Bethnal Green Station; The Hidden Tragedy of WWII

In a war that claimed over 50 million lives, a single incident that lead to 173 deaths can seem like just a drop in the ocean, but the tragedy at Bethnal Green Tube Station still stands out as one of the most devastating incidents in wartime London. What isolates this incident is that, in reality, it was entirely preventable.

In 1936 it was decided that the Central Line would be extended to run beyond Liverpool Street to Stratford. As building the new line was halted during the war the tunnels and stations were left empty, and subsequently East Londons began using Bethnal Green as an air raid shelter, rather than the uncomfortable Anderson and Morisson Shelters provided by the Home Office.
The shelter at Bethnal Green was massive, fitted out with 5,000 bunks, with room for 2,000 more, and complete with library, musicians and entertainers. Londoners whiled away many hours here in the subterranean community while bombs rained down above.


Bethnal Green Station today

On 3rd March 1943 however disaster struck. Following heavy bombing of Berlin London was preparing for retaliation, so when the alarm sounded locals rushed for shelter as usual. The steps down to the shelter were dark, only 1 light illuminated them, there was no markings on the side, or central hand rail, and as was customary London was in Blackout conditions. As East-Enders began making their way down the stairs a lady carrying a baby and a roll of bedding tripped and fell on the stairs, an elderly gentleman tripped over her, and thus began a devastating cascade of human dominoes. In the darkness nobody knew of the danger ahead, and Londoners kept hurrying down the stairs. The arrivals of two buses full of people looking for refuge only accelerated the disaster. A few miles down the road, in Victoria Park new bombs were undergoing secret testing, giving the impression of a German air-raid and only increasing the crushing panic.

In a matter of minutes 173 people were dead, including 62 children. A further 90 were injured. The bodies pulled from the staircase were purple and bruised beyond recognition. One child was only identified by a cobbler, who remembered adding a nail to her shoe the day before!

On the 3rd March 1943 not one German bomb fell on London, in fact, not even one enemy aircraft was spotted, there was no danger to London, and yet there had been huge civilian casualties!  Upon hearing of the disaster Churchill ordered that it be covered up. Survivors and witnesses were told of the importance of their silence, and some never spoke of it in their life times. Churchill believed that news of the Bethnal Green disaster would lead to a huge drop in morale and public spirit, and thus a cover-up was initiated.

It wasn’t until 2 years later that the Home Office released their official reports, along with the autopsy reports from the Police Surgeon. Even to this day no memorial stands to the victims, save a small plaque, which frequently goes unnoticed. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust has been fundraising to install a memorial by the tube station, of an inverted staircase. Designed by Harry Paticas, the memorial was entered in to the Royal Academy of Art’s prestigious Summer Exhibition in 2012. Whilst more funds are still needed to complete the memorial, the Trust are still highly active, and every year on 3rd March, a memorial service is held.

Over 70 years later, it is astounding that the deaths were covered up so easily, and that the tragedy is still so unknown! Family members of those killed were given only a pittance as compensation (around £950 for adults and £250 for children), and many took the psychological scars to their graves. A list of those who were injured, or died can be found on the Stairway to Heaven website.



Trent Park – The Listeners

Sunday mornings are usually times I reserve exclusively for sleeping, making up the inevitable deficit from the preceding week. Therefore it can be assumed that if any activity is partaken of before 11am, it is probably something pretty good. In this case, it certainly was!

By 10am, I had made my way from North East London to Cockfosters, right at the end of the Piccadilly line, and enjoyed an invigorating walk through the park to the cafe. The invigoration was necessary; having started watching 13 Reasons Why at 10pm the previous night I was running on around 90 minutes sleep (seriously, you can’t stop watching, its gripping!). At the cafe I was greeted by a surprisingly large group of people.

As seems to be my usual method of stumbling upon activities, an event recommended to me by Trent Park’s Facebook page popped up on my news feed, advertising a history walk. As someone who both loves walking, and history, this seemed like the perfect morning plan, and having met over 50 people who had also risen early on a Sunday morning, my sentiments are definitely shared!

I’d first discovered Trent Park after listening to Radio 4 with my grandmother. Having just returned from a trip to Bletchley Park the news of a new museum opening, considered to be Bletchley’s human intelligence counterpart, peaked my interest. Trent Park was one of the secret locations run by British Military branch MI 19 during World War II, used for spying on senior German Officials, aimed at getting them to reveal important information, without duress. MI 19 capitalised on senior officer’s arrogance that, with their senior positions they were entitled to preferential treatment, being allowed to live out the rest of their war in relative comfort. British Spies were sent in, disguised as German officers, expected to build their trust and lead conversations on to matters of German intelligence, such as the plans of the U-boats, whilst intelligence officers recorded the conversations with microphones, and listened in from another region of the house. When Churchill discovered it’s existence, he instantly condemned it, but luckily his ordered were ignored, and the British continued to obtain valuable information about the German Military, saving countless British lives.


Camlet Moat

Trent Park House sits within the gorgeous Trent Country Park, a 320 hectare park. Our history walk too us around the grounds, leading us through the history of the land, from its use as Henry VIII’s hunting ground, to Cromwell selling off the land to pay for his army, to its most recent owner Philip Sassoon (cousin of Sigmund Sassoon, my favourite war poet). The Sassoon family, descended from Iraqi Jews, moved to London quickly rose to High Society.

Sassoon’s hospitality was known across the country, even little Queen Elizabeth, visited the house! He would go to great lengths to be the perfect guest to celebrities from across the globe, and he designed the estate to be the perfect location for entertaining. Visitors such as Charlie Chaplain, George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and Edward VIII (accompanied by Wallis Simpson) frequented the house, and Winston Churchill even painted the house and its interior on several occasions.


Sassoon’s Obelisk where his guests would gather for some shooting!

In 1924 Sassoon lavishly purchased large quantities of rose bricks from the recently demolished London palace, that once belonged to William Kent. It is from these bricks that the Georgian style house is built from today, designed by architect Philip Tilden. In the grounds, Sassoon designed a beautiful Wisteria Walk, as well as a Japanese Garden and swimming pool. An avid flyer he even build his own Aerodrome, where he housed his Percival Gull, Percival Petrel, de Hallivand DH90 Dragonfly and de Havilland Leopard Moth.

In 1939, just three months before the outbreak of World War II, Philip Sassoon died after developing influenza that spread to his throat, and subsequently to his lungs. After a small private funeral his ashes were scattered over Trent Park.

Trent Park today has subsequently been sold off to property developers Berkeley Homes. After a long campaign, the Save Trent Park campaign,  it was announced that Trent Park would house a new museum. The Trent Park Museum which will occupy part of the ground floor will open in 2019/2020.

For further information check out Trent Park Museum’s website here!

That History Girl Travels ~ Oslo Day 5

Our final day in Oslo had finally arrived. With a flight in the evening we decided to save the Armed Forces Museum till last as it was one we were both interested in, we wanted lost of time there, and it’s free!

2017-01-28-21.13.51.jpg.jpegHoused within the grounds of Akershus Fortress, the museum is huge! Outside cannons, tanks and ambulances greet you as you arrive. The ambulance, it turns out came from the UK, and was on loan for their temporary exhibition on the medical corps.

2017-01-28-21.16.38.jpg.jpegThe museum takes you through military history in Norway, from the Vikings through to modern day conflicts and WWII. The first room focuses on modern conflicts, and Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan, and work with the UN.

Upstairs the rooms are filled with cannons, and models of castles from around Denmark-Norway, as the pairing was then called. Christiania (now Oslo) was the Norwegian capital, whilst Copenhagen was the capitol of the whole country. The models also include castles such as Kastellet, found in Copenhagen on a star shaped island.2017-01-28-21.19.22.jpg.jpeg Medieval weapons, defenses and uniforms are displayed, however some rooms do not have English translations, but have QRS codes which unfortunately don’t work. This room was full of military uniforms, with rank slides and honours which are still a total mystery to us, which was  a shame as it was something we were both interested in!
Returning downstairs there is a very detailed exhibition on how WWII started, and how Norway became 2017-02-15-09.31.20.jpg.jpeginvolved  with the fight. The Resistance Museum had more information on Norwegian citizens  and their actions throughout the war. Having been a neutral state from 1814 to 1940 they only had a 20,000 strong army to defend against the German Army. The Norwegians had been keen to stay out of the fighting across Europe they were not prepared for the advancing German Forces. Had they started recruiting forces earlier they could have increased their forces to 120,000 people. 50,000 Norwegian Men were said to be fighting for Norway during 1940, compared to Germany’s 4.5 million. The final permanent room looked into modern conflicts with the UN, the Cold War, including a mini bunker, the Navy, and ground forces in Afghanistan.

2017-01-28-21.20.24.jpg.jpegThe final room of the museum was an exhibition on Military Medicine. The exhibition housed various pieces of quintessential pieces of medical equipment such as first aid kits, stretchers and technology developed for the military.  Horse drawn ambulances from the first world war, along with modern ambulances used in combat were displayed here.

Tearing ourselves away from the museum, we headed to Hard Rock Cafe for our final time (they have an awesome lunch deal). Our planned afternoon of souvenir shopping was rather disrupted by Spencers/Portico deciding whilst we were thousands of miles away was time to try and sort our broken heating (After we’d waited 6 months for them to get their act together). A delicious lunch later, we headed to the airport.

2017-01-28-21.22.15.jpg.jpegIn 2014 a redevelopment of Oslo Airport was announced. Designed by Gudmund Stokke, under architectural firm Aviaplan. The new departure hall is beautiful! The building is light, airy, with golden fairy lights draped around every pillar. The whole building is clean and very Scandanavian, even the security staff are lovely, when you forget to take your 1l water bottle out of your hand luggage!

After a lovely but exhausting week, it was time to head back to London. Even staying for 5 days I felt there were things I could go back to do/see. I’ll definitely be back! Probably in summer…and when I actually have money!

Decoding the Bombe ~ Bletchley Park

At 9am on a crisp Saturday morning, QMUL History Society met outside Mile End Station to begin our 1st trip of the year to the home of modern computing security.

Bletchley Park, most well-known for its involvement in the Second World War, was developed to its present state by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon who bought the site in 1883. Later bought by Admiral Henry Sinclair, the head of MI6 in 1938, it became the designated home for code-breakers, in the case of war being declared.

Following the release of 2014 film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly, the work of mathematician Alan Turing has been thrust into the spotlight. Turing is most revered for his work in inventing the Bombe, a decoding machine, designed to break the Enigma code in WWII. The Enigma machine, designed by German Arthur Scheribus, provided German officials with triple level encryption for their messages, and they never doubted its security.

The Enigma machine worked by initially swapping two letters, before feeding the letter through to 3 spinning wheels, which would change the letter 3 times. The letter then traveled backwards through the 3 drums, before revealing the letter on a lit keyboard. The catch? Each machine used 3 drums at a time (of a possible 5) set to 1 of 26 positions each. When a letter was fed through, the 1st drum would rotate 1/26 of a rotation; when this drum had completed 1 revolution the next drum would turn 1/26 of a turn and so on. In this way, the set up of the machine changed with every letter typed.

The flaw in the Enigma machine, which the code-breakers at BP exploited, was that Enigma could never code a letter as itself. That is to say A could be coded as B-Z, but never A. This allowed codebreakers, before the Bombe was invented, to estimate codes, whilst looking for frequently used phrases such as ‘wettervorhersage’ meaning weather forecast.


Using this knowledge Alan Turing designed his Bombe, which was later modified by Gordon Welchman to vastly improve its efficiency.

Today, Bletchley Park is no longer a hub of military intelligence, having moved to GCHQ and NSA once the war was over. The work at Bletchley remained classified long after the war had ended. The Germans never found out their enigma code had been broken; Only the British and Americans were privy to this information, so when Russia looted their way through Eastern Europe and found a large quantity of Enigma Machines, they didn’t think twice about using them during the Cold War.

When Gordon Welchman was brought in by the NSA during the Cold War to crack Russian codes, he found the work surprisingly similar to his work at Bletchley. Luckily, even after Bletchley had been stripped of any clues to its existence in 1945, several Bombes had been kept, by GCHQ and the NSA, giving the USA a key advantage.

Bletchley Park today highlights and celebrates the works of the code-breakers who worked tirelessly throughout the war, with little to no recognition, to thwart the Germans in a battle of wits.

Initially you’re given a brief introduction to the history of Bletchley and code-breaking before you’re given an audio guide and allowed to explore the grounds at your own pace.

The beautiful, famous manor house (above) shows visitors the scale of the operations at Bletchley before they were upscaled. The initiator of the increase in workforce, Gordon Welchman, is celebrated here too, his work so frequently overshadowed by Turing.

Various huts are open to the public. Hut 9 contains information about the redevelopment of Bletchley, having been left in a state of disrepair when it closed in 1945. This hut explores the archaeological techniques used to understand it’s original appearance, and allow developers to recreate this as accurately as possible.

The other huts take visitors through the various stages of code-breaking,  with interactive activities in various rooms giving people of all ages the chance to try their hand at cracking the Enigma code. All the huts have been restored to their original condition, and some contain audio-visual effects to recreate conditions just over 70 years ago.

Visitors are also able to see the cottages inhabited by the code-breakers, although the interiors aren’t open to the public.


In 1995 a group of scientists and enthusiasts headed up by John Harper decided to try and rebuild the Bombe. When Bletchley was decommissioned all traces of the work that had dominated the lives of up to 3000 people for the past 6 years was burned or destroyed, so finding plans for the Bombe seemed impossible. 10 years later, after a decade of hard work, trial and error and sourcing now discontinued materials such as Bakelite they had a working Bombe. Today you can see this in action with demonstrations every half an hour.


Beside the rebuilt Bombe sits a beautiful graphite statue of Alan Turing, and the letter of apology from Gordon Brown for his conviction of “debauchery” when it was discovered he was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Having chosen chemical castration over imprisonment, Turing tragically took his own life in 1954. Given that Turing’s work is said to have shortened the war by up to 2 years, saving potentially hundreds of thousands of lives, the fact it took nearly 50 years to pardon him is downright disgusting. Furthermore Parliament’s decision to overturn a bill which would pardon all those convicted of “debauchery” a few weeks ago shows just how static societies views on the LGBTQ+ community are, despite politicians constantly self-congratulating themselves on how progressive they think they are.

Today a memorial to all those who worked at Bletchley stands outside hut 2 bearing the inscription “We Also Served”. When Bletchley closed all those who worked there were sent away with strict instructions never to speak of their work, and for this reason so many achievements went uncelebrated. Since the Enigma code was declassified many of the men and women who worked there have released memoirs of their time at Bletchley. Most speak of fond memories, and many found love there.

Without the work of the Code breakers, WWII could have had a very different conclusion, with millions more innocent lives lost. It is thanks to their work that we live in the world we do today, and for that we salute them.

Admission to Bletchley Park costs between £14.00 and £17.25 for adults which includes unlimited access to the site for 1 calendar year. English Heritage members also enjoy a further discount.