On the night of 3 March 1943 local cinemas were emptying out and two packed number 8 buses were approaching Bethnal Green air raid shelter (the unfinished underground station) when, at 8.17pm, the air raid siren went off. At the same time an anti-aircraft battery gun performed an unannounced test. Fearing it was an air raid people made their way to the air raid shelter where they had sought safety many times previously. Due to the 'black out' across London, the streets were very dark and with the steps wet from the rain, no handrail on the staircase and no white paint to mark each step, a woman carrying a baby fell, pulling another man on top of her. Before they could get back on their feet, others fell on top of them; and in the darkness, within minutes 173 people (including 62 children) had been crushed to death.Following the disaster, the families of the victims were prohibited from speaking out because of wartime secrecy. It has taken nearly 75 years to honour those who died. East London suffered many heavy casualties during the second world war but this was the greatest. At a time when other preventable tragedies are fresh in the minds of Londoners, the memorial also highlights the fact that innocent people all over the world are still casualties of war.
Harry spoke to families, staff and children about the 12 year journey he has been on, working with survivors and families of the victims, local residents and politicians. The moving story: including photographs of some of the victims were shared and children looked at the architectural drawings and model of the memorial. Harry shared the story and then kindly accompanied us to the memorial on this freezing Friday morning. The rain stopped and we were able to take in the full size replica of the tube's staircase, suspended in the air with the family names of the victims carved into the steps. Other plaques tell the survivor's story and incredibly Harry worked with a typographer to create a new font called Bethnal Green in which the names and ages of the 173 victims are remembered. Harry shared with us the small touches which were carefully thought out. There are 173 carved holes in the roof which, during spring and summer, will allow the rising sun to shine through and project 173 rays of light onto the steps down to Bethnal Green underground. It was a very moving experience and lovely for the children to share their responses to the structure.
So please if you walk past Bethnal Green tube station, please stop, pause, look up and remember our neighbours who died tragically.