I attended an emotional memorial service today at St John’s Church in Bethnal Green to mark 75 years since 173 people were crushed to death on the steps down to Bethnal Green Tube station during WWII.
You can judge a community by how they respond to a tragedy
said the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan at the unveiling last December. ‘The story of this memorial is an inspiration to the rest of London’. It is testament to the unswerving power of love and loyalty that the memorial is there at all. It took the Stairway to Heaven committee over 10 years of relentless fundraising and wading through red tape and council bureaucracy to raise the money to build it. Lesser people would have given up years ago.
But why bother with something that happened so long ago? some people might ask. After the disaster, the Government withheld information to prevent news of it reaching the enemy. Survivors were told by officials not to speak about the tragedy for fear of undermining the war effort. Including Dr Joan Martin, who was the Junior Doctor on duty at a local hospital that fateful night. She has not missed a single memorial service except for today’s sadly as she passed away earlier this year aged 102. Sandra, Secretary of the memorial committee, was especially pleased that Dr Joan was able to make the unveiling of the finished memorial in December, pictured here with me below. She was missed greatly but her presence and remarkable spirit was felt by all.
The circumstances were so traumatic that some of the survivors did not speak about it for the rest of their lives. With no counselling and no opportunity to share stories, the memory of the disaster stayed deeply buried in the individual and communal consciousness for decades.
Babs (pictured above with Pearly Queen Doreen), was plucked from the tangled pile of bodies. The horrific sights she witnessed will stay with her forever. Screams. Bedlam. Despair laced through with cold hard fear. It’s hard to imagine a darker night. Authorities moved quickly, washing down the steps, removing the bodies and ordering those that witnessed it to say nothing.
By the time a creeping grey dawn slid through the streets, the only way you could guess at the catastrophic loss of life was by the neat pile of damp shoes stacked by the entrance and a broken pram discarded nearby. During the memorial service, it took fifteen minutes to read out the list of those who died and a candle lit for each one. On the night, all 173 people – 62 of the children – were crushed to death, most of them in the space of the first thirty seconds. This memorial will allow a long-silenced community to finally grieve together and collectively remember.