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On March 3rd. 1943 The largest loss of civilian life in a single non military incident during World War II happened in the East End of London. 172 people perished at Bethnal Green underground station. They were crushed to death by the weight of their own bodies. 62 of the dead were children.

Away from the bombs

Bethnal Green Underground Station was used as an air raid shelter during the blitz on London that took place during the second World War. It would not be used to run trains until December 4th 1946 as it was still under construction, being part of the Eastern Extension of the Central line. The tunnels made the ideal place of safety for many east end families. Deep below ground out of range of enemy bombs. On the date in question, it has now been revealed, The explosions that caused the panic leading to the disaster did not come from bombs dropped by enemy aircraft. So how did these people come to suffer this terrible fate?

Sound of the Sirens

Whenever the air raid sirens had sounded in the past, the people, who were by now quite used to the raids generally proceeded in a calm orderly manner to a place of safety. Most had practiced and memorized the procedures and by now it had become a routine matter to head quickly but calmly to the nearest shelter. The sound of the sirens normally gave early enough warning of enemy aircraft. Time enough to grab a few essentials and follow the usual drill.
Shelter Sign

Nearby Explosions

On this particular night, when the sound of the sirens was heard, the East enders did exactly as they had done on previous occasions. As usual a large number of people headed for the tunnels at Bethnal Green in an orderly fashion. There were no handrails fitted as yet, and as the crowd descended the long staircase. Suddenly, earlier than usual raids, explosions could be heard. These explosions were not like any they had heard before. The sound was completely new, and very close.

Keeping up morale

To prevent loss of morale of the British people it was decided not to release news of the disaster. There were reports in newspapers but the location was not mentioned and the true magnitude was suppressed. It was not until two years later that an inquiry was held and several factors were found to have caused the chaos. Among the main causes was the lack of proper supervision by the Air Raid Police, inadequate lighting (due to the blackout?) the fact that the handrails had not yet been installed and the lack of any crash barriers. The last two, no doubt, were caused by lack of council funds and the shortage of metal due to the salvaging for the war effort. It was the largest loss of civilian life of the war.

Panic sets in

This new sound, and the fact that it seemed to be so close, caused concern among the people and panic began to set in. They tried to rush down the stairs as quickly as possible. Someone on the stairs, thought to be a young woman carrying a baby in her arms, tripped and fell as she neared the bottom. The crowd behind kept on coming, causing others to fall over the woman and child. Hundreds of people were still coming down from the top, unaware of the situation below. The unfortunate ones at the foot of the stairs were crushed under the sheer weight of the people behind. Approximately three hundred bodies were forced into a small stairwell at the bottom. The 173 victims had no chance of escape.
The original small memorial

British Artillery

So what was the cause of the panic? What were the strange new explosions they heard? It has now come to light that it was in fact our own troops. It turns out that in the nearby Victoria Park new secret anti aircraft weapons were being tested. The loud bangs that the crowd assumed to be a new type of bomb going off were in fact these large guns firing recently developed missiles into the sky. This was the reason that the sounds were not recognised. There was, up until 2017 only a tiny memorial plaque at the Barmy Park entrance to the station. In 2006 five founding Trustees formed a charity committee to run the ‘Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust’ charity. It received its charitable status in March 2007. The Charity’s main aim was to build a memorial to the memory of the 173 people who lost their lives. After years of fund-raising, a fitting memorial, Stairway to Heaven, was finally unveiled in December 2017. More information at the official website >>