The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial

On 3 March 1943 an air raid siren went off in Bethnal Green and locals made their way to the tube, seeking shelter underground.

What followed was the worst civilian disaster during the Second World War, a story that has only recently been properly commemorated in the Memorial sculpture outside Bethnal Green Tube Station.

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial

The unfinished Bethnal Green tube station had been used as a deep level shelter throughout the majority of bombing during 1940-41. It had a capacity of up to 10,000 people, usually sheltering around 7,000.

By 1943 air raids were less frequent and most people would stay at home. But the noises heard on the night of the 3rd March were different.

The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster

It was 8.17pm when the air raid sirens went off. People started filing into the shelter in an orderly manner, making their way underground to a space that had been in regular use as a deep shelter since 1940.

In the 10 minutes following the sirens going off nearby pubs and cinemas emptied. There was around 2,000 people in the shelter.

At approximately 8.30pm the searchlight went on and new anti-aircraft rocket battery sounds rang out from Victoria Park. People, wrongly assuming this meant bombs would fall imminently, started to panic.

While the alarms were ringing three London buses stopped, their passengers alighting at the Bethnal Green shelter. The crowd hurried down the concrete steps to the station shelter.

Slippy and poorly-lit, the 10 foot wide staircase would be treacherous at the best of times, but without a central handrail a woman with a child fell three steps from the bottom, causing others behind her to trip.

Not realising what had happened, crowds continued to push downstairs and before long around 300 people were trapped in a tangled mess at the bottom of 19 steps.

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial

The entrance to Bethnal Green station today, thankfully with a central safety handrail.

Rescuers working above and below ground worked to restore calm and pull people out of the scrum but many people were suffocated in the crush.

It was only at 11.40pm the last casualty was pulled out. In total 173 had died – 27 men, 84 women and 62 children. 62 further people were hospitalised and 50 more were walking wounded, not to mention the psychological trauma suffered by bystanders.

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial

The Stairway to Heaven Memorial

It was the worst civilian casualty of the Second World War. But fears that the news would damage morale, the event was hushed up. Only 50 years later did a plaque appear by Bethnal Green Tube Station.

The final, finished memorial was unveiled in December 2017. Named the Stairway to heaven it is covered with names of the 173 victims of the disaster.

As well as the memorial, the Bethnal Green Memorial Project have created a memoryscape audio trail featuring witnesses to the disaster.

Among the voices is Dr Joan Martin, 100 years old at the time of the audio recording, who was a doctor at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

She describes hearing that the hospital would receive 30 patients who had ‘fainted’ in an air raid shelter. When they arrived all her team were surprised that they showed no injuries and were all unconscious.

‘The colour is a colour I shall never forget’

It was only when a 9 year old boy came to the hospital that evening, describing what had happened that they understood the patients had all died from suffocation, wet and lilac in colour but otherwise appearing unharmed.

Joan said all the staff were sworn to secrecy, the authorities not wanting any negative stories to reach the wider public.

You can listen via soundcloud here and read more personal stories from 

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial

Visit The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial

The Memorial is right by the one of the exits of Bethnal Green tube station, sign posted within the station. It stands on the edge of Bethnal Green Garden park.

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  • Patricia Lillian Taylor


    Just signed up and so enjoy your Wednesday postings – thank you.

    August 7, 2019 at 9:44 am
  • Adrian Butters


    Katie, thank you for news letter, even though this one somewhat sad. Please keep me on your mailing list for this most interesting look at London

    Yours truly

    Mr Adrian Butters

    August 7, 2019 at 1:18 pm
  • Angela Shaw


    Katie, this is very interesting, but I don’t understand in what sense this was the worst civilian disaster of the war. 25000+ civilians died in London during the Blitz, and 400 died in one incident on the first day of bombing alone.

    November 30, 2019 at 2:52 pm
  • Shirley Shaw


    It was good to discover the memoral I sat next to at school one of the children who dies, a girl. It was hushed up and no one spoke about it, are you able to email me a list of names, I don’t even know if her mother was a victim too,
    It would be much appreciated Thank you,Shirley

    January 26, 2020 at 10:30 am
  • Rob Haynes


    My Grandfather was a Railwayman and a St John’s Ambulance man based at Bishopsgate Station on the night of the Bethnal Green disaster and ran from Bishopsgate to Bethnal Green to help rescue people trapped in the crush, he worked on until past midnight to carry out whatever aid he could give to rescue and dig out the little children and women who were crushed in the stairway.
    He was very affected by the deaths of the children and never spoke of the disaster for many years. Those involved were told not to discuss the truths of the disaster.
    His name was William James Haynes ( Bill ) and served with the St John’s Ambulance brigade for Forty years , he had a severe limp from being hit by a Hackney cab aged 11 and was profoundly deaf.
    He was a Gentle man in its truest sense and a brave man working on the Railway by day and as an Air raid warden and part time fireman at night throughout the war.

    A good life well lived .

    August 2, 2021 at 11:43 pm

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