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Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster audio trail launched

students studying at UEL

A team from the University of East London has launched a new audio trail featuring recordings with survivors of the 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster. The tragedy, in which 173 people died, is thought to be the worst civilian disaster in modern British history.

A plaque publicising the trails has been placed at the entrance to the station. There is also a companion oral history book with highlights from the interviews. An education kit about the disaster has been produced for use in schools.

The project includes two audio trails – one for adults and one for children - which are designed to be listened to at the Bethnal Green Shelter Disaster Memorial, located near the underground station. The trails contains interviews with more than 30 survivors, as well as medical personnel on duty the night of the disaster and relatives of those who died.

 “A very dedicated team of staff and volunteers have worked incredibly hard to find and record survivors, and in turn help us to understand something of the terrible impact of this disaster on hundreds of families in East London,” project director and UEL senior lecturer Dr Toby Butler said.

On the night of the disaster, crowds surged into the entrance of Bethnal Green station – which wasn’t yet in use as an underground stop but was active as an air raid shelter - when they heard an air raid warning and unfamiliar sounds from an anti-aircraft weapon.  When a woman holding a baby tripped on the dark stairwell, those following were unable to keep their balance.  It’s estimated that hundreds of people fell within 15 seconds, causing a huge crush from which many did not escape.

Many survivors were told not to speak about the disaster. For some, the audio trail is the first time their accounts have been included in the formal historical record.

Babette “Babs” Clark and her family narrowly avoided getting caught in the crush. Babs and her sister were instead pulled to safety as chaos continued to swirl around them. Walking home that night, Babs, then 11, remembers seeing “all the people lying in the rain”. What she was seeing were the bodies of those who had perished.

Babs said she’s glad the audio trail project has given her an opportunity to share her story.

“It was a bit of a relief. I had all this inside of me and never spoken about it,” she said.  “It’s only since they started with the memorial that it made me think ‘I want to get out there and start yelling my head off and telling people about it’. A lot of people had the wrong idea about what happened down there”.

Over the last two years, the University of East London has worked with a team of volunteers to record testimony and publicise the disaster. Over 50 talks have been given to community groups and 2,000 free books are now being given away. It is estimated that over 10,000 people will now understand more about the disaster thanks to UEL’s efforts.

The audio trails, a PDF version of the book and teaching materials are available for free from www.bgmemorial.org.uk.

Euan Williams, creator of the education pack and a teacher and history coordinator at Globe Primary School in Bethnal Green, said he hopes the lessons in the pack impart to students not just factual knowledge but also empathy for how people lived at the time.

“There were 173 people who lost their lives in a civilian disaster. It’s an awful lot of people and it had a massive effect on the community here,” he said. “The disaster has historical significance as well as local community significance within the context of the Second World War. People really ought to know what happened.”

Notes to Editors

The University of East London (UEL) is a global learning community with students from over 120 countries world-wide. Our vision is to achieve recognition, both nationally and internationally, as a successful and inclusive regional university proud of its diversity, committed to new modes of learning which focus on students and enhance their employability, and renowned for our contribution to social, cultural and economic development, especially through our research and scholarship. We have a strong track-record in widening participation and working with industry.