Doctor, age 101, relives the night of Bethnal Green’s 1943 air-raid shelter disaster
PUBLISHED: 21:42 08 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:59 09 March 2017
The doctor on duty the night 173 people were crushed to death in Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster was the special guest at Sunday’s 74th anniversary memorial service.
Dr Joan Martin, just turned 101 in November, has had nightmares down the years following the tragedy at the Bethnal Green air-raid shelter in London’s East End when she had to examine 30 of the bodies.
She was a junior medical officer on duty on March 3, 1943, at Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital in Hackney Road which was being used as an emergency casualty centre and makeshift mortuary.
“I was so shocked I didn’t even tell my mother what happened,” Dr Martin tells tomorrow’s East London Advertiser. “I didn’t tell anyone, not for years.
“My job was to assess if they were dead or not. I had to move the bodies which was heavy work.”
Dr Martin was so shocked that she couldn’t face getting on a bus or train after her shift and walked to Hammersmith across a bomb-scarred London.
She kept quiet about the tragedy because of wartime Defence Regulations and kept her memories to herself for the next seven decades.
“The nightmares were always about people being trampled to death,” she reveals. “I might go six weeks without a bad dream—then it comes back.”
She was on duty with two medical students when the asphyxiated bodies were brought into the hospital, one after another.
They died because the stairs leading down to the shelter were too narrow, had no hand-rail and was badly lit.
The circumstances were covered up by wartime regulations which hid the true cause from the public which Bethnal Green borough council had predicted and warned two years before the tragedy.
But the Town Hall was refused the cash to make the entrance safe and was vilified afterwards by Home Security Minister Herbert Morrison and slapped with a gagging order, according to research by former BBC journalist Rick Fountain.
Most of the bodies were taken to St John on Bethnal Green Church as a temporary mortuary, where Sunday’s service was held.
Dr Martin, long since retired from medical practice, still finds the memories of examining the bodies vivid 74 years on.
“I was so shocked I couldn’t get on a bus or any sort of transport at the end of that night shift,” she tells you. “So I walked all the way to Hammersmith.
“It took me all day and I went to see my mentor, a consultant from the hospital. She took me in for the night—and told me never to tell anyone what happened. There were wartime Defence Regulations.
“I just went on having the nightmares all these years keeping it to myself. It was a life sentence for me.”
The main theme of Sunday’s memorial service was the lighting of 173 candles, one for every lost soul that night, their names read out to a silent congregation.
The ‘Stairway’ memorial half-erected in Bethnal Green Gardens by the entrance to the deep-level tube station—used as a public shelter before the Central Line was extended from Liverpool Street—has been delayed by “red tape” and the construction company going bust, first revealed in the Advertiser.
The memorial trust’s secretary Sandra Scotting said: “We are frustrated that it isn’t finished. The legal agreement to add the teak stairway on top took eight months.
“Government Tzars, red tape, rules and Tower Hamlets council restrictions conspired against us—but don’t blame the mayor who was just as frustrated by the delays.”
Terms were finally agreed in December—but the trust was then dealt another blow when the construction company due to install the teak stairway onto the memorial plinth went into administration.
Among the 173 dead were men, women and children including babies, the youngest just five months old.
The air-raid siren had sounded and rocket guns in Victoria Park fired at a lone aircraft seen over London that night.
Crowds scrambled into the shelter. But a woman carrying a child tripped in the dark and the surging crowd fell on top in the rush for safety.
Ironically, there was no German air-raid on London that night.