On 3rd March 1943 following the sounding of the air raid sirens in Bethnal Green, East London people made their way towards the underground station which was being used as an air raid shelter. As they descended the stairs in the rain and poor light, a woman slipped, thus creating a blockage at the entrance to the tube. After hearing an unexpected and terrifying salvo of anti-aircraft rockets fired from Victoria Park the crowd surged forward crushing the people waiting on the stairs trapping about three hundred. 173 children, women and men died in the stair void. Many more were injured, 60 taken to hospital and one East London family lost six members. It was the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.
News of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours and reporting was censored, leading to allegations of a cover-up. At the end of the war, the Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison, quoted from a secret report to the effect that there had been a panic caused by the discharge of the anti-aircraft rockets. But other authorities who looked into what had happened disagreed; the Shoreditch Coroner, Mr W R H Heddy, said that there was “nothing to suggest any stampede or panic or anything of the kind”; Mr Justice Singleton, summarising his decision in Baker v Bethnal Green Corporation, an action for damages by a bereaved widow, said “there was nothing in the way of rushing or surging” on the staircase; the Master of the Rolls, Lord Greene, reviewing the lower court’s judgement said “it was perfectly well known … that there had been no panic”. Lord Greene also rebuked the Ministry for requiring the case to be held in secret.
The “Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust” was established in 2007 to create a memorial to those who died in the disaster. Planning permission has been granted for a memorial in the form of a bronze staircase with 173 points of light, designed by local architects Harry Patticas and Jens Borstlemann.
The memorial has been partially constructed. Completion of the canopy with conicle lights requires fundraising for another £65,000 and the Charity is working hard to achieve this. The Trustees are concerned that the memorial be completed during the lifetimes of some of the survivors.
If you wish to contribute to the cost of completing the memorial please visit: http://www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org/donateonline.html
By arrangement you may sponsor a conicle in memory of one of the victims
To find out more please call the Charity office on 01474 702513
Find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/bethnalgreenmemorial
Further information on the disaster, including an oral history and teaching resource, can be found here.