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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