Survivors remember 173 dead from 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid disaster at Stairway to Heaven memorial

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

The approach of ‘Storm Freya’ wasn’t enough to deter survivors from the 1943 Second World War air-raid shelter disaster attending Sunday’s 76th anniversary memorial at Bethnal Green.

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

They had been through far worse—six years of horrific air-raids and the worst wartime civilian disaster in British history when 173 people were crushed to death in the unfinished tube station being used as a public shelter.

More than 200 people packed St John on Bethnal Green Church for the Stairway to Heaven service led by the rector, Tower Hamlets Interfaith leader Alan Green.

They included the last survivors from the tragedy, children and teenagers at the time, now in their eighties and nineties.

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

But absent for the first time this year was Dr Jane Martin, who died a year ago at 102.


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She was the young doctor on duty at the Children’s Hospital in Hackney Road on the night of March 3, 1943, where the injured were treated and some of the bodies of the dead were taken.

The names of the men, women, children and babies who died were read out during the service by members of the Stairway to Heaven trust, most of whom had lost relatives.

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

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Fr Green spoke of a recent concert at the church when he was struck by Bangladeshi children who knew all about the disaster, that the young generation today knew what had happened in Bethnal Green.

“It is right that the victims are being honoured today,” he said. “They could not be honoured at the time, due to wartime censorship.”

He was referring to the great government cover-up by the-then Secretary for Home Defence Herbert Morison to avoid the collapse of public morale, had it been known at the time that Bethnal Green borough council had warned two years earlier of impending disaster.

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

The stairway leading down to the shelter was too narrow, didn’t have safety railings and inadequately lit, the borough engineer had told Whitehall as early as 1941.

But the warnings were brushed aside on grounds of costs.

The real cost was to come—with the lives of 173 civilians, the youngest a five-month-old baby boy.

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

Civil Defence banner bearer Nick Ridsdale led a parade on Sunday across Roman Road to Bethnal Green Gardens following the service, to lay wreaths at the memorial completed 15 months ago after a 10-year fundraising campaign.

East End Pearly kings and queens were joined at the commemoration by Bethnal Green’s MP Rushanara Ali, Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs, memorial trust patron Tommy Walsh and a handful of survivors and their relatives.

The rain held off long enough for the minute’s silence—before a blustery Storm Freya began to make its presence felt.

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-rai

The Rev Alan Green conducting the annual memorial to those who died in Bethnal Green wartime air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Sandra Scotting - Credit: Stairway to Heaven Trust

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