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Vindicated! East Enders blamed for Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster

PUBLISHED: 20:09 07 March 2012

After 1943 disaster... Shelter entrance now has brick safety wall to prevent crowd surge into narrow staircase

After 1943 disaster... Shelter entrance now has brick safety wall to prevent crowd surge into narrow staircase

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Startling new evidence has emerged for the first time in 69 years that vindicates the people of London’s East End who were blamed in a Government report for panicking during an air-raid alert when 173 people were crushed to death at the Bethnal Green public air-raid shelter—Britain’s worst civilian wartime disaster.

Official records blame shelter users being at fault for the stampede that sent men, women, children and babies to their deaths.

Bethnal Green Council, the local authority at the time, was blamed for negligence.

But former BBC reporter Rick Fountain has unearthed Government documents he says shows the council had warned of the danger of the narrow shelter entrance two years before the tragedy—but their warnings were brushed aside by the civil defence authority of the day.

A Government inquiry and a High Court hearing—both behind closed doors—gagged council officials under wartime regulations and blamed them and the people for the tragedy.

“Bethnal Green Council was silenced by threats and saddled with the ignominy of a shocking catastrophe,” Rick told the East London Advertiser this week.

“The people of the East End who had endured the carnage of the Blitz two years before were now defamed as cowards who had cracked under the bombings.”

He claims the Minister for Home Safety in Churchill’s wartime cabinet, Herbert Morrison, covered up the truth afterwards about who was responsible.

The borough engineer was instructed a year and two years before disaster struck for permission to spend £88 on a brick surround to make the shelter entrance wider and safer, Rick has discovered.

“The council feared an anxious crowd could be ‘precipitated down the staircase’,” he says in book just published, ‘Mr Morrison’s Conjuring Trick’.

“But they were told by the Civil Defence authorities it would be a waste of money.”

“The council was bullied into silence by threats and saddled with the blame of a shocking catastrophe.”

Days after, the brick walls and better lighting were installed.

But a Government gag meant the council was barred from giving evidence on “national security” grounds to the inquiry—which led to a ruling of negligence.

“It was a perversion of justice,” the author insists. “The official verdict cannot remain unchallenged—“Bethnal Green and its people must be vindicated.”

CABINET COVER-UP

Herbert Morrison, Home Security Minister in Churchill’s wartime cabinet, brazened it out in the Commons to avoid calls for his resignation over the Bethnal Green disaster, according to Rick Fountain.

His book, coinciding with the 69th anniversary last week, blames the Civil Defence for lack of public safety and vindicates Bethnal Green Council which he has discovered from National Archives had asked four times in 1941 and ’42 for permission to spend £88 on a brick surround outside the shelter entrance.

“Herbert Morrison would have faced calls to resign if it had become known the danger had been foreseen,” Rick says.

“The matter has not been put right, even 69 years on. Morrison was allowed to brazen it out in the Commons. No-one could disentangle what actually happened and why.

“An outcry rang out when news of the disaster was reported, with demands for a public inquiry headed by a judge.

“But Morrison appointed a magistrate with much less political weight, Laurence Dunne, placing a Ministry official alongside him to help shape the official narrative.”

Morrison told the Cabinet that the real problem was shelterers panicking, according to Fountain’s book.

The Ministry then sent a top-secret White Paper to the council telling them they were now “bound by the Official Secrets Act” and could say nothing about the tragedy beyond the official version.

Claims for compensation were made in the High Court the following year, July 1944, by Annie Baker from Braintree Street, Bethnal Green, who lost her husband George, 38, and daughter Minnie, 14, in the crush.

But Morrison’s gag meant councillors were barred from giving evidence of their earlier warning.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Work has now begun on the long-awaited memorial to those crushed to death in the surge down the air-raid shelter staircase on that fateful day on March 3, 1943.

The foundation-laying ceremony for the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ memorial has finally got the project off the ground to mark the disaster.

The memorial is being erected in Bethnal Green Gardens, just yards from the entrance to the Underground station which was not yet completed and was being used as a public air-raid shelter.

The tragedy began on the early evening when unidentified aircraft had been spotted over London.

A lone aircraft was picked out by a radar-guided searchlight operated in Bethnal Green Gardens when a bank of 18 rocket guns in Victoria Park fired off, shaking the ground for a mile around.

A barrage of Ack-Ack guns followed and crowds in the street rushed for cover at the shelter.

Two buses pulled and passengers leapt off and headed for the entrance—adding to the surging crowd trying to get down the narrow staircase.

A woman tripped and the crowds fell on top of her, crushing one-another by the sheer weight of bodies.

In just 90 seconds, 173 people—toddlers and babies among them—had suffocated.

An official magistrate’s report later described “the stairway converted from a corridor to a charnel house in 10 to 15 seconds.”

One of the surviving youngsters was 13-year-old Alf Morris from Old Ford Road—pulled clear by Air Raid warden Maud Chumley.

Alf, now 82, recalled: “There were unidentified aircraft that night—it was no false alarm. Even the BBC shut down so the German pilots wouldn’t be able to home in the signal.”

He now chairs the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust raising the £500,000 target to complete the memorial—hopefully in time for next year’s 70th anniversary—and organises the annual multi-faith memorial service at St John-on-Bethnal Green Church.

Last Sunday, they lit 173 candles before all 173 names of the dead were read out, then laid wreaths at the station entrance opposite—scene of the disaster 69 years ago.

DEATH TOLL OF BRITAIN’S WORST WARTIME CIVILIAN DISASTER

6 babies, youngest 5 months old

7 toddlers aged 3-5

38 children aged 15 and under

84 women

27 men

The tally of dead struck many families several times, one family losing six members including two babies.

Four other babies also died that night—the youngest just five months old.

Four-year-old Kenneth Sharpe and his 16-month-old baby sister Irene were visiting from Maidstone and staying with their aunt Olive Thorpe, 36, and cousins Marie, 11, and two-year-old baby Barbara, in their home at 20 Kerbella Street, off Bethnal Green Road. They all died in the air-raid shelter.

Annie Ellam, 44, from 31 Wessex Street, died with her three children, Frances, 20, Rosina, 17, and two-year-old baby Pauline.

Three more babies were crushed in the carnage, Robert Yeaman from 5 Peel Grove and Iris Clatworthy from 156 Bancroft Road, both aged two, and the youngest of all, Carole Ann Geary, just five months old, from 9 Peary Place.

Six members of the Mead family were killed, George and Florence Mead, from 7 Peary Place, and their children, George Jnr, 12, Kenny, 10, Maureen, 4, and granny Eliza Mead, 67, from 66 Newcourt House nearby.

Louisa Hoye, 44, from 106 Roman Road, died with her three daughters, Rose, 19, Lilian, 13, and Marjorie, 7.

Ted and Bessie Roche, 40 and 42, from 123 Canrobert Street, died with their children Joan, 9, and Eddie, 8.

Elizabeth Quorn, 43, from 5 Peel Grove, died with her children William, 14, and Gwendoline, 5.

Pensioners Florence and Thomas Letchmere, both 66, from 3 Entick Street, died with their son Thomas, 48.

Nine neighbours from the Burnham estate were found dead together. They included Edith Bosworth, 50, and daughter Irene, 17, Lilian Chandler, 35, and daughter Doreen, 14, Mary Hall, 47, and daughter Irene, 8.

Also among the dead was professional boxer Richard Colman, 34, from 12 Whitman House, who fought under the name Dick Corbet.

Another 63 were taken to hospital including 23 children.

ROLLCALL OF DEATH

NAME (AGE), ADDRESS

Aarons, Betty (14), of 10 Crescent Hse

Asser, Jesse (33), 44 Newcourt Hse

Baker, George (38), 43 Braintree St

Baker, Minnie (14), 43 Braintree St

Bailey, Mary (72), 27 Whitman Hse

Bailey, Rose (41), 27 Whitman Hse

Bars, Eileen (7), 39 Portman Pl

Beaken, Ethel Louisa (53), 29 Morris Hse

Beaken, Eileen Louisa (17), 29 Morris Hse

Beaken, Matilda Jane (40), 70 Handley Rd

Berger, Emily Jemima (57), 12 Stainsbury St

Bendon, Elizabeth (38), 73 Cyprus St

Bennett, Emma Maud (48), 15 Moore Hse

Bosworth, Irene Patricia (17), 10 Burnham Est

Bosworth, Edith (50), 10 Burnham Est

Boxer, Annie (24), 20 Hunslett St

Brooks, Henry Norman (10), 11 Swinburne Hse

Brooks, Jessie (46), 11 Swinburne Hse

Brookstone, Israel (67), 41 Teesdale St

Bowling, Bessie (59), 1 Milton Hse

Bowling, Eliza (31), 1 Milton Hse

Butterfield, Allan (3), 149 Corfield St

Butterfield, George (28), 149 Corfield St

Butterfield, Lottie (28), 149 Corfield St

Chandler, Doreen Mary (14), 21 Burnham Est

Chandler, Lilian Mary (35), 21 Burnham Est

Chapman, Charlotte Elizabeth (25), 21 Hersee Pl

Chapman, George James (25), 17 Swinburne Hse

Clatworthy, Iris (2), 156 Bancroft Rd

Clatworthy, Joan (9½), 156 Bancroft Rd

Coleman, Maud Louisa (54), 236 Globe Rd

Collett, Doreen (11), 9 Stainsbury St

Collett, Rose (50), 9 Stainsbury St

Collett, Ronald (8), 9 Stainsbury St

Colman, Richard Trueman (34), 12 Whitman Hse

(alias Dick Corbet, boxer)

Court, Patricia Marie (24), 6 Electric Hse

Day, John Lewis (69), 6 Gawber St

Dongrey, Annie (22), 33 Bandon Rd

Ellam, Rosina Ellen (17), 31 Wessex St

Ellam, Annie Eva (44), 31 Wessex St

Ellam, Frances Lilian (20), 31 Wessex St

Ellam, Pauline (2½), 31 Wessex St

Emery, Clara (78), 41 Hollybush Gdns

Ewett, Ivy (23), 1 Digby St

Fletcher, Alexander (3), 334 Corfield St

Fletcher, Elizabeth (28), 334 Corfield St

Forbes, Leonora (57), 27 Bishops Way

Forbes, Irene Catherine (17), 27 Bishops Way

Fowler, Mary Ann (45), 42 Gawber St

French, Lilian (29), 73 Cyprus St

Geary, Carole Ann (5 months), 9 Peary Pl

Geary, Sylvia Sadie (6),9 Peary Pl

Grover, Ethel (48), 302 Globe Rd

Hall, Edna Phoebe (13), 148 Mansford St

Hall, Annie Jessie (52), 148 Mansford St

Hall, Irene (8), 17 Burnham Est

Hall, Mary Ann ( 47), 17 Burnham Est

Hales, Joe (53), 8 Crossland Sq

Hammond, Rhoda (44), 18 Approach Rd

Harris, Olive Margaret (17), 86 Royston St

Hayman, Mary Ann (19), 26 Burnham Est

Hawley, Leonard Joseph (64), 143 Antill Rd

Higginson, Emily (62), 10 Seabright St

Hillier, Mary Ann (61), 3 Kirkwall Pl

Hiscocke, Ivy (22), 65 Gretton Hse

Hoye, Lilian (13), 106 Roman Rd

Hoye, Marjorie (7), 106 Roman Rd

Hoye, Louisa (44), 106 Roman Rd

Hoye, Rose (19), 106 Roman Rd

Hutchinson, Joan Peggy (10), 16 Bonwell St

Hutchinson, William George (6), 16 Bonwell St

Ingle, Agnes Maud (28), 247 Globe Rd

Johnson, Caroline Ivy (14), 11 Holly Mans

Johnson, Helen Emma (6), 11 Holly Mans

Jolly, Sarah (51), 41 Burnham Est

Johns, Peter (7½), 41 Burnham Est

Jones, Estella (57), 33 Old Ford Rd

Juilier, Henry (18), 91 Bishops Way

Korobenic, Eliza (33), 66 Newcourt Hse

Land, Barbara (7), 1 Bullards Pl

Land, Martha Elizabeth (56), 43 Monteith Rd

Lapham, Ronald (15), 10 Approach Rd

Lawson, Anthony William (7), 172 Roman Rd

Lawson, Patricia Eileen (3), 172 Roman Rd

Lazarus, Maurice (42), 157 Bethnal Green Rd

Letchmere, Florence Rosetta (66), 3 Entick St

Letchmere, Thomas Allen (48), 19 Entick St

Letchmere, Thomas (66), 3 Entick St

Leggett, Benjamin George (31), 16 Bandon Rd

Leggett, Rose Maud (31), 16 Bandon Rd

Leggett, Roy Benjamin (7), 16 Bandon Rd

Lewis, George Ronald (10), 10 Moore Hse

Lewis, Lilie Elizabeth (14), 10 Moore Hse

Loftus, John Samuel (13), 32 Grendon Hse

Loftus, Louisa Ellen (15), 32 Grendon Hse

Maguire, Jean Mary (9), 28 Butler Est

Mason, Charles (50), 20 Russia La

Mathers, Ruby (18), 116 Beale Rd

Mead, Eliza (67), 66 Newcourt Hse

Mead, Florence (35), 7 Peary Pl

Mead, George (40), 7 Peary Pl

Mead, George (12), 7 Peary Pl

Mead, Maureen (4) 7 Peary Pl

Mead, Kenneth (10), 7 Peary Pl

Morris, Derek (6), 25 Montfort Hse

Morris, Florence Maud (30), 25 Montfort Hse

Myers, Jeffrey (6), 55 Cleveland Way

Neville, Alfred (45), 42 Gawber St

Newman, Doris (9), 24 Tagg St

Newman, George (45), 24 Tagg St

Newton, Sarah Ann (28), 25 Wessex St

Nixon, William Henry (14), 7 Burns Hse

Papworth, Rosina (27), 80 Morpeth St

Patterson, Mary (44), 8 Brierly St

Perryment, Iris (17), 74 Morpeth St

Poole, Sarah (54), 87 Mansford St Bldgs

Price, Rose Elizabeth (27), 37 Viaduct Street, E2

Pusey, Emily (48), 7 Shelley Hse

Pusey, Henry (50), 7 Shelley Hse

Quorn, Emily Elizabeth (43), 5 Peel Gro

Quorn, Gwendoline Mary (5), 5 Peel Gro

Quorn, William Frederick (14), 5 Peel Gro

Raulinaitis, Joseph (32), 9 Hammond Gdns

Redwin, Eileen Margaret (7), 236 Globe Rd

Relf, Rose Lilian (13), 192 Wilmot St

Relf, Rose Lilian (41), 192 Wilmot St

Reynolds, George Francis (72), 239 Cambridge Heath Rd

Riddell, Stella (13), 51 Burnham Est

Ridgeway, Ellen (28), 24 Brierly St

Roche, Bessie (42), 123 Canrobert St

Roche, Eddie (8), 123 Canrobert St

Roche, Joan (9), 123 Canrobert St

Roche, Ted (40), 123 Canrobert St

Seabrooke, Sarah Florence (62), 163 Gretton Hse

Seabrooke, Barry James (3), 163 Gretton Hse

Sears, William Herbert (50), 15 Patriot Square, E2

Sharpe, Irene (16 months), 5 Kings Flats, Maidstone, staying at 20 Kerbela St

Sharpe, Kenneth (4), 5 Kings Flats, Maidstone, staying at 20 Kerbela St

Sheperd, Arthur Theodore (42), 19 Model Bdgs, Kings Cross

Smith, Dorothy Ann (12), 9 Roman Rd

Sceats, Lilian Doris (15), 31 Whitman Hse

Speight, Edith Margaret (47), 9 Horwood Hse

Sinnocks, Lydia Elizabeth (62), 6 Morpeth St

Spicer, Joan Pamela (5), 10 Bonwell St

Spicer, Tony Anthony Edwin (9), 10 Bonwell St

Stevens, Mary Anne Elizabeth (55), 36a Waterloo Gdns

Stretch, Rose (39), 159 Wilmot St

Stretch, William (9), 159 Wilmot St

Tarbuck, George (45), 63 Newcourt Hse

Tarbuck, Louisa (44), 63 Newcourt Hse

Taylor, Sarah (54), 27 Wessex St

Taylor, James William (12), 10 Lansdell Pl

Thompson, Kate (53), 83 Quinns Sq

Thorpe, Barbara (2), 20 Kerbela St

Thorpe, Marie (11), 20 Kerbela St

Thorpe, Olive (36), 20 Kerbela St

Tilbury, Clara Selina (49), 31 Burnham Est

Trayling, Irene Lilian (20), 9 Kirkwall Pl

Trice, Isabella Rose (39), 42 Wessex St

Trotter, Lilian Maud (36), 26 Morpeth St

Trotter, Vera Lilian (7), 26 Morpeth St

Vann, Maud (23), 74 Hadrian Est

Vanner, Florence Eliza (49), 68 Burnham Est

Warrington, Doris Beatrice (16), 62 Blythe St

Welch, James (52), 37 Digby Est

Whitehead, James Henry (69), 6 Viaduct St

Wilson, Edna Rosina (15), 37 Butler Est

Wood, Alfred William (60), 5 Kenilworth Rd

Woolnough, Elsie Hilda (37), 35 Mansford Bldg

Woolnough, Alice Elsie (12), 35 Mansford Bldg

Yeaman, John Robert Charles (1), 5 Peel Gro

TOTAL: 173


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