Vindicated! East Enders blamed for Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster
PUBLISHED: 20:09 07 March 2012
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.”
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
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
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