Bethnal Green Tube Disaster of WWII

Bethnal Green tube station is located in the heart of London’s East End. It is the site of one of the worst disasters in the country during the Second World War, even though it wasn’t in use as a station and didn’t take a direct hit in bombing raids.

The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster of 1943

On March 3rd 1943, 173 people, including 62 children died in tragic circumstances and over 90 were injured in a crush on a staircase, making this the site of the highest number of civilian casualties in one place in the war.

Bethnal Green station as an air-raid shelter

The tube station at Bethnal Green started to be built as part of an extension to the Central Line in the 1930s. In 1940, the as yet unfinished station and its underground tunnels were requisitioned as air-raid shelters. It was common for some Londoners to take cover underground on tube platforms during the war, as they were considered to be safe from harm as they were so far below ground.

Some stations even set up temporary beds and offered refreshment and food services during air raids. There could be hundreds of people in one station during an air raid – there might be no other official shelters around and not everybody could have their own shelter at home.

173 people die in Bethnal Green on March 3rd, 1943

Although some people think that the disaster at Bethnal Green was caused by a bomb attack, this isn’t the case. It was actually simply a tragic accident. There was an air-raid warning on the night and sirens sounded, telling people to take cover. As with many tube stations in London, the entrance to Bethnal Green is down a flight of stairs. These were blacked-out during air raids so that German bombers could not use their lights as targets. According to witnesses who used the station, the stairs had no handrails on the sides of the staircase, no central dividing rail and only one small blue light to show people where to go.

On March 3rd, the air-raid sirens over London went off at around quarter past eight. Hundreds of local people started to head towards the station and down the staircase to take shelter. Although people were used to the crowds on the stairs and were careful if it was dark, a woman and a child fell over near the bottom of the staircase. The staircase itself is short with only 19 steps, but the crowd was so large and unstoppable that people fell on top of them and then on top of each other.

It is estimated that around 300 people ended up in the crowd on the ground at the bottom of the staircase in less than 20 seconds; over half of them died from crush injuries or asphyxiation. The people at the top and middle of the stairs did not realise what was happening immediately and kept walking down, putting added pressure on the bottleneck trapped below. Sadly, it later turned out that the air-raid warning had simply been a test – there was no bombing raid.

Bethnal Green reports were censored by the government

Far from being an immediate news story, the incident at Bethnal Green tube wasn’t reported for over 24 hours. The actual reports that came out then were censored by the government and did not give a full picture of what had happened; survivors were asked not to talk about the incident at all.

This led to speculation of some kind of cover up, although it was more likely done from a moral perspective. From a government perspective, a disaster of this nature would not help the morale of the general public and might put more people at risk if they became worried about using tube stations as shelter.

There may also have been a secret report that claimed that the disaster happened because people panicked and stampeded down the stairs at the sound of anti-aircraft guns. There is no evidence to back this up. There is, however, evidence that the disaster could have been prevented. Apparently, Bethnal Green Council had told the London Civil Defence authority that the stairs on the station needed crush barriers to avoid such an accident as early as 1941. These were installed the day after the disaster.

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorials

The disaster at Bethnal Green was not marked with a memorial until the 1990s. This is a small plaque, but it doesn’t list the names of those who died. Survivors of the disaster and their families return to the station every year on March 3rd to lay flowers by the staircase. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial group has been actively raising funds to build a more fitting commemorative memorial to be unveiled at the station in 2013. This is based around an inverted staircase design, will list all the names and will be used for future anniversary ceremonies.


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6 comments on “Bethnal Green Tube Disaster of WWII
  1. Joanne Judd says:

    My aunt and and great nan died is this such sad diaster. ALthough I didn’t know either of them my mum and family talk about it all the time and we attend the serivce every year. It’s so nice to see the memorial and step in place now as it’s somewhere we can remember them. Now that generation is fading out we must carry one their memory.

  2. john bowes says:

    I would like add.he was a homegard and went to the rescue of the Bethnal green disaster.

  3. Reg Emery says:

    I would like to know if there is a list of survivors of the disaster ,I ask this as my father and I was supposedly in that incident but now all of my family have passed on and being only 2 years old at the time I have no recollection of it. My fathers name was Albert Edward Emery who survived but died in 1945 , and I was born in Moye Street in 1941 to Lilian Minnie Emery ( nee Collier or Mason )

  4. Linda Smith says:

    My mother Irene Crow ran to Bethnal Green tube station when she heard of the disaster and she told me lorries had arrived to take away the dead. They were just throwing the bodies on to the back of the lorries and as she watched she thought to herself how worthless our lives were. She often mentioned this so obviously played a lot on her mind.

  5. Linda Smith says:

    Hi My grandmother was Rosie Hutton and born 47 Dunloe St. Shoreditch E.2. in 1909 her father owned Hutton Haulage Co. in Hoxton she married my grandfather Charles Crow and the Crow family lived at 48 Scawfell St. E.2. My mother’s brother Charlie Crow in partnership with Lawrence Kemp sold second hand TV’s from Brick Lane business named Crow & Kemp

  6. Siobhán Nicholas says:

    This is such great site. I really love your meticulous research and passion for the subject. I have always been intrigued by this area – it features in our new play: White Feather Boxer..and yes we certainly reference the WW11 Tube disaster.

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