Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Annual Memorial Service, Sunday 1 March, 2pm

Posted by on Jan 20, 2020 | Comments Off on Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Annual Memorial Service, Sunday 1 March, 2pm

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Annual Memorial Service, Sunday 1 March, 2pm

Remembering the 173 people who lost their lives on the steps of the underground station on 3 March, 1943.

Here’s a piece from the Guardian of 16 December 2017 by our local MP, Rushanara Ali, at the time the new memorial was unveiled:

On Sunday morning, adjacent to Bethnal Green tube station in east London, a memorial marking the deadliest civilian incident in Britain during the second world war will be unveiled. On the night of 3 March 1943, local people were alarmed after a new anti-aircraft battery gunperformed an unannounced test. War-hardy east Londoners fled to their nearest air raid shelter: the unfinished Bethnal Green tube. The station entrance had been deemed unsafe by the local council, which had asked central government three times that it be altered to make it safe for large crowds, but it had been refused permission.

With the steps wet from the rain, no handrail on the staircase and no white paint to mark each step, a woman carrying a baby fell, pulling another man on top of her. Before they could get back on their feet, others fell on top of them; and in the darkness, within minutes 173 people (including 62 children) had been crushed to death.

Following the disaster, the families of the victims were prohibited from speaking out because of wartime secrecy. In an attempt to protect figures in Westminster, the engineer’s letters highlighting the dangers the stairway presented were kept secret. Blame was subsequently incorrectly apportioned to the local council, and the victims were accused of panicking in response to a separate German bombardment.

From Sunday, those walking past Bethnal Green tube station will see a full-size replica of the tube’s staircase made from teak wood. Carved into the side of each step are names commemorating the 173 who lost their lives.

Seventy-four years is a long time to wait for a memorial, but its presence matters deeply. This memorial speaks to the importance of the process of honouring those who died, allowing communities to grieve together and collectively remember, as well as marking the history of east London, which suffered so heavily during the second world war. It highlights the fact that many innocent women and children become casualties of wars all around the world, even today. But the memorial also provides an opportunity to learn lessons from the injustices of the past.

The injustice of the Bethnal Green tube disaster bears many similarities with other preventable disasters that have occurred across Britain since the war.

Take the disaster in the mining villageof Aberfan on 21 October 1966, when almost an entire school was crushed by a black avalanche of coal waste from a hillside tip: 144 people died, 116 of them children. At the time, the National Coal Board (NCB), which was responsible for the hillside tip, managed to avoid financial responsibilities for the accident, despite local organisations, including the school itself, having raised concerns about the safety of the NCB tips. It was only after official papers were released 30 years later that the negligence of the NCB was fully exposed and families finally received justice.

Or take the Hillsborough disaster. On the afternoon of 15 April 1989, 94 people were crushed to death during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest (two further victims died later). Initial accusations made by the South Yorkshire police that the spectators were to blame for being drunk and gaining unauthorised access to the stadium, upheld in the original inquest, were only finally shown to be false by a second inquest jury last year. Some 27 years after the disaster, the jury determined that there was indeed “error or omission by commanding officers which caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace”.

And then there is the Grenfell fire, in which 71 people needlessly died in a tower block, despite residents repeatedly warning that the building was a fire hazard.

Across Britain, since the second world war, there have been a number of preventable disasters that have been unjustly handled. As in Aberfan, Hillsborough, and the Bethnal Green tube disaster, the relevant authorities were not held accountable and the victims were let down, leaving indelible marks on communities.

As a memorial finally opens on one side of London, we must take a sober look at our nation’s history and the injustices with which disasters are dealt; so that perhaps, on the other side of the capital, the legacy of another disaster need not cause families so much extra pain.