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Legal wrangle to get Bethnal Green memorial to Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster finished

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 March 2016

Survivor Alf Morris, now 86, with Pearly kings and queens leading parade to Stairway to Heaven memorial in Bethnal Green after the service [photos: Melissa Page]

Survivor Alf Morris, now 86, with Pearly kings and queens leading parade to Stairway to Heaven memorial in Bethnal Green after the service [photos: Melissa Page]

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Legal wrangles over unforeseen insurance have thrown a spanner in the works in the race to complete the long-awaited memorial to Britain’s worst wartime disaster.

The Rev Alan Green lights 173 candles at St John on Bethnal Green church for the 173 men, women and children killed in the 1943 wartime civillian disasterThe Rev Alan Green lights 173 candles at St John on Bethnal Green church for the 173 men, women and children killed in the 1943 wartime civillian disaster

The unfinished £400,000 Stairway to Heaven memorial in London’s East End to the 173 men, women and children killed in the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid tragedy has stalled over promises made by ex-Mayor Lutfur Rahman which cannot be kept, the East London Advertiser has learned.

Organisers of Sunday’s 73rd anniversary memorial service at St John on Bethnal Green Church are having to negotiate with Tower Hamlets council and with manufacturers to get agreements in place before the memorial—now nearing completion—can finally be inaugurated.

“We’ve been told we need to cover the insurance,” Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust secretary Sandra Scotting revealed.

“The last mayor said it was covered under the council’s insurance—but he had no right to say that.

East End cockney Perly kings and queens at St John on Bethnal Green Church for the 1943 air-raid shelter disaster remembranceEast End cockney Perly kings and queens at St John on Bethnal Green Church for the 1943 air-raid shelter disaster remembrance

“The council administration under the new regime means it all has to be transparent.

“So everyone’s going backwards and forwards with legal agreements. We can’t start on the last part of the memorial till all the agreements have been signed.

“Our lawyers have been emailing the council’s solicitors—it’s getting so complex.”

There are also hold-ups in materials to finish the memorial being erected in Bethnal Green Gardens, with costs about to shoot up.

Guard of honour by crew from Bethnal Green fire-stationGuard of honour by crew from Bethnal Green fire-station

“Agreements in the first phase are not good enough for the next stage,” Sandra added. “So our manufacturers have to give specific collateral warrantees.”

Agreements should have been signed by March 1. Three of the companies have kept prices down for two years, but say they can’t hold them much longer.

Meanwhile trustees like TV’s DIY presenter Tommy Walsh are getting ready to relaunch an appeal for more funds.

He told the Advertiser: “We now find we have more money to raise because we’ve been told we’re going to be responsible for the insurance and maintenance costs.

TV's Tommy Walsh at Sunday's memorial in Bethnal Green gardensTV's Tommy Walsh at Sunday's memorial in Bethnal Green gardens

“This was supposed to have been taken over by the local authority once we had created the memorial.”

The air-raid shelter disaster on March 3, 1943, killed 173 civilians including 62 children.

All 173 names were read out while 173 candles were lit on the altar at Sunday’s service.

A crowd queuing to get into the unfinished Bethnal Green tube station, which was being used in 1943 as a wartime public air-raid shelter, suddeenly surged forward when an anti-aircraft battery launched a salvo of a new type of rockets in Victoria Park a mile away.

Day after 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster... staircase being repairedDay after 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster... staircase being repaired

Vibrations shook the ground and they believed it was a surprise German air-raid and rushed for safety.

A woman tripped with her child on the wet stairs in the dark going down into the shelter. Others fell on top of them.

Within seconds, 300 people were trapped on the staircase, 173 of them suffocated or crushed to death.

But the annual remembrance is also a race against time to complete the memorial, with fewer and fewer survivors from the tragedy 73 years ago still alive to return each year.

Ellen Ridgway... one of the 173 vicitms killed inBethnal Green air-raid shelter on March 3, 1943Ellen Ridgway... one of the 173 vicitms killed inBethnal Green air-raid shelter on March 3, 1943

Alf Morris was a survivor when an ARP warden named Maud Chumley pulled him clear from the carnage. Alf was just 13 at the time, but returns each year to remember the woman who saved his life in 1943. He has even visited her grave at the East London Cemetery in Forest Gate.

Another veteran who turns up is Reg Baker. He was nine when he and his father arrived at the shelter. They saw the crowd surging into the narrow entrance and decided to take refuge instead under the railway bridge in Bethnal Green Road, next to the Salmon & Ball pub—a chance decision that almost certainly saved his life.

But Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster was not caused by enemy action, ironically, as there was no German raid over London that night.


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