The Homicidal Crowd

June 19, 2009

It was on a British programme called Ghosts On The Underground that I first heard about the WWII tragedy at Bethnal Green Station. The programme’s format was to interview LU staff, who spun their ghoulish tales to camera, interspersed with dramatised vignettes and some great photography of the underground system. The Tube, having been built on countless gravesites and plague pits, and witness to many human disaters, is always ripe for tales of well known and not-so-well-known stations and their spooky happenings after hours.

One particular interview that has stuck with me was about Bethnal Green station. This is because it was my local station at the time I watched the programme. On 3 March 1943, amidst a period of WWII when more civilians were dying than soldiers, a mass panic ensued at Bethnal Green station which was doubling as a public bomb shelter. At 8.17 the air raid alert sounded and 1500 people fled into the station which already contained between five and six hundred people. At 8.27 a local anti-aircraft launcher fired rockets into the sky, which began a mass panic amongst people on the street. Those trying to get into the station believed the bottleneck at the entrance was caused by people being refused entry and so they began to push.  Moments later and people were being crushed to death, their screams masked by the sound of gunfire and rockets. 173 men, women and children were crushed to death, and a further 14 men, 33 women and 15 children were seriously injured. Ironically, no bombs had even fallen from the skies within 2 miles of the station. This was the psychology of an homicidal crowd: ‘every man for himself’.

In Ghosts On The Underground, a member of staff at Bethnal Green station recalls hearing screams of women and children coming from the platforms, but I think the event that created the alleged haunting is far more sinister: what can happen if you’re caught amongst a crowd of people all trying to save themselves.

Soon after the programme I went down to the station to see if I could find a commemoration. There is a relatively small  plaque over the south east entrance which you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. In hindsight, this seems to mirror the attitude of the inquiry after the tragedy, which was hampered by having to remain almost secret, lest ‘the enemy’ find out and exploit panicking crowd psychology to their advantage.


2 Responses to “The Homicidal Crowd”

  1. DocDelete Says:

    Not only that, but there must surely have been a feeling of war-weariness so palpable that few would want to linger on events like this. It would just be one tragedy amongst so many others.

    Perhaps this is the reason that so many investigations and ‘un-earthings’ continue to this day. The children and grandchildren of those affected will favour memorialisation: those at the time simply wanted to close the book, and move on.

    Thanks for another worthy blog entry.

  2. Mat Says:

    Absolutely, Ken. And sadly those who want to close the book are the people who won’t be around for much longer. The irony is that its best to get facts straight whilst first hand information is still available.

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