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‘Stairway to Heaven’ memorial to Bethnal Green’s wartime dead gets RIBA national award 75 years on

PUBLISHED: 19:00 22 June 2018 | UPDATED: 18:05 25 June 2018

Stairway to Heaven memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens. Picture: Steve Poston

Stairway to Heaven memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens. Picture: Steve Poston

Archant

A memorial that took 10 years to get going as a commemoration to the 173 people killed in the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster has finally won a national architects award.

Inverted 'stairway to heaven' made in teak with names of 173 vidtims of the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Steve PostonInverted 'stairway to heaven' made in teak with names of 173 vidtims of the 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster. Picture: Steve Poston

The £500,000 ‘Stairway to Heaven’ memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens is one of just 49 structures all over the UK given the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s top accolade announced last night.

It follows two London regional awards for the memorial that architect Harry Paticas received earlier this month from RIBA, the London Architect of the Year and the Project of the Year titles.

Harry, 47, who runs his ethical Arboreal Architecture practice in Old Ford Road, just three minutes’ walk from the teak memorial he created, started the project in 2007 without even having a client—yet stuck with it for 11 years until its unveiling in December.

“He has had all his hard work recognised,” the memorial trust’s secretary Sandra Scotting said.

Dr Joan Martin at 102 who was on hospital duty that night and survivor Alf Morris both cut the ribbon unveiling Stairway to Heaven memorial in December. Dr Martin sadly died six weeks later. Picture: Steve PostonDr Joan Martin at 102 who was on hospital duty that night and survivor Alf Morris both cut the ribbon unveiling Stairway to Heaven memorial in December. Dr Martin sadly died six weeks later. Picture: Steve Poston

“Architects normally just hand in their design and walk off, but Harry didn’t—he made sure everything fitted, even when it was finally erected at night.”

The main structure in teak is an inverted “stairway to heaven” with 173 conical holes letting sunrays through, one for each of man, woman and child crushed trying to reach safety on that fateful wartime night 75 years ago.

The sunrays shine onto the staircase where the tragedy occurred, that leads down to the Underground station which was used as a public air-raid shelter during the Second World War.

Harry read about survivor Alf Morris in the East London Advertiser in 2006 who at 13 had been pulled clear by an air-raid warden from the surging crowd that save his life in the crush on March 3, 1943.

Harry Paticas, RIBA Architect of the Year 2018, gives talk on his design for Bethnal Green's Stairway to Heaven Memorial. Picture: Gretel EnsigniaHarry Paticas, RIBA Architect of the Year 2018, gives talk on his design for Bethnal Green's Stairway to Heaven Memorial. Picture: Gretel Ensignia

Harry recalls: “There was just a small plaque at the station entrance. I had the idea for a proper memorial—but no client.

“Then I met Alf who said he’d been waiting 50 years for someone like me to come along!”

They arranged a public meeting at St John on Bethnal Green parish church, which had been used as a temporary mortuary that night in 1943.

The meeting attracted 200 people including relatives and other survivors which galvanised into a fundraising campaign and the memorial trust being set up.

Survivor Reg Butler at December's unveiling of the Stairway to Heaven memorial to the disaster he lived through as a boy. Picture: Mike BrookeSurvivor Reg Butler at December's unveiling of the Stairway to Heaven memorial to the disaster he lived through as a boy. Picture: Mike Brooke

The fundraising hit a few brick walls during the financial recession, but carried on over the years, trimming the ambitious bronze memorial idea to sustainable teak and the original £1m estimate down to £470,000.

The civic mayor of Tower Hamlets named it her charity of the year in 2007 which put campaign on the fundraising map and donations began seeping in.

Harry Paticas saw his dream come true with December’s unveiling. Last night’s RIBA award with the London awards last month was the nation’s final recognition of his personal tribute to the people of Bethnal Green whose lives ended on that tragic night.

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