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Memorial to 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid disaster finally being unveiled by ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Trust

PUBLISHED: 08:00 15 December 2017 | UPDATED: 07:59 21 December 2017

Stairway to Heaven memorial at Bethnal Green Gardens snapped in 2016 before it was completed, which is being formally unveiled. Picture: Mike Brooke

Stairway to Heaven memorial at Bethnal Green Gardens snapped in 2016 before it was completed, which is being formally unveiled. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

A memorial to the controversial 1943 Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster in which 173 people died needlessly is finally being unveiled on Sunday after a 10-year fundraising campaign.

Alf Morris leads memorial parade in 2007. Picture Steve Bishop Alf Morris leads memorial parade in 2007. Picture Steve Bishop

This was Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster that hadn’t been caused by enemy action.

It resulted from lack of public safety precautions which led to years of post-war accusations of a government cover-up and wrongfully blaming the people of London’s East End for panicking.

But the wrangle is being put aside on Sunday when the £400,000 ‘Stairway to Heaven’ memorial is unveiled 74 years on, at Bethnal Green Gardens just yards from the Underground station entrance that led down to the wartime shelter.

Dr Joan Martin, now aged 102, on duty in A&E that night in March, 1943, receiving bodies and casualties from Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Mike Brooke Dr Joan Martin, now aged 102, on duty in A&E that night in March, 1943, receiving bodies and casualties from Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Mike Brooke

Oldest of survivors and those on duty who will be at Sunday’s unveiling is 102-year-old Dr Joan Martin, MBE, the A&E doctor at the Children’s Hospital in Hackney Road that night where many of the injured and dead were brought in.

“It was the worst night of my medical career,” she recalled years later in the East London Advertiser.

“One dead person after another arrived on stretchers, their faces wet and mauve in colour.

The staircase in 1943 after the tragedy, which became the entrance to the Underground station after the War. Picture source: Tower Hamlets Archive The staircase in 1943 after the tragedy, which became the entrance to the Underground station after the War. Picture source: Tower Hamlets Archive

“A small boy with a broken arm gave us some idea what had happened at the shelter.”

A crowd in the street tried to reach safety during a sudden air-raid alert on March 3, 1943, after hearing anti-aircraft guns being fired in Victoria Park a mile away.

They surged down the narrow, badly-lit staircase into the half-built Underground station being used as a public shelter.

The staircase in 2007 at Bethnal Green Underground station. Picture: Mike Brooke The staircase in 2007 at Bethnal Green Underground station. Picture: Mike Brooke

A woman tripped and the crowd fell on top of her—scores of men, women and 60 children died in the crush.

Ironically, there was no air-raid that night, yet Dr Martin received a call at 8.45pm to prepare for many casualties.

“They were beyond hope and we piled the bodies in one of the consulting rooms,” Dr Martin remembers.“The next morning we were told not to discuss what had happened.”

Day after Bethnal Green air-raid disaster in March, 1943, installing safety barriers... but all too late for the 173 who died. Picture source: Tower Hamlets Archive Day after Bethnal Green air-raid disaster in March, 1943, installing safety barriers... but all too late for the 173 who died. Picture source: Tower Hamlets Archive

Home Defence minister Herbert Morrison had covered up previous warnings about inadequate public safety, according to author Rick Fountain who researched Cabinet papers released in 2012.

A warning was given two years earlier by Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council of impending disaster unless the stairway from the street down into the public shelter was widened and adequate safety barriers installed, Rick discovered. But Civil Defence authorities denied them the £75,000 needed for the work.

The council was slapped with an order to say nothing after the disaster, under wartime defence regulations and the Official Secrets Act, for fear of undermining national morale in time of war if word got out that public safety warnings had been ignored.

Rick wrote in 2014 to Prime Minister David Cameron calling for an official apology and acknowledgement that the people of Bethnal Green were not to blame, but rather that the local council’s warnings were never heeded.

He cited the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where fans were wrongly blamed for the stadium collapse when 96 spectators died—it took 23 years for an official apology.

But there has been no apology in the seven-and-a-half decades from the Bethnal Green wartime disaster for blaming the people rather than lack of public safety.

Meanwhile, the last 10 years have been a labour of love by the Stairway to Heaven charity and its secretary Sandra Scotting to raise £600,000 for a memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens so that those who perished are not forgotten.

Among survivors expected for Sunday’s unveiling at 11.15am are Margaret McKay, now 75, a six-month-old baby at the time whose mother perished on the stairway, and Alf Morris, 88, who was rescued from the crush by an air-raid warden when he was 13.

Alf was to go on to set up the fundraising charity for a memorial in 2006 with fellow survivor Reg Butler, now 83.

VIPs at the unveiling are Bethnal Green’s MP Rushanara Ali, Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs and London mayor Sadiq Khan. Other East End personalities include Len Goodman, Tommy Walsh, Danny Boyle and traditional cockney Pearly kings and queens.

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