal Green disaster who was a baby of six months old. Picture: Mike Brooke

“It was the worst night of my medical career,” she told the paper.

“I had two students from the London Hospital working with me when one dead person after another arrived on stretchers. The faces were wet and mauve.

“Then a small boy with a broken arm gave us some idea what had happened at the air-raid shelter.”

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

Crowds were trying to reach safety during a sudden air-raid alert, surging down the narrow, unlit staircase into the half-built Underground station being used as a public shelter. A woman tripped and the crowd fell on top of her.

Dr Martin received the call at 8.45pm when to prepare for casualties.

“We piled the bodies in one of the consulting rooms,” she recalled. “They were beyond hope.

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs meeting Dr Martin at December's memorial unveiling. Picture: Mike BrookeTower Hamlets mayor John Biggs meeting Dr Martin at December's memorial unveiling. Picture: Mike Brooke

“The next morning we were told not to discuss what had happened. To this day, I have tried to suppress the ghastly memories of that night—and still get in a panic if I’m in a crowd at a tube station.”

Dr Martin cut the ribbon for the memorial on December 17 in good health—but sadly had a fall three weeks ago and did not recover.

Sandra Scotting founding secretary of the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, said: “Joan really enjoyed the day. I will miss her at this year’s 75th anniversary service next month. She had attended every year for the last 10 years, so it will be strange not to have her here this time.”

Dr Joan Martin (1915-2018), attending the 2014 annual service at St John-on-Bethnal Green church when she was 99. Picture: Mike BrookeDr Joan Martin (1915-2018), attending the 2014 annual service at St John-on-Bethnal Green church when she was 99. Picture: Mike Brooke

Dr Martin made sure to be at the annual service, including the year when she was 96 when the Central Line had engineering works and she had to get out at Liverpool Street—but not knowing which bus to take to Bethnal Green decided to walk the two miles.

Dr Martin’s funeral takes place on February 15 in West London.

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