Remembrance art marks Bethnal Green’s 1943 air-raid shelter disaster

Staircase today that led down to air-raid shelter in 1943

Staircase today that led down to air-raid shelter in 1943 - Credit: Catharsis PR

An avoidable wartime disaster which killed 173 civilians in London’s East End that was covered up by the Official Secrets Act is being marked by a conceptual art show on Remembrance Sunday.

Staircase today that led down to air-raid shelter in 1943

Staircase today that led down to air-raid shelter in 1943 - Credit: Catharsis PR

Kim Zip is staging Tube at Bethnal Green parish church as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursdays art stream.

Staircase today that led down to air-raid shelter in 1943

Staircase today that led down to air-raid shelter in 1943 - Credit: Catharsis PR

The sound piece commemorates Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster when families seeking shelter during an air-raid alert — including 60 children — were crushed to death trying to get down a narrow staircase to the unfinished Bethnal Green Underground station which was being used as a public shelter.

It is being performed in the belfry of St John on Bethnal Green overlooking the site of the disaster.

Kim’s work is part of a double-installation that focuses on Government conspiracy and censorship past and present.

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The music ranges from conventional electronica to more challenging ambient and industrial segments and includes audio interviews blaming Lord Mandelson’s grandfather, Labour grandee Herbert Morrison, for the tragedy on March 3, 1943.

“Tube is about a conspiracy — a good old fashioned cover-up,” Kim explains.

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“Morrison was the wartime Home Secretary who was personally to blame for not making the public air-raid shelter safe, at a relatively paltry cost of £88.

“Rather than admit responsibility for the deaths of 173 innocent civilians, he terrorised the people of the East End into silence with the threat of jail.

“The Official Secrets Act was invoked, which went way beyond the call of wartime duty.

“In fact, it gave all those responsible 50 years to get off scot free — and of course also consigned the victims and their relatives to 50 years of frustration on top of the pain and anguish they had suffered because of the deaths that night.”

A mother with a child tripped on the wet steps going down to the shelter when air-raid sirens went off around 8.30pm on March 3. An elderly man fell behind her.

A crowd surged down without realising what had happened. Within seconds, the pressure turned the narrow staircase into “a charnel house” in the words of a public inquiry.

Five of the 60 children crushed to death were babies, the youngest just five months old.

It was a greater disaster than Aberfan in 1966 or Hillsborough in 1989, but remained shrouded in secrecy until 2012 because of the Official Secrets Act.

Bethnal Green borough council was blamed and made the scapegoat, with Whitehall secretly reimbursing their compensation to victims.

An opening passage of the artwork features Steff Brammar, a descendant of Bethnal Green’s Mayoress at the time, telling how the leading councillor was spat at in the street and eventually fled the East End because the Government forced her to shoulder the blame.

“The cruelty of the cover-up was that Bethnal Green council had begged Whitehall time and time again for safer steps down to the shelter,” Kim added.

“But Morrison had repeatedly turned down pleas from the borough engineer.

“He brought in the Official Secrets Act well beyond the call of wartime duty — to save his own political skin.

“He tortured people who were not only victims of the disaster, but were in some ways the retrospective heroes who had tried and failed to get something done to prevent the tragedy.”

The conspiracy was first uncovered last year by researcher and author Rick Fountain on Morrison’s role in the tragedy and revealed in the East London Advertiser.

But Kim Zip’s installation takes the theme of official conspiracy forward into the present day, leading viewers to an allied exhibit called Forced, an 8ft conceptual art panel displaying a censored text from a modern British court.

Kim admits to openly inviting contempt of court proceedings and even jail by exhibiting it, explaining: “This highlights a secret affidavit from our misnamed ‘family’ courts, the subject of so much protest, cover up and bloodshed today.

“It’s a statement from a mother-of-three, pleading to see her own ‘forcibly adopted’ children.

“She had 15 tragic minutes of fame when she died with her lover on a marooned yacht.

“But I’m interested in the censored story that led to her death.”

He describes Tube and Forced as modern political art, part of a debut London exhibition by the Fish Factory arts collective.

“How better to create truly modern art than to use modern media to expose censored truths to the public?” he asks.

The exhibition is staged at St John on Bethnal Green Church in Cambridge Heath Road, on the corner of Roman Road opposite Bethnal Green tube station, from tomorrow (Thurs), and each weekend including Remembrance Sunday until December 5, supported by the Whitechapel Gallery.

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