Bethnal Green

All posts tagged Bethnal Green

A couple of days before Guy Fawkes night in 1831, 10 year old John King and his 11 year old sister Martha were hanging out the washing to help their invalided mother at their home in Crabtree Road, at the northern end of Bethnal Green. Looking across the road to the Bird Cage public house in Nova Scotia Gardens, they noticed a boy, slightly older than themselves, who waved before uttering something in a foreign language that the two children couldn’t understand. It was the last time they were to see 14 year old Italian Carlo Ferrier alive – The London Burkers had struck again…

Nova Scotia Gardens was an area of the East End, just to the north-east of St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch that had been extensively used to extract clay for brick making. Once the clay field had been exhausted the area begun to be filled in with ‘leystall’ waste, quite literally excrement. Some dwellings, mainly small cottages, were built in the area, but were largely undesirable as, being built on the lower ground of the clay pits, they were prone to flooding. The properties were to attract the lowest, most desperate kind of tenants…


The London Burkers – Bishop, Williams and May

Four such individuals were Thomas Williams, John Bishop, a Covent Garden porter called Michael Shields and an unemployed butcher called James May.

In the 18th century, demand for anatomical cadavers was high – around 500 were needed each year to meet demands, and the bodies of convicted and hanged criminals met that requirement. However, whilst hundreds were executed during the 18th century, the mid 19th century saw just 55 being hanged each year. Demand clearly outstripped supply and it was into this lucrative market that Williams, Bishop, Shields and May were drawn.

Modelling their activities on the notorious Burke and Hare, two grave robbers in Scotland, these ‘London Burkers’, bodysnatchers or so called ‘resurrectionists’ would dig up and sell fresh cadavers to the anatomists and surgeons at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, St Thomas’ Hospital and Kings College. Bishop, in a subsequent confession, admitted to stealing between 500 and 1000 bodies in this manner over a twelve year period. However, the Burkers needed even more bodies…

On Saturday 5th November 1831, May and Bishop delivered the suspiciously fresh body of a young boy to William Hill, the porter of the dissecting room at King’s College, Somerset House and demanded twelve guineas for the corpse. May and Bishop tipped the corpse out of a hamper and pointed out to a startled Hill how fresh the body was. When questioned how the boy had died, both May and Bishop claimed they didn’t know, and that it was ‘no business of theirs’. Hill called Richard Partridge, the Demonstrator of Anatomy at the college to examine to body, and he alerted the Professor of Anatomy, Herbert Mayo. Mayo immediately called the police and the resurrectionists were duly arrested and remanded in custody…


The London Burkers in the Dock

Two weeks later, Joseph Sadler, a Superintendent with F division of the Metropolitan Police searched the cottage at Nova Scotia Gardens. He found numerous items of clothing in the gardens and in a well at the property, all of which suggested multiple murders. Williams and Shields were duly arrested and placed with May and Bishop. Upon questioning, it became apparent that the men had been complicit in the murder of a woman, Frances Pigburn and another boy named Cunningham who they had found sleeping rough in a pig market in Smithfield. Both had been taken back to Nova Scotia Gardens, drugged with a mixture of warm beer, sugar, rum and laudanum. They were then hung upside down and drowned in the well at the property.

The men were tried collectively, but the testimony of Bishop and Williams cleared the remaining two members of the gang, who appeared to have been mere ‘delivery men’ in the affair. Bishop, aged 33 and Williams, aged 26 were found guilty and both were hanged at Newgate on 5th December 1831 in front of a crowd of 30,000 onlookers. Their bodies were subsequently cut down and dispatched to anatomical establishments – for dissection…

The residents of Bethnal Green in the East End of London had become used to the ‘crump, crump, crump’ of the bombs being dropped on the capital by the Luftwaffe. The Blitz had been almost continuous during the winter of 1940 / 41 – indeed the city had once been hit for 57 consecutive nights, but now, as winter began to give way to spring in March 1943, things seemed to be a bit quieter. However, the population was on its guard, as the RAF had bombed Berlin a couple of nights before, and it was well known that Germany often responded with reprisal bombings soon afterwards…

The East End of London had been a target for German Bombing campaigns for a long time, in an attempt to disrupt the flow of materials and goods through the crucially important London Docks. As a result, people were becoming familiar with the air raid sirens and bombing raids that seemed to form a constant part of their everyday lives.


Bethnal Green Tube Station Entrance

Many families had built Anderson or Morrison Shelters in their own back gardens, but these prefabricated huts were often cramped and dark, and had poor ventilation, particularly when filled with a family of five or six people. As a result, many families used to head for the London Underground to sleep in the deep tunnels they provided. A sense of security prevailed, and a great community spirit grew on these excursions below the surface. Life went on, and some stations even boasted libraries.

Much of the Underground had been extended before the war, and new lines and stations were being added all the time. Bethnal Green Station was newly built as the Central Line had been extended from Liverpool Street in 1936. The outbreak of war had prevented further work from being carried out, so the station remained without tracks, but this made it ideal as a safe shelter from the bombing above.

On the evening of Wednesday, 3rd March, 1943, the weather was dreary and wet. London was still in the grips of a black-out, so lighting was limited. The local cinema had just finished its programme for the evening, and people were milling around outside, waiting to catch one of the buses that were still running. Suddenly, at 8.27pm, the air raid siren began its mournful wail, and people began making their way briskly to the entrance of Bethnal Green Tube Station and the safety it represented. A middle aged woman, carrying a bundle and holding a baby was at the head of the group of people descending the 19 steps to the station when she tripped and stumbled. An elderly man following her toppled over her prone body and a horrifying domino effect started to take place. At the same time, a strange and deafening sound filled the air (it turned out to be a secret anti-aircraft rocket battery being tested in the adjacent Victoria Park). People at the top of the stairs panicked and surged forwards, falling over each other, and in the matter of just 15 seconds the poorly lit, damp stairwell measuring just 10ft by 12ft was filled with over 300 people, being crushed to death by the weight of bodies.


Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Stairwell

People were quick to rush to help try and extricate the bodies from the crush. An off duty policeman, Thomas Penn tried his best to crawl over the bodies to assist, but he was hampered by the poor light given out by the single 25 watt bulb in the stairwell and fainted twice himself in his attempts.

By the time the bodies were removed from the stairway, 173 people were dead – 27 men, 84 women and perhaps most tragically, 62 children. An additional 62 people were taken to hospital with severe crush injuries.

The bodies were put onto carts and taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel Hospital, and when that became overwhelmed by the numbers, St John’s, the local church opposite the tube station was used as a temporary resting place.

The government was concerned that the news of the disaster would have such a detrimental effect on morale, that they ordered that the location and precise number of casualties be kept secret, and that reporting the tragedy ‘would give the incident a disproportionate importance, and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids.’

Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that there was no air raid that night, and the dreadful occurrence of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster has made it infamous as the site of the worst civilian loss of life in World War Two…


Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial Plaque