Romford Pictures: Havering man calls for government apology over 1943 Bethnal Green Disaster

Packed memorial service at St John's, Bethnal Green

Packed memorial service at St John's, Bethnal Green - Credit: Archant

Calls for the government to apologise to the people of east London for a wartime civilian disaster wrongly blamed on crowds panicking were made in public at Sunday’s unveiling of a long-awaited memorial.

Packed memorial service at St John's, Bethnal Green

Packed memorial service at St John's, Bethnal Green - Credit: Archant

The unveiling also marked the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.

Campaigners led by disaster survivor Alf Morris from Hornchurch want the Prime Minister to re-examine the 1943 Bethnal Green shelter tragedy in which 173 people died in a surge down an unsafe, narrow and badly lit staircase during a false air raid alert.

The incident was hushed-up by wartime national security censorship for the sake of public morale and was largely forgotten.

Alf, 83, chairman of the Stairway to Heaven trust, who began the campaign for a memorial, told the crowd: “The government failed to make the public shelter safe and also stopped Bethnal Green council defending themselves from accusations of neglect that hung over the Town Hall.

“We hope the people will receive a government apology as we were wrongly blamed, much like Hillsborough.”

Wartime Defence Secretary Herbert Morrison prevented the local authority publicly defending itself against allegations of negligence, while a secret inquiry put the cause down to panic, similar to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster half-a-century later, which finally led to a government apology last year.

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Alf was a 13-year-old schoolboy living in Bethnal Green when he was caught in the crowd surging down the narrow staircase – but was pulled clear by an air-raid warden in time.

Another survivor at Sunday’s memorial was 81-year-old Babs Nichols from Collier Row, who was a schoolgirl of 11 living in the area during the Second World War.

She recalled: “I fell down the stairs, but luckily was near the back of the crowd and my sister managed to pull me clear.”

The family heard the sirens and headed for the shelter – but missed the bus and got there late.

“We would have died if we had caught that bus,” Babs added.

But 173 other East Enders weren’t so lucky – crushed to death on the narrow, dimly-lit staircase that didn’t even have safety railings.

Their names were read at Sunday’s service and a candle lit for each one by the Rev Prebendary Alan Green, vicar of Bethnal Green.

After the service wreaths were laid at the unfinished memorial across the road at the site of the disaster 70 years ago.