Audio history of 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster is launched

PUBLISHED: 00:01 23 January 2013

Staicase leading down to air-raid shelter... workmen next day fitting safety rails [Tower Hamlets Archive]

Staicase leading down to air-raid shelter... workmen next day fitting safety rails [Tower Hamlets Archive]

TH Archive

An audio history project telling the story of Britain’s worst wartime civilian tragedy is being launched in London’s East End with £93,000 Heritage Lottery cash.

Shelter entrance at Bethnal Green after the 1943 tragedy [Tower Hamlets Archive]Shelter entrance at Bethnal Green after the 1943 tragedy [Tower Hamlets Archive]

The Lottery Fund is giving a grant to the University of East London for the project about the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid disaster in which 173 men, women, children and babies were crushed to death during a false air-raid alert.

Wartime censorship hushed it up at the time because of public morale—only a small plaque erected years afterwards marks the event.

“History has overlooked this terrible event,” said the Lottery Fund’s Sue Bowers. “That omission will now be put right and give the opportunity for some who were directly affected to share their stories and for everyone to learn about it.”

It was a tragedy that should not have happened—the air-raid sirens sounded on March 3, 1943, when a lone aircraft was spotted over London and radar-guided ack-ack guns at Victoria Park began firing into the sky.

But there was no German air-raid that day. The crowds rushed for safety—only to be caught in the massive surge on the badly-lit staircase which had no safety rails leading down.

Railings were installed the next day along with white lines painted at the edge of the steps.

A memorial is under construction in Bethnal Green Gardens by the Stairway to Heaven Trust, which is working with the university on the audio project.

Trust secretary Sandra Scotting said: “The grant will help us collate all the stories and accounts connected to the disaster. We have at least 100 stories so far.”

Recorded memories of survivors, rescuers and relatives of those who died will be gathered, along with documents about the disaster and its effect on the population at the time. These will be included in a ravelling exhibition to 12 East London venues, while audio guides are also to be installed at the memorial site featuring survivors’ interviews.

But the trust still needs £100,000 to complete the memorial and is hoping the project will be a boost for the 70th anniversary on March 3.


The project wants to hear from anyone whose family had any involvement or records from the disaster to get in touch by phone on 01732-366670 or email

If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the East London Advertiser. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the East London Advertiser