The single-biggest loss of life of civilian life in London during WWII happened was not caused by a German bomb – in fact, it happened on a night when not a single bomb fell. It was a human crush which cost the lives of 173 people.
At 8.17pm, the air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded, triggering people to run down the blacked-out staircase from the street. The civilians of Bethnal Green were no doubt used to this practise, but on this particular night, a woman and a child fell over three steps from the base and others fell around her, triggering a human crush of nearly 300 people. Of these, 173 lost of their lives, being crushed and asphyxiated in what is thought to have been the largest single loss of civilian life in the UK in the Second World War and the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children.
Thanks to wartime censorship, news of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours. The story which was reported by the media was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb, and the official results of the investigation were not released until after the war had ended in 1946. Meanwhile, rumours circulated of the cause. It was suggested by the Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison that a panic had ensued caused by a discharge of anti-aircraft rockets from nearby Victoria Park. There is disagreement over this.
A secret official report showed that Bethan Green Council had warned London Civil Defence, in 1941, that the staircase was a liability and needed a crush barrier to slow down crowds, but was told that would be a waste of money. Damages cases were taken by those who were bereaved, such as Baker vs Bethnal Green Corporation. The Baker lawsuit was followed by other claims, resulting in a total payout of nearly £60,000, the last of which was made in the early 1950s.
Having lived in London for six years, I use the Tube virtually every single day. The history of it has always fascinated me – I was aware that civilians had sheltered in it during World War II, but actually descending into the stations…I couldn’t believe this was where they slept and it got me thinking about the creation of the Tube and what’s it become.
The London Underground was the first underground railway system in the world. In 1863, The Metropolitan Railway, as it was then known, began running between Paddington (then called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street.Around 30,000 passengers went on The Metropolitan Railway on its first day of public business – January 10, 1863. It was not until 1890 that the phrase ‘Tube’ was used, and the name ‘Underground’ did not appear in stations until 1908.
The Tube was originally steam-powered. Although the underground railway has opened in 1863, it wasn’t until 1869 that it began to run under the Thames and south of the river, through the Thames Tunnel. And it was not until December 1890 that the world’s first deep-level electric railway was opened, running from King William Street in the City of London, under the Thames, to Stockwell.
As noted above, it wasn’t until 1869 that the Tube started running under the Thames, and through the Thames Tunnel. The Thames Tunnel had opened in 1843- the first tunnel under a river – and upon its opening became known as the Eigth Wonder of the World. Built by the Brunels, it’s construction was not without its flaws – the miners were subjected to sewage flows, ignited methane gas and some died during construction due to flooding – but the completed tunnel provided the basis for the Tube to run under the Thames.
The Tube was designed so that illiterate people could navigate it. Ever noticed how some Tube stations are coloured/some tiles contrast? The reason for this is because the designs were originally created to help commuters recognise the station they had arrived at without the benefit of the blue and white signs commuters are used to seeing on a daily basis.
It’s a well-known fact that many Tube stations were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War, but the Central Line was even converted into a fighter aircraft factory that stretched for over two miles, with its own railway system. Its existence remained an official secret until the 1980s. Brompton Road (now disused) on the Piccadilly, Line was apparently used as a control room for anti-aircraft guns.
But while the Tube acted as an air-raid shelter during World War II, it was not without its tragedies. The worst civilian death toll on the Underground occurred at Bethnal Green Tube tragedy in 1943, when 173 people died in a human crush. And earlier, than that, in 1940, 41 people were killed when a bomb burst a mains pipe,causing people sheltering in the Balham Tube station to drown.
Winston Churchill had his own secret station during the World War II. Down Street was a working station between 1907 and 1932, and was converted into bomb-proof shelters during the Second World War. Initially on what was to become the Piccadilly Line, it was between Dover Street (now Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner stations. Mainly used as a shelter by the Railway Executive Committee during the war, it was also used by Winston Churchill and his war cabinet until the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use. The London Transport Museum offer tours of Down Street as part of it’s Hidden London series – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/down-street
After the war, the deep level shelter at Clapham South housed 492 immigrants from the West Indies who arrived aboard the HMT Empire Windrush, having responded to an advertisement for labourers to come to London. When they arrived, the colonial Office didn’t have enough accommodation for them all, and they were sheltered in the deep-level shelter at Clapham South. You can visit the shelter today thanks to the London Transport Museum – https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london/clapham-south
One of the proposed names for the Victoria Line was Viking Line. Sadly though, this wasn’t for historical reasons, but more-so because it would run through the stations of Victoria and King’s Cross.
And finally…on it’s inaugural journey in 1863, around 30,000 passengers traveled on the Tube. On 4 December 2015 (a day when I travelled to and from work at the BBC), I helped contribute to a new record – being one of 4.82 million people who traveled on the Tube that day.
THANK YOU TO THE AUTHORS OF THE FOLLOWING SOURCES FOR HELPING WITH MY RESEARCH FOR THIS POST: