diamond geezer

 Monday, March 04, 2013

CENTRAL: Stairway to Heaven

The greatest loss of life on the Underground occurred exactly 70 years ago, at a station that wasn't a station, on the Central line. 173 civilians were crushed to death on a staircase leading down into Bethnal Green station, in a wartime accident caused by a tragic misunderstanding in the blackout.

Just after quarter past eight on the evening of Wednesday 3rd March 1943 the air raid sirens sounded across the East End. Thousands headed to the shelter on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road, which would one day become Bethnal Green station but wasn't yet operational. The tunnels had been dug, but wartime had intervened and no trains would run this way for another three years. Bethnal Green was the only deep level station in the heart of the East End, so its platforms had become a very popular place for the local population to shelter. Ten minutes later an unfamiliar explosion was heard. It's said this was an experimental anti-aircraft gun in Victoria Park, but none of those heading underground realised this and redoubled their attempts to get underground. Somebody tripped at the foot of the stairs - a short flight of 19 steps leading to a small landing above the ticket hall. The only illumination was a 25 watt bulb, so those descending ploughed on into the darkness making the situation ever worse. Within minutes 300 bodies had been crammed into a space measuring ten feet by twelve feet, and those at the bottom of the heap had no chance. Ian has the full story over here, including the reputed wartime cover up and the fight for compensation.

It's been a source of mystery to many why, until recently, the Bethnal Green tragedy has been so poorly commemorated. A single plaque above the foot of the staircase took decades to appear, finally installed by Tower Hamlets council, although very easily overlooked. The families of the dead have sought something larger, something more permanent, something truly worthy of the scale of this awful disaster. And so came about the idea of the Stairway To Heaven memorial, a most unusual and eyecatching structure to be built in the corner of Bethnal Green Gardens. The plan is to cast a replica of the staircase, then invert it and hang it from a plinth immediately adjacent to the site of the disaster. The plinth is ready, as is a Portland stone block laid out in a zigzag across the site with a bench at the far end for quiet contemplation. Embedded in the vertical are the names of the 173 victims and their ages, from Betty Aarons (14) to John Yewman (13 months). Meanwhile across the main body of the memorial are several plaques recounting first hand accounts of the survivors, such as this from Alf Morris.
"I was trapped on the 3rd stair from the bottom, shouting for help. Air Raid Warden Mrs Chumbley grabbed me by my hair then under my arms. She finally pulled me free. My aunt, Lillian Hall, came down to the bunks a little later, tattered and bruised. As instructed, we said nothing to anyone all night."
The memorial's not yet complete because the suspended staircase isn't yet in place. But enough of the memorial was ready in time for a service of dedication timed to coincide with yesterday's 70th anniversary. The service is an annual event for survivors of the tragedy and all those whose families were impacted, held at St John's Church across the road. In the past they've followed up with a short outdoor ceremony by the railings at the top of the staircase, but this year's commemoration was on a wholly different scale.

At the end of the service the congregation filed out into the churchyard and crossed over Roman Road, aided by a considerable police presence. At the front of the procession was a retired soldier holding a flag, followed closely by a priest wearing a biretta. Behind them came royalty - this being the East End that meant Pearly Kings and Queens - at least a dozen of them, resplendent in buttoned jackets and feathered hats. They laid bouquets along the top of the memorial, as did a local councillor in his finest robes, and various representatives from TfL, the police force and the military. Also present were two of the patrons of the Stairway to Heaven fund, that's Tommy Walsh (from Ground Force) and Cheryl Baker (from Bucks Fizz). Both have carried out a significant amount of work for the charity, turning out to thank supporters and attending the annual service.

As 3pm struck, or thereabouts, the official dedication ceremony got underway. No artificial amplification was employed, so only those standing at the far end of the monument would have heard anything. Tommy and Cheryl listened intently, as did Pearly royalty lined up alongside, but the majority of the congregation confined to the paved area alongside the memorial strained mostly in vain. Another vicar spoke, then the local councillor - that's the Speaker of Tower Hamlets who earned applause for his contribution. Proceedings got easier to follow from afar as rice was cast and the memorial blessed, and the dead remembered with the playing of a trumpet solo. A BBC cameraman immediately wandered across for an extreme close-up on the trumpeter's face - by no means the only video operator or photographer who'd been hovering around the service pointing lenses at the crowd.

After the commemoration had finished it was time for a proper photo opportunity, with the remaining survivors invited to stand together in front of the flowers for a few official photos. The charity still needs £130,000 to complete the Stairway to Heaven memorial, and they hope that the burst of publicity afforded by the 70th anniversary will help them on their way. You can donate here, or by watching out for collectors at various East End stations over the next couple of weeks.

I departed Bethnal Green by tube, which involved entering the station via the fateful staircase. It seems ridiculously short for so high a casualty figure, and the landing at the foot of the stairs impossibly tiny. And yet this is essentially the same structure that existed in 1943, though no longer with doors at the top, and now with a much needed handrail down the centre. Beside the original plaque is a modern electronic sign which could flash up "Emergency Do Not Enter" were anything similar ever to threaten today. And in the corner of the landing was a yellow sign left by a cleaner saying "Caution Wet Floor", even though it wasn't, because that's modern risk management for you. And we may scoff, but health and safety is there for a reason, as 173 poor souls and their families discovered on that never-to-be-forgotten evening 70 years ago.

» Stairway to Heaven appeal and blog
» BBC News report and video
» Wreath laying with Cheryl and Tommy

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