Mayor backs Advertiser bid for apology for Bethnal Green wartime disaster

12:47 24 September 2012

1943... Entrance to Bethnal Green public air-raid shelter

1943... Entrance to Bethnal Green public air-raid shelter

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The Mayor of Tower Hamlets is backing the Advertiser’s campaign for an official apology to the people of London’s East End over a wartime tragedy that cost 173 civilian lives.

Men, women, children and babies died in the Bethnal Green public air-raid shelter during an enemy alert because the staircase leading down to safety was unsafe and couldn’t cope with the surge.

The campaign comes in the wake of last week’s apology in the Commons by Prime Minister David Cameron over the Hillsborough affair which cost the lives of 96 football fans 23 years ago.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman told Wednesday’s Tower Hamlets council meeting: “Hillsborough reminds us of our own tragedy—the 1943 Bethnal Green Disaster when 173 East Enders lost their lives, leaving families devastated and searching for answers to this day.”

The similarities with Hillsborough are uncanny. The victims were blamed in both cases by the authorities who were later seen to have engineered cover-ups after previous warnings about unsafe public facilities had been ignored.

The wartime Civil Defence authorities failed to listen to Bethnal Green borough council before the disaster about the unsafe stairway leading down to the half-built Underground station being used as a deep-level shelter.

Home Defence Minister Herbert Morrison later used the wartime security and Official Secrets Act to stop the council, a forerunner of Tower Hamlets, going public with the truth.

Mayor Rahman pledged: “I am supporting the campaigners’ call for a fresh review—and calling on our local MPs to join in this campaign.”

News of the Mayor’s support was welcomed this week by the Stairway to Heaven Trust which is building a permanent memorial at Bethnal Green Gardens to the victims.

Its secretary Sandra Scotting told the Advertiser: “Morrison blamed panicking crowds—but even a police report at the time said there was no panic. It was a cover-up.

“In today’s climate, it would have been put down to sheer weight of numbers, unsafe entrance design and poor lighting.”

But the difference with Hillsborough is that the Bethnal Green tragedy has never been openly investigated.

An inquiry now needs to re-examine the facts to find out who was really to blame for the 173 deaths. Like Hillsborough, it wasn’t the victims.

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