1943: Disaster at Bethnal Green Tube Station
The Bethnal Green disaster occurred on 3rd March 1943, during World War II. A human stampede erupted at an air-raid shelter at the tube station. In total, 172 people (including 62 children) died at the scene, and one died later. Over 90 were injured. The disaster was caused when a woman fell at the bottom of the shelter’s stairs, leading to a panic in which people were trampled. The disaster was one of World War II’s worst civilian incidents and remains one of the worst civilian tragedies in British history. Despite numerous investigations, the exact cause of the disaster has never been definitively determined, and there are many theories about what may have caused it, including the possibility of murder or sabotage.
Before this story unfolds, allow me to introduce a personal perspective. Bethnal Green tube station and Jenner Road in Whitechapel are located in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London. The tube station is located approximately one mile (1.6 kilometres) east of Jenner Road. The journey by foot from Bethnal Green tube station to Jenner Road would take about 20-30 minutes, depending on your walking speed. You can also reach Jenner Road from Bethnal Green tube station by taking a bus or by hailing a taxi. Bethnal Green tube station is located approximately 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometres) northwest of Brick Lane. The journey by foot from Bethnal Green tube station to Brick Lane would take about 10-15 minutes, depending on your walking speed. You can also reach Brick Lane from Bethnal Green tube station by taking a bus or by hailing a taxi. I mention these locations as Jenner Road was where my parents lived before I was born. After we all moved to Sussex in 1939, my father continued to work in Brick Lane. I have some memories of visiting his workshop after the war but, until recently, was blissfully unaware of the events on 3rd March 1943. I should also mention that, according to a report from the London County Council (LCC), the majority of the injured were taken to the London Hospital in Whitechapel (where I was born), which is located about two miles away from the station, whilst other hospitals that received patients from the disaster included the Royal London Hospital, the Mile End Hospital, and the Poplar Hospital. Some of the less seriously injured were also treated at first aid stations in the area.
Bethnal Green Tub Station Sign. Citation, see End Note
The Bethnal Green Tube Station and its use as an Air-Raid Shelter
Construction of the eastern extension of the Central line on the tube network began in the 1930s, and the tunnels were almost complete at the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. The facilities at Bethnal Green were requisitioned in 1940 at the onset of the first Blitz, and administration was assigned to the local authority, the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green, under the supervision of the “Regional Commissioners“, the generic name for the London Civil Defence Service. Heavy German air raids began in October 1940, and thousands of Londoners took shelter there, often remaining overnight.
Use of the shelter dwindled in 1941 as the air forces of Germany and Italy were redirected away from Britain and against the Soviet Union. A relative lull occurred, although the number of shelterers rose again when retaliatory bombing by the enemy was expected in response to Royal Air Force bombing raids over Germany. People had been advised to seek shelter in the tube station on hearing the warning siren.
Bethnal Green was a new station, as the Central Line had only been extended as far east as Liverpool Street in 1936, but work had been interrupted by the outbreak of War, and the station was very much unfinished – even the rails had not been laid. However, it was better, most people thought, than the Anderson shelters in their back garden (if they had one) as it offered a big, light space to move around, group sing-alongs with neighbours, tea available from large urns, a library, a theatre, a room to worship and a room. There was room for 5,000 bunks on the platforms and track areas; up to 4,000 more people could be accommodated in the tunnels. Unsurprisingly, many Eastenders preferred to go down the station to escape the enemy bombing.
On 3rd March 1943, the British media reported a heavy RAF raid on Berlin on the night of 1st/2nd March. The air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded at 8:17 pm, prompting a large but orderly flow of people down the blacked-out staircase from the street. A middle-aged woman and a child slipped and fell over just three steps up from the base, and others fell around her, tangled in an immovable mass which grew, as they struggled, to nearly 300 people. Although some got free, 173 – mostly women and children – were crushed and asphyxiated, and about 60 others were taken to the hospital. An Air Raid Warden‘s report, written at 5:30 am the next morning, described the event as “Panic… apparently caused by a person falling & bringing would-be shelterers to the ground. Death by asphyxiation in the subsequent stampede was the main cause of the fatalities.”
Many people were already inside the shelter when a nearby anti-aircraft gun battery fired its guns, causing a loud explosion said to have been mistakenly taken by many people as a German bomb. The noise led to a panic, and as people rushed towards the shelter’s entrance, “a woman fell on the stairs, causing a stampede”. Many people were crushed in the rush to get inside the shelter, and 173 people, including 62 children, died in or from the disaster.
The disaster occurred on a Wednesday evening at a time when many people were at home or just returning from work. There were about 300 people inside the shelter when the stampede occurred, and many more were trying to get inside. Locals headed for Bethnal Green tube station from all directions across the area. At 8:27 pm, three double-decker buses arrived together, packed with people leaving clubs, pubs, and cinemas. They all piled off to queue in the pitch dark of the blackout to get through the single, narrow entrance to the tube station. At exactly the same time, a new anti-aircraft rocket fired nearby. No one had ever heard it before.
Reports on the Disaster
If a stampede took place, and some deny it completely, its exact cause is still unclear. The press reported on the tragedy the following day, but the extent of what had happened was not revealed until several days later when the victims’ names were released. The disaster had a profound impact on the community, and many people were left grief-stricken by the loss of friends and loved ones.
An official inquiry into the disaster was held, and it found that the stampede had been caused by the explosion of the anti-aircraft guns, which had been mistaken for a German bomb. The inquiry also found that the shelter had been overcrowded (but this was unlikely as the station could hold several thousand people) and it was poorly lit, the stairways were narrow and steep, and mass hysteria occurred when people heard what they thought was a German bomb exploding, all of which may have contributed to the disaster.
It was later claimed that the anti-aircraft guns had been fired as part of a scheduled test firing unannounced to the local population. The official line was that the lack of warning of the test firing contributed to the disaster, as did the absence of proper crowd control measures and inadequate communication between the authorities and the local population.
It is not uncommon for conspiracy theories to emerge in the aftermath of tragic events, and the Bethnal Green disaster is no exception. Some have suggested that the disaster was covered up by the government or by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister at the time, and that there was another, perhaps sinister, explanation for what happened.
The official line is that there is no credible evidence to support these claims:
- An official inquiry thoroughly investigated the disaster at Bethnal Green, and the inquiry’s findings were made public.
- The inquiry found that the stampede had been caused by the explosion of the anti-aircraft guns, which had been mistaken for a German bomb, and that the shelter was overcrowded and poorly lit, which may have contributed to the disaster.
- There is no evidence to suggest that the government or Churchill attempted to cover up the true cause of the disaster or that there was any other explanation for what happened.
However, there were no German bombers over London on 3rd March 1943, nor was there a panicked stampede. One matter is agreed upon – there was an explosion, but as no enemy bomber flew over London that night, it begs the question of what was being fired at by the battery of rocket launchers. Or was it something else that was covertly and accidentally exploded?
Reporting of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours. Even when it was published, reporting of what had happened was censored, giving rise to allegations of a cover-up, although it was in line with existing wartime reporting restrictions. Among the reports that never ran was one filed by Eric Linden of the Daily Mail, who witnessed the disaster and set about writing up his copy. He was a vital witness. But a war was going on, and the War Office censored his report. Other journalists, anxious to discover what happened on that fateful 3rd March 1943 evening, were not deterred. According to more than one of the surviving children, they were offered a £5 note by ambitious journalists to spill the beans, but none of them did so. As a result of a news blackout, the information published was sparse. Many of those involved were directly told not to discuss it, and for some, the experience was so traumatic that they did not talk about their experience for the rest of their lives, even to their own families.
Alf Morris, who, then a 13-year-old boy, survived the disaster, described the scene in an article published in the Daily Mail  when approaching his 80s in April 2009:
“Halfway down the staircase, we were deafened by the sound of an explosion. We all thought it must be a bomb. Only later did we discover that it was our side’s anti-aircraft rockets. Then someone at the top of the stairs shouted to warn us that two buses packed with people had just arrived. Panicked by the sound of the rockets, the passengers were rushing into the Tube entrance.”
Alf Morris added:
“There were 2,000 people sheltering in Bethnal Green [tube] station that night. The next morning at 6.30, my aunt and I left the shelter.” 
The next day, orphans search in vain for their parents, workers for their colleagues, and pupils for their school friends.
After the disaster, fuller details were eventually released on 21st January 1945, the cause having been “kept a secret for 22 months because the government felt the information might have resulted in the Germans’ continuing air raids with the intention of causing similar panics”. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, later saw the report saying that the cause was public panic during an air raid, he determined that it should be suppressed until the end of hostilities as it would be an “invitation to repeat” to the enemy and also as it contradicted earlier official comments that there was no panic; although Herbert Morrison disagreed and Clement Attlee (MP for the nearby Limehouse constituency) wanted to deny rumours that the panic was due to “Jews and/or Fascists“.
The results of the official investigation were not released until 1946. 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 Z Battery anti-aircraft rockets fired from nearby Victoria Park. Later, during the war, other authorities 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 judgment, said: “it was perfectly well known … that there had been no panic“.
Lord Greene also rebuked the Ministry for requiring the hearing to be held in secret. The Baker lawsuit was followed by other claims, resulting in miserly damages of less than £60,000, the last part of which was made in the early 1950s. The secret official report, by a Metropolitan magistrate, Laurence Rivers Dunne, acknowledged that Bethnal Green Council had warned London Civil Defence in 1941 that the staircase needed a crush barrier to slow down the crowds but was told it would be a waste of money.
A plaque commemorating the 1943 disaster was erected on the station’s south-eastern staircase, on which the deaths occurred, for the fiftieth anniversary in 1993. It bears the coat of arms of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and records the event as the “worst civilian disaster of the Second World War“.
The “Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust” was established in 2007 to create a more prominent public memorial to those who died in the disaster.
The memorial was designed by local architects Harry Patticas and Jens Borstlemann of Arboreal Architecture. It was positioned in a corner of Bethnal Green Garden, immediately outside the tube station, and was unveiled on 16th December 2017, more than 74 years after the event. The memorial is an open inverted stairway of 18 steps made of teak overhanging a concrete plinth and is a full-sized replica of the stairway where the 1943 disaster occurred. The names of the dead are carved on the exterior, and the top covering has 173 small holes allowing light through, representing those who died.
Although the deaths were not due to enemy action en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Underground, 164 of the dead are recorded by name by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission among the civilian war dead in the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green, plus seven in the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. All are recorded as died or injured “in Tube Shelter accident“.
In 1975, the ITV network broadcast a dramatised television film about the disaster, It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow, directed and produced by John Goldschmidt with a script by Bernard Kops, who, as a 16-year-old, had witnessed the event. The film was short-listed for an International Emmy in the Fictional Entertainment category but lost out to The Naked Civil Servant.
As part of the “TUBE” Art Installation in November 2013, sound artist Kim Zip created an installation commemorating the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster. The work was backed by the Whitechapel Gallery and promoted as part of the organisation’s “First Thursdays” initiative for popular art. “TUBE” was exhibited for four weeks in the belfry of Sir John Soane‘s St John on Bethnal Green Church. St John’s overlooked the site of the tragedy and was taken over as a temporary mortuary on the night of 3rd March 1943.
On 1st April 2016, Dr Joan Martin, who was on duty as a junior casualty officer at the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children and led the medical team dealing with the dead and wounded from the incident in 1943, told BBC Radio 4‘s Eddie Mair about her personal experiences on the evening of the disaster, and the long-term deleterious effect it had on her life.
The Stairway to Heaven Memorial website includes these poignant words:
‘The Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster turned out to be the worst civilian disaster of the 2nd World War, yet no bombs were involved as no plane was recorded in that part of London that night. The official report (published after the war) revealed that the local Bethnal Green Council had asked the government three times, two years earlier, for permission to alter the entrance to make it safer but had largely been refused. These measures might not have made any difference to the tragedy – we will never know – but they were put in place the day after the disaster.
‘In the book ‘Mr Morrison’s Conjuring Tricks’ the author Rick Fountain sets out the evidence of a government cover-up. He states that in 1941 the Council had written to the government asking for permission to alter the station entrance and make it safer if a lot of people wanted to use it. The Government department refused, and the Borough Engineer wrote a stronger-worded letter explaining that the entrance and stairway needed several measures to make them safer. Again the government refused permission. The Council’s borough engineer wrote a third time to plead for permission to alter the entrance but was largely refused apart from allowing some recycled word [sic] to be used to shore up the entrance. The day after the disaster, all the measures sought by the Council were put in place. However, Bethnal Green Council was made to keep their earlier letters secret under the Official Secrets Act. Statements given in Parliament after the secret official inquiry had taken place hinted that the victims were to blame. This ensured the event was kept as secret as possible. This was partially to prevent the enemy using it for propaganda purposes and to keep up morale. Apparently, according to the book, it also saved the Home Secretary of the day, Herbert Morrison, from having to resign. The Lady Mayor of Bethnal Green, Margaret Bridger, was not allowed to defend herself and was largely blamed for the tragedy. The secret official report, and the summing up by the Judge in the one Court case that followed, agreed that there had been no panic on the part of the victims, so they were not to blame. The final statement about the report was read out in Parliament by another MP, as Herbert Morrison had a cold on that day, so no questions could be asked. By suggesting that the victims were to blame, it was the Hillsborough of its day.’
Bethnal Green: The “Stairway to Heaven” Memorial. Citation, see End Note
What happened on that terrible evening in March 1943 was a devastating blow to the community and had a lasting impact on the people of Bethnal Green. Many lost friends and family members in the tragedy, and the disaster is still remembered with sadness and respect in the community today and is a tragic reminder of the dangers and hardships the British people faced during World War II.
The disaster led to an investigation into the safety of air-raid shelters and resulted in improvements being made to the design and management of air-raid shelters in London and other cities.
Sources and Further Reading
- Tragedy at Bethnal Green, 1943 (Uncovered Editions), Paperback – Abridged, by Tim Coates (Author), self-published (4 November 1999), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tragedy-Bethnal-Green-Uncovered-Editions/dp/011702404X/
- The 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster: An Oral History, by Toby Butler (Editor), published by University of East London (1 January 2015), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/1943-Bethnal-Green-Shelter-Disaster/dp/0993266509/
- The Report, by Jessica Francis Kane, published by Graywolf Press (31 August 2010), available at: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/7897402-the-report
- The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster | A Short Documentary | Fascinating Horror, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcHoDQDXigM
- The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster, at: https://youtu.be/RNwFdhCaJZ4
- BETHNAL GREEN – 1943 Tube Disaster (The One Show), at: https://youtu.be/BJkpktADojw
- BETHNAL GREEN TUBE DISASTER (Real Lives Reunited), at: https://youtu.be/9tiTf_ZYBNA
Plaque to the 1943 disaster. Citation, see End Note
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End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Acknowledgement to Wikipedia and Machine-based artificial intelligence at: https://chat.openai.com/chat and other references as shown in the text. ↑
- Picture Citation: “Bethnal Green Tube Station, London” by David McKelvey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. ↑
- Source: https://stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org/background-to-the-bethnal-green-tube-disaster/ ↑
- Source: Robinson, A. J.; Chesshyre, D. H. B. (1986). The Green: a history of the heart of Bethnal Green and the legend of the Blind Beggar (2nd ed.). London: London Borough of Tower Hamlets. p. 4. ISBN 0-902385-13-5. ↑
- Source: https://bethnalgreenlondon.co.uk/tube-disaster-history/ ↑
- On overcrowding, see End Note 7 below. ↑
- Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/bethnal-green-tube-disaster-75-years-anniversary-173-victims-second-world-war-nazi-bombing-memorial-a8217306.html ↑
- Sources: (1) Skibbereen Eagle. “Bethnal Green tube disaster”. Southern Star. Skibbereen, Co. Cork, and (2) A London Inheritance (6 May 2018). “Bethnal Green’s Ordeal”. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: Introduction section at: http://www.livingmaps.org.uk/portfolio-uploads/BG-01.pdf ↑
- Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1172904/It-happened-I-survived-Bethnal-Green-Tube-disaster.html ↑
- Comment: Interesting to note that (a) the air raid shelter had about 2,000 occupants at the time of the disaster and (b) people stayed overnight in the shelter despite what happened the previous evening. ↑
- Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/bethnal-green-tube-disaster-75-years-anniversary-173-victims-second-world-war-nazi-bombing-memorial-a8217306.html ↑
- Source: “Disaster Said Caused By Panic in Shelter”. San Bernardino Daily Sun. Vol. 51. San Bernardino, California. Associated Press. 21 January 1945. p. 4. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: Roberts, Andrew (2009) . Masters and Commanders: The Military Geniuses who Led the West to Victory in World War II. Penguin. pp. 353, 354. ISBN 978-0-141-02926-9. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Sources: Bethnal Green – disaster at the tube, Wednesday 24 September 2003, 19.30 BBC Two Archived,13 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine, and (2) Dettman 2010. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Other reports suggested that the gun was a T-type anti-aircraft gun. ↑
- Source: Nat. Archives MEPO 2/1942. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: The Times, 19 July 1944. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: The Times, 9 December 1944. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: Nat.Archives PREM 4/40/15. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Plaque: Bethnal Green WW2 disaster – plaque”. London Remembers. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Sources: (1) “The Appeal”. Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, and (2) Dettman 2010, pp. vii–viii. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Sources: (1) “Bethnal Green WW2 Tube disaster memorial unveiled”. BBC News. BBC. 20 December 2017, (2) Ali, Rushanara (16 December 2017). “74 years since the Bethnal Green tube disaster, lessons still need to be learned”. The Guardian, and (3) “Bethnal Green Underground Station Civilians (Stairway to Heaven)”. War Memorials Register. Imperial War Museums. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Picture Citation: Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_West_End_Air_Shelter.jpg Attribution: US Govt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. ↑
- Source: “Bethnal Green, Metropolitan Borough: civilian war dead”. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Stepney, Metropolitan Borough: civilian war dead”. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Aarons, Betty Diana: Civilian War Dead”. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow at IMDb Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: The Stage, 25 November 1976, page 1. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Bomb Everyone”. Bomb Everyone website. 1 January 2011. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Remembrance art marks Bethnal Green’s 1943 air-raid shelter disaster”. East London Advertiser. 4 November 2013. Cited at:
- Source: “Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursdays”. Whitechapel Gallery. 31 October 2013. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Kim Zip Presents TUBE on Soundcloud”. Soundcloud. 1 November 2013.Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Source: “Bethnal Green Tube Disaster: ‘I tried to black it out’”. BBC News Online. 1 April 2016. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station ↑
- Picture Citation: The “Stairway to Heaven” memorial. Attribution: GrindtXX, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bethnal_Green_Stairway_to_Heaven.jpg This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. ↑
- Picture Citation: Attribution: Sunil060902, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bethnal_Green_stn_memorial_plaque.JPG This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. ↑