air raid shelters, air raids, Bethnal Green, ghosts of london, ghosts of the london underground, government cover up, haunted london, London, Sir John Anderson, the blitz, tube disaster, tube stations, world war two, WWII
The Spirits of the Underground
Is pressed by unseen feet and ghosts return
Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn
The sad intangible who grieve and yearn
It is often said of London that it is the most haunted city on earth and nearly every place in the city seems to have its own ghost story. At night when you wander around the streets of London with the buildings both old and new towering over you and the shadowy dark narrow alleyways it is not surprising that the mind can sometimes play tricks. It is not only the places above ground which have become the haunts of the spirit world but also the world underneath. Throughout the maze of tunnels and stations which have witnessed countless murders, suicides and fatal accidents many have claimed to have seen something that they could not rationally explain.
The ghost of a faceless woman has been seen walking behind people in the tunnels at Hyde Park Corner; at Farringdon Underground Station people have seen the spirit of Anne Naylor (also known as the ‘Screaming Spectre’) a 13 year old girl whose murdered remains were dumped on the site in 1758; the spirit of the actor William Terris who was stabbed in December 1897 in the Strand and who used to visit a bakery on the site which is now Convent Gardens Station has been often seen dressed in his frock coat and hat walking on the platform; the Black Nun of Threadneedle Street, Sarah Whitehead has been seen at Bank Station and the transparent form of a woman was watched stroking the hair of an electrician in Aldgate Station shortly before he received a 20,000 volt electric shock from which he emerged pretty much unscathed.
At Bethnal Green Tube Station at night tube workers and users have claimed they have heard the screams and cries of terrified souls in fear and anguish. A famous story recounts how a man working late at the station had just watched the last tube leave, turned off the station lights and headed back to his office to finish off his reports when he heard the sounds of children sobbing. The sobbing grew louder and louder and was joined by women’s voices screaming in panic and other noises which he could not identify. The whole episode lasted between ten to fifteen minutes. Terrified he ran out of his office and headed for the exit. It is believed that he had heard the ghostly replay of the last few minutes of life of over a hundred people who suffocated to death at the station on the 3 March 1943.
A Campaign of Terror
The term ‘the Blitz’ was given by the British Press to Hitler’s bombing campaign between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941 which aimed at demoralising the people of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Although it actually refers to the UK wide bombing of cities such as Glasgow, Belfast, Portsmouth, Swansea, Hull, Bristol Sheffield, Liverpool etc. all of which suffered horrendous damage and loss of life it is images of London (out of the 43000 civilians killed during this period over a half were in London as well as one million houses destroyed) and in particular the devastation to the East End which has become synonymous with the Blitz!
A Personal Connection
For me the Bethnal Green Tube disaster has a more personal connection. My mother’s family came from the East End and my grandmother and her two sisters remembered growing up and living in the area with deep affection. Living close to Bethnal Green Tube Station they often used it as a place of safety during the worst of the bombing. Night after night during the Blitz my family would make their way to a shelter to wait for the all clear signal. One day when the expected warning siren went off, my grandmother along with her sisters and mother started to make their way to the shelter only to have one of my great aunts change her mind and refuse to leave. Tired of spending her nights in the unpleasant conditions of the shelter she decided to take her chance and remain above ground. My great grandmother frightened for her daughter’s safety sent my grandmother up to their bedroom to reason with her. Eventually after a lot of arguing my great aunt was finally persuaded to leave and relieved, they all made their way to the shelter. When they returned the next day their house was gone.
The bomb had gone straight through the centre of my great aunt’s bedroom, the room that she had been stubbornly sitting in only a few hours ago. My family lost most of their possessions including all our photographs but at least they were all alive, it could have been so much worse. Bombed out they were relocated to Epping which at the time was just a tiny rural village with very few amenities. Nowadays people would think it quaint and charming but for my family born in the vibrant, busy and crowded East End it was like being exiled to the wilderness of outer Mongolia. For them as for countless others Bethnal Green Station was a life saver but on one terrible occasion it became a death trap!
A Place of Safety
For some unknown reason one of the most important policy makers for the home front during the war Sir John Anderson seems to have developed a deep aversion to the use of tube stations as shelters despite them having played an invaluable role in the First World War. Maybe he had a bad experience, maybe he had a phobia of being so far underground or maybe he was just concerned at the danger of having such large numbers of people concentrated in so few places. Whatever the reason his policies eschewed the use of the tubes in favour of smaller shelters dispersed around the city.
In January 1924, Anderson then chairman of the Air Raid Precautions Committee of Imperial Defence ruled out the use of tube stations in all future conflicts and on the 20 April 1939 Anderson now Lord Privy Secretary in his report on war shelters refused to reconsider his earlier position. His arguments included the risk of the spread of diseases due to the lack of toilet facilities; the possibility of injury or death from people falling on to the lines and; most bizarrely of all that people would develop a ‘deep shelter mentality’ and feel so safe they would never want to leave (according to my great aunts that was never a realistic concern).
At first the Government’s position was workable as the light bombings during the summer of 1940 meant that the public shelters were not heavily used but as the bombing intensified general opinion began to turn. Ignoring growing public unrest Anderson (now promoted to Minister of Home Security) dug his heels in and issued a joint report with the Ministry of Transport on the 17 September 1940 to warn people not to use the tubes as shelters except in emergencies. Despite all the policies, warnings and reports people used their own judgement and ignored them. Over the night of the 19/20 September determined Londoners took the matter into their own hands and from 4pm onwards hundreds of people in an act of mass disobedience grabbed their bedding and food and flocked down into the tube stations. Faced with a civilian rebellion on such a massive scale, the Government finally caved in and formulated a ‘deep shelter extension policy’. The policy included converting 79 stations including Bethnal Green Tube Station into suitable accommodation with bunks fitted to accommodate about 22000 people, first aid facilities, chemical toilets, 124 canteens and the recruitment of Shelter Marshals as well as reinforcing the underground flood walls.
20:27 – The 3 March 1943
Although the Blitz was considered over by the beginning of May 1941 London still suffered from intermittent raids. To the amazement of the Government Londoners were well informed about British war strategy paying particular attention to the RAF bombing campaigns which would mean German retaliation.
On the evening of the 3 March 1943 Londoners calmly got ready to spend another night in the shelters. Many had the procedure down to a fine art, sending a member of the family down to a ‘bundle shop’ i.e. left luggage store to collect bedding to be taken down to the shelter whilst other members grabbed food and gathered up the children.
Bethnal Green Tube Station had been fitted out in the same style as the other station. To enter the station you would first go down 19 steps to a landing and then another seven to the ticket hall. From there you would take one of the escalators 80 feet down to the platform. There was room for about 7000 people with bunks for 5000 and the remainder having to find a space where they could. In addition the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green responsible for the running of the shelter had even built a hospital and a library.
The siren went off at 20:17 in the evening and people started to make their way through the darkness which was described as like “running through ink” to the station. At first everything was pretty much normal at Bethnal Green Tube Station. People started to walk calmly down the 19 steps to the landing taking care as it had been raining and the steps were slippery. Suddenly ten minutes later everyone heard a loud noise which was unlike anything they had ever heard before. Startled and confused a woman with a small child at the bottom of the steps fell. An elderly man behind her lost his balance and fell on top of the woman. This started a horrifying and unstoppable domino effect with people piling on top of each other. Those entering the station were unable to see what had happened at the bottom and continued to push forward making a bad situation even worse as people were lifted off their feet and carried downstairs by the force of the crowd behind. The whole episode lasted only 15 seconds at the end of which all anyone could see was a huge pile of bodies, ten deep, arms and legs entangled with those at the bottom crushed to death “The stairway was converted from a corridor to a charnel house in 10 to 15 seconds”. The people already settled in the shelter were completely unaware of the tragedy which was unfolding above them.
A Terrible Sight
PC Thomas Penn who was bringing his wife to the shelter luckily arrived too late to be caught up in it but tried to assess the damage. He crawled down over the bodies finding 200 people at the bottom trapped in a small space. He then crawled back out to send a message for help and crawled back down to try to help those trapped. He fainted twice.
People arriving at the scene joined in the rescue attempt. The injured were taken to hospital whilst the bodies were laid out on the pavements. The dead were later taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel hospital and when that become overcrowded were brought over the road to St John’s Church. The police surgeon told the coroner that he had been amazed that of the 300 people involved not one was found with fractured ribs.
It took a while for the scale of what had happened to sink in. 62 people had been injured; 173 had been killed, 27 men, 84 women and 62 (one casualty died later in hospital from injuries sustained during the crush). The woman who had been at the front of the group survived but her child did not. The youngest to be killed was Carol Geary she was only five months old. The loss of life was horrendous and not a single bomb had been dropped.
The disaster affected everyone involved; those who had been trapped, the rescuers and of course the families who lost their loved ones. For many what they had gone through, seen or heard haunted them and left scars that never healed. One survivor’s daughter recounted how her mother once told her that “every night of her life when she laid down to sleep she heard the cries and screams of everybody”.
A Government Whitewash
The news about the disaster at Bethnal Green began to circulate but fearful of the outcome of any investigation and worried how it will affect public morale, government officials decided that the best course of action would be pretty much to hush it up. The press were censored and not allowed to report on the incident for two days and even when they were finally free to print their articles they were forbidden to reveal the actual location of the disaster. Despite trying to brush it under the carpet somehow the Nazis heard about Bethnal Green and decided to use it for their own propaganda purposes claiming that it had been their bombs which had been responsible for the deaths.
Initially the idea of an investigation was dismissed as being unnecessary with officials agreeing with Sir Laurence Rivers Dunne that it “would give the incident a disproportionate importance and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids”. Eventually a short statement was read out in the House of Commons which simply stated that precautions would be taken in the future to prevent anything like it happening again.
Falling on Death Ears
In his book Rick Fountain presents damning evidence against the Government and their policy towards Bethnal Green Tube Station. He discovered letters from Bethnal Green Council to the Local Civil Defence sector of the Government sent shortly before the disaster. These letters shed new light of what was happening behind the scenes. In one letter the council asked the Government to approve plans to alter the entrance to the tube station to make it safer to avoid a bottleneck. The request was refused. Two more letters were written by the Borough Engineer to the Government asking them to approve changes to the station’s entrance and also the staircase including the erection of crash barrier to slow down the movement of the crowds. Both times the Government said no and that a crash barrier was a waste of money.
The day after the disaster, all the changes were implemented.
The letters were hidden under the Official Secrets Act.
The Government placed all the blame on the Council.
A Lucky Escape
So what about the strange noise that had startled everyone in the shelter? Most agree now that the sound was the firing of 60 rockets from an anti-aircraft battery gun by the Royal Artillery in Victoria Park. It was a new defence weapon which had never been heard before and should never have been tested in a built up area. One eyewitness, Babette Clarke had missed her bus and so narrowly avoided being inside the shelter, she said “As they went up they whistled like the bombs did as they came down and that’s what caused the pushing because people thought it was bombs coming down”.
A Sort of Justice
It was only at the end of the war that the Government faced by mounting public pressure finally agreed to answer questions about what actually happened that night. The Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison quoted from a secret report – so an investigation had been carried out. Maybe the Government was worried that one day they would be held accountable. The report cited inadequate lighting (the stairway was only lit by one 25 watt bulb), shortage of supervisors and lack of handrails as being contributory factors but stated that it was the “irrational behaviour of the crowd” which was most to blame. He stated that the report was originally suppressed as they had been worried that no one would believe the findings.
Not everyone agreed with the report’s conclusions. The Shoreditch Coroner Mr W.R.H. Heddy along with other officials stated that testimonies given from witnesses confirm that whilst people were “anxious and hurrying” there was “nothing to suggest any stampede or panic or anything of the kind”. The decision to hold the inquiry in secret was also condemned. For me personally it makes a lot of sense. My grandmother and great aunts often told stories about having to find shelter quickly wherever they were when the sirens went off and the impression I got from them was that it was another part of their lives at the time. Although annoying and unpleasant and at times inconvenient, it was what you had to do and you just did it.
I also feel that blaming the shelter wardens for not being on the scene quickly enough to stop it happening was really unfair. They were doing a difficult job in dreadful circumstances. They were also really short of manpower since everyone who was fit was being called up for military service. Accusing these men who (along with so many others) put their lives at risk on a daily basis of being responsible for such a terrible tragedy was in my opinion a travesty of injustice.
A number of lawsuits were made looking for compensation including the well-documented ‘Baker v Bethnal Green Corporation’ brought by a bereaved widow. The decision was made in her favour. A number of similar cases followed. By the beginning of 1950s over £60000 had been paid out.
Finally a Fitting Tribute
If you are going down the steps to Bethnal Green tube station from the south east entrance you will probably not notice a small plaque attached to the overhang above the step where the first woman fell. It is easy to miss and during the weekly rush hour thousands of people pass under it never giving it a second thought. If you do pause for a moment and look you will read the dedication:-
It is hard to comprehend that such a small memorial could be sufficient to remember an event of such magnitude and loss for the tight knit Bethnal Green community and that it was only in 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the disaster that finally the names of those killed were officially recognised. Up until then the memorial service which is held annually at St John’s Church was always taken up with reading out a list of the names. In recent years some amazing people have wanted to change this. In 2007 ‘The Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust’ (a link to their website can be found below) was established to raise money for the installation of a much more fitting tribute to commemorate the disaster. Designed by local architects Harry Patticas and Jens Borstlemann the memorial bronze staircase will contain 173 points of light, one for each of the victims.
Why has it taken so long to be acknowledged? It seems to me that it was simply guilt and embarrassment on the part of the Government. In October 1940 Winston Churchill broadcasted on radio this uplifting message “He [Hitler] hopes, by killing large numbers of civilians, and woman and children, that he will terrorize and cow the people of the mighty imperial city…Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fibre of the Londoners”. It must have been tough to have to admit after praising the fortitude and courage of Londoners that it was in fact the British Government’s lack of concern for their safety and refusal to take simple measures to protect them that had resulted in an incident which saw the biggest single loss of civilians in the UK in the Second World War.
All I know is that I owe a debt to Bethnal Green Tube Station which protected my family through one of the worst periods in London History but also ironically I owe some thanks to that bomb which destroyed their home but meant that my family was not in that shelter on that fateful day.
 Anne Naylor’s Ghost: http://seeksghosts.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/anne-naylors-ghost.html
 Ghosts of the London Underground: http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/column.php?id=135129
 Bethnal Green Tube Station: http://www.hauntedrooms.co.uk/product/bethnal-green-underground-tube-station-london
 Woman Campaigns for Tube memorial: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/mobile/england/london/7905147.stm
 The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/09/a795909.shtml
 Bethnal Green Tube disaster marked 70 years on: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-21645163
 Bethnal Green Tube Station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station
 Every man to his post 1940: https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/every-man-to-his-post.html
Bibliography & Images
Image credits are shown in the alt text of each image.
Anne Naylor’s Ghost: http://seeksghosts.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/anne-naylors-ghost.html
Ghosts of the London Underground: http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/column.php?id=135129
Every man to his post 1940: https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/every-man-to-his-post.html
Deep Level Shelter Tunnels: http://underground-history.co.uk/shelters.php
The underground at war: http://www.nickcooper.org.uk/subterra/lu/tuaw.htm
The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/09/a795909.shtml
Bethnal Green Tube Station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethnal_Green_tube_station
Bethnal Green Tube disaster marked 70 years on: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-21645163
World War II Bethnal Green Tube disaster ‘avoidable’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17250158
Woman campaigns for Tube memorial: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/mobile/england/london/7905147.stm
The Bethnal Green Tube tragedy saw 173 people crushed to death – making it the war’s worst civilian disaster. But why was it censored from history?: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-521490/The-Bethnal-Green-Tube-tragedy-saw-173-people-crushed-death–making-wars-worst-civilian-disaster-But-censored-history.html
History house – Britain’s greatest wartime civilian tragedy: http://www.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/bethnal_green_disaster.html
Bethnal Green Underground Tube Station, London: http://www.hauntedrooms.co.uk/product/bethnal-green-underground-tube-station-london
Haunted London Underground: http://www.londonparanormal.com/underground/
Rick Fountain: Mr Morrison’s Conjuring Trick: The People of Bethnal Green (deceased) v The Crown Paperback, 2012