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On Bethnal Green

I grew up in Upminster, the eastern terminus of the District Line. Depending on my mood, I'll describe myself either as having grown up in London (post-boundary changes, Upminster was in the London Borough of Havering), or in south Essex. For years, I maintained that Upminster was naturally part of London, because it was on the London Underground; lying as we did on the inner edge of the green belt, we naturally looked west into London than east into Essex.

I spent much of the summers of my teenage years pottering around London on the Tube. For the princely sum of about £3.50, I could get a Travelcard that would take me the length and breadth of the network. I took part in the Monopoly Run on two occasions, at least two other Tube-based scavenger hunts, and gave serious consideration to attempting the Tube Challenge (all stations in a single day). I pride myself on knowing some bits of Tube trivia; the mosaic at Tottenham Court Road is by Eduardo Paolozzi, while the patterns at Embankment are by Robyn Denny.

Today, the 3rd March 2008, is the 65th anniversary of the Bethnal Green Station Disaster. There's a full description here, on Wikipedia, on the websites of the BBC and the Guardian. This remains the largest single loss of life on the London Underground; the official report gave a figure of 173 deaths: 27 men, 84 men and 62 children were crushed on the stairs when the crowd descending into the station during an air raid surged forward.

A loss of life on this scale dwarfs all other incidents on the Tube. The Moorgate crash, the largest peacetime disaster, claimed 43 lives. 31 people died in the Kings Cross fire. The total number of peacetime deaths in major incidents on the London Underground, including the 39 that died in the bombings of 7th July 2005, comes to 136. The three WWII bombs that hit Tube stations (at Balham, Marble Arch and Bank) killed a total of 141 people. The closest incident in the UK of a similar nature, the Hillborough crush of 1989, resulted in the deaths of 96 people.

Why am I posting this? Until yesterday, I had never heard of the Bethnal Green Station Disaster, this despite my love of the London Underground. I don't recall Bethnal Green being referenced in the media coverage of the Kings Cross fire (I'm rather too young to remember Moorgate, having been barely two at the time), or of Hillsborough. It wasn't until 1993 that a permanent memorial was installed at the station (the small plaque above the stairs visible here), which was two years after I left home. It's just possible that it wasn't widely known, but I'm quite astonished (and slightly appalled with myself) that I had never heard of it.

There's a charity that's trying to erect a memorial above ground, a task that now has the backing of the PM. I sincerely hope that they manage to persuade LU/TfL and raise the money that they need.

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Sorry, you're as Essex as I am !

I lived in Bethnal Green for a while in 1989-1990 and used the station pretty much every day. I did know about the disaster although I can't remember where I read about it, possibly in "The London Encyclopedia". Although the station was used as a shelter, trains didn't run through it until 1946, which be one reason why it is not so well-known. But I suspect that main reason is that there were just many catastrophes during the war that the public's ability to remember individual incident's was lost. Compare, for instance, the Freckleton Air Disaster (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freckleton_Air_Disaster).

I live in Bethnal Green and use the tube station very regularly. I think I first heard about the disaster from the book London Under London published in, I think, the late 80s. I've seen the memorial and am happy that the event is being commemorated, but I can see how it rather got lost amid everything else that was happening in WW2, especially since they wanted it kept quiet at the time.

The Bethnal Green disaster wasn't supressed, not quite, but it was very hard to actually find coverage of it...

My favourite place on the Underground is Gants Hill station - I love the Moscow style on British budget. ;)

Heh. I grew up in Gants Hill, and used to walk through the station most days I went to school (to get to the bus stop on the other side of the roundabout from my house.) Now I feel very nostalgic, thank you.

I thought it was pretty much accepted that it *was* suppressed; no depressing stories about major loss of life on UK soil during wartime, what? Plus they needed people to chin up and carry on, and in particular to carry on using the stations and shelters. And having suppressed it, it turns out to be rather hard to unsuppress stories of that kind.

Yes, they should get their memorial.

I did know about the Bethnal Green disaster, but I can't remember where I heard about it. I have the oddest feeling that I saw a depiction of it as a dramatisation somehow. Hmm.

Incidentally, I'm about to (hopefully this month, anyway) read The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was built and how it changed the city forever. A quick flip through from the index finds the Bethnal Green disaster described in the chapter The Best Shelters of All...

"The closest incident..."

Well, on the subject of disasters I hadn't heard about until recently... I think the Victoria Hall disaster takes the horrid crown here:


Re: "The closest incident..."

I knew of that but not the detail - most of which I picked up from recently reading Alice in Sunderland.

Re: "The closest incident..."


There is a plaque on the site and has been for some years. The story was published during the time I lived in BG about five years ago.

It was surpressed because it *wasn't* an air raid, but people taking fright at the sound of artillery testing. Had this come out it would have been very bad for morale.

I knew about it, but only really because of the plaque. I used to pass through Bethnal Green station every day on the way to work.

There was a theory a while ago that it wasn't a German bomb that hit it at all, but a new anti-aircraft weapon stationed in the nearby park that went wrong. I don't know if that was ever more than speculation, though.

For years, I maintained that Upminster was naturally part of London, because it was on the London Underground

Yes, like Amersham, makes sense to me. Or nearby and even more hilarious, Chesham, a Zone 9 station with it's own 5 mile branch on the London underground used by just a few hundred thousand people a year. Get up, look across the valley at woods and fields, walk through the sweet morning air of a country town, and then blip your Oyster and get onto a tube train. If you put it in a novel it would be called far-fetched.

At the risk of being too flippant when you make a serious point, it's never too late to take on the Tube Challenge. I also note that once Heathrow Terminal 5 station opens, the world record becomes vacant once again, though quite possibly not for long.

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