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Story of how women died in 1943 Bethnal Green air raid shelter disaster is now told

PUBLISHED: 17:36 28 February 2020 | UPDATED: 17:36 28 February 2020

Annual Remembrance at St John on Bethnal Green for the 173 people killed in 1943 air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Mike Brooke

Annual Remembrance at St John on Bethnal Green for the 173 people killed in 1943 air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

How Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster hit the women of Bethnal Green is revealed as part of International Women’s Week being staged by Tower Hamlets Council.

Dr Joan Martin... heroine of Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster who died in 2018 aged 102. Picture: Mike BrookeDr Joan Martin... heroine of Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster who died in 2018 aged 102. Picture: Mike Brooke

The toll of the Bethnal Green public shelter tragedy in 1943 included 84 women and 36 girls out of the 173 people crushed to death trying to reach safety during an air-raid alert in the Second World War.

Woman played a leading role running services and keeping London safe during the war years, while most men were away in the Armed Forces.

They included Joan Martin, the young doctor on duty at the Children's Hospital in Hackney Road on the night of the tragedy where the injured were treated and some of the bodies of the dead were taken.

Air Raid warden Maud Chumdley... Heroine of 1943 Bethnal Green shelter disaster. Pictures: Tower Hamlets ArchiveAir Raid warden Maud Chumdley... Heroine of 1943 Bethnal Green shelter disaster. Pictures: Tower Hamlets Archive

Joan returned each year for the March 3 anniversary remembrance, even at the age of 102 when she unveiled the memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens in 2018, just weeks before she died.

One of the rescuers on the night of the tragedy was air raid warden Maud Chumdley who managed to pull several children clear of the crush and saved their lives, including 13-year-old Alf Morris, now aged 90, who regularly visits her grave.

An exhibition of the 1943 tragedy runs March 2 to April 4 at Tower Hamlets Archive Library in Mile End as part of Women's Month and is being curated by the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust.

Women take refuge in Bethnal Green's wartime public air-raid shelter. Picture: Tower Hamlets ArchiveWomen take refuge in Bethnal Green's wartime public air-raid shelter. Picture: Tower Hamlets Archive

It is one of many Tower Hamlets events focussing on women's contributions to society.

"These events show social and cultural achievements of women in the East End," Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs said. "They remind us about our responsibility as a community to foster equality for all."

Other events include author Joyce Hampton at the library in Bancroft Road exploring the impact of two world wars on Bethnal Green and how social changes affected women, on March 12 at 6pm, booking required.

Women remembered who died in the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter tragedy. Picture: Mike BrookeWomen remembered who died in the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter tragedy. Picture: Mike Brooke

Elsewhere, an exhibition of photographs recording the lives of women in the East End taken by women photographers from the 1970s to the present day is being held at Whitechapel's Brady arts centre in Hanbury Street from March 2 to 28.


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