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Dr. Toby Butler, Senior Lecturer in History at UEL, will lead a project to piece together and publicise one of the worst civilian disasters to take place in Britain. The tragedy at Bethnal Green Underground Station shelter in 1943 claimed 173 lives and occurred at the height of the Second World War.
A memorial service commemorating the 70th anniversary will take place on Sunday 3 March at 2.00pm at St. John on Bethnal Green Church (next to Bethnal Green Tube Station) which will include local resident and celebrity builder Tommy Walsh, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow Rushanara Ali, singer Cheryl Baker (formerly of Bucks Fizz) and a number of survivors, family members and rescue workers.
The event occurred on March 3, 1943, when an air raid warning sounded and local people in their hundreds converged on the station entrance to seek shelter underground. A new anti-aircraft rocket battery opened fire nearby and the unfamiliar, deafening noise led some people to think that bombs were falling. People on the stairs leading down to the station stumbled and hundreds behind them fell forward.
The authorities demanded a news blackout so that detailed news of the disaster and the findings of a subsequent enquiry were suppressed. The event has now been largely forgotten, and until recently, there was nothing to commemorate the tragedy, which claimed more lives than the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, beyond a small plaque at the station entrance.
UEL will record the memories of some 20 survivors, rescuers and relatives of those who died. These and other documents relating to the disaster and the effect of the war on Bethnal Green will form the basis of an exhibition, which will travel to 12 local venues. Two audio guides – one for adults and one for children – will also be produced featuring some of the interviews from survivors and specially commissioned music. These will be available from the nearby library and freely accessed on smartphones.
Dr Toby Butler, senior lecturer in history at UEL says: “We are honoured to be involved in researching and interpreting the history of the disaster and its aftermath. We will be working very closely with the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust who continue to work tirelessly to raise funds for a proper memorial. This year for the first time, everyone will be able to lay wreaths and flowers on the first phase of the Stairway to Heaven Memorial, across the road from the church. There will also be a dedication service for the plaques, which list the names of all 173 people that died, as well as a number of smaller plaques that will give accounts of what happened.”
UEL would like to hear from anyone who had any involvement or records from the disaster, the treatment of casualties or the subsequent enquiry. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 01732 366670.