Alf Morris, tube disaster survivor
Yesterday, I met with Alf Morris at Nico’s Cafe next to Bethnal Green Tube Station. Alf is one of the few remaining survivors of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster, when one hundred and seventy-three people died in the single worst civilian calamity of World War II in Britain. No bombs fell, the casualties were the result of a series of tragic circumstances, when a crowd of three hundred people mistook the sound of anti-aircraft rockets for bombs dropping and stampeded into the narrow stairwell at the tube entrance, falling over each other in panic like helpless human dominos.
For over fifty years, Alf carried his story without even telling his wife or children, but in 2007, when he was approached by the people who want to create a memorial to this forgotten calamity, Alf broke his silence. The result is an extraordinary eye witness testimony which he dictated to me and it is my privilege to publish Alf’s compelling story here in his own words.
“On 3rd March 1943 at a quarter to eight, in our home at 106 Old Ford Rd, the radio went off, as it did every time there was an air raid. My father, Alfred George Morris, insisted that me and my aunt, Lilian Hall, go to the tube to shelter. As we crossed Victoria Park Sq, the air-raid siren sounded. In Bethnal Green Gardens, between the Toy Museum and St John’s Church, there was a radio controlled searchlight that came on. This meant the searchlight had found an aircraft, me and my aunt knew this from other nights. So we ran across Victoria Park Sq to reach Roman Rd (which was then called Green St), then across the road to the entrance to Bethnal Green Tube and started down the steps.
There was a wooden hoarding and a narrow entrance with just a twenty-five watt bulb, but we knew where we were going because we had been there many times and there were handrails at each side. Me and Lilian, we started walking down the centre of the staircase and everything was as normal. The air-raid had stopped. We continued on down and as we got halfway down, the rocket guns in Victoria Park fired at the aircraft above. There was a deafening noise as they flew over. At that time, two buses arrived at the number eight bus stop and they were full of people. Above the noise, somebody shouted ‘There’s bombs! There’s bombs! There’s bombs! They’re bombing us!’ And as they did everybody ran to the entrance.
The rush of people separated me and my aunt. I was pushed to the left and my aunt was pushed to the right. I was thirteen years old. As I was pushed downwards, I was carried down. I got to the third step from the bottom and I was pushed up against the rail with people falling from above. They fell on top of one another. They were all screaming for their mothers and fathers. I couldn’t see my aunt and I couldn’t move my legs because the people were all pushed up against them. I was calling for my aunt but she had her own problems, she was stuck too.
And then, on the landing at the bottom of the staircase, there was a lady air raid warden, her name was Mrs Chumbley. She could see me calling and crying. She put her arms across the people who were down and the first thing she did was grab my hair, and I screamed because the pain was tremendous, but she could not move me. So she reached further over the people and put her hands under my arms and pulled me out like I was a bag of rubbish, and I started to move and I came out.
When she pulled me, I must have stepped on several of the bodies, she pulled me over these people. Then she stood me on the landing, grabbed my collar and said, ‘You go downstairs and you say nothing of what has happened here.’ She had a very dominating voice. Then I walked away from her and descended the escalator, which was not working because the station was still under construction and when the war began they ceased working on it.
At the bottom of the escalator, there was a big steel door. They pulled the door open and as I went in they asked why I was crying but I said nothing. I walked down to my bunk, and I sat there and cried. Ten minutes later, my aunt came down. They pulled her out, and she had left her coat and shoes in the crush. Her stockings were torn, and she was black and blue down one side. We got some tea in the canteen and settled down but we were worried about my mum, who had gone to another shelter with my sister who was a babe in arms at the time.
Around nine thirty, three people came walking along the tunnel, a policeman, an air raid warden and a fireman who had climbed down the shaft at Carpenters Sq next to Bancroft Rd. You could hear their footsteps approaching and people were asking why they came through the tunnel. But no-one said anything because there were fifteen hundred people in the shelter and we didn’t want panic. It quietened down at ten thirty when we went to bed but I didn’t sleep much because I was so worried.
The next morning I came up around seven o’ clock and when I walked up the stairs there were piles of shoes and all the steps had been washed down. I got home at seven thirty but no-one knew how bad the tragedy was at this time. I was very pleased to see my mum and sister, my mum told me when she heard the guns she thought it was bombs so she ran into the shelter under the catholic church and when the all clear sounded at eight thirty in the evening she went home.
Just before I went to school, Lilian Trotter used to bring her seven year old daughter Vera round and Vera and me would go to school together. But that morning Lilian Trotter didn’t show. I waited till nine before I left for school. At school, there were so many children missing out of the class. The teachers asked, ‘Where are they?’ I said, ‘There’s been something happened at Bethnal Green Tube.’ When school finished at four, I went home but Lilian and Vera had still not arrived. Their uncle asked my dad where they were. They’d all heard rumours. You wasn’t allowed to talk about what happened.
My dad was very level-headed. I thought a lot of my dad. He said to my mother, ‘I’m going to look round the hospitals.’ He went to the Bethnal Green Hospital, then the Hackney Rd Children’s Hospital and the Marmaid Hospital. They was all laid in the different mortuaries. So then he realised there had been a terrible tragedy. He found Lilian and Vera. Vera could not be recognised she was so mutilated, her face was crushed. The way he recognised her was because he had taken a nail out of her shoe two weeks before the accident. She was unrecognisable. That went for most of the bodies that were pulled out from there. All those people I heard crying for their mothers and fathers, gradually getting less and less and no-one could help them. It was terrible.
When my father came home and told my mother Elizabeth, he sat on the kitchen steps and cried like a baby. That was the only time I ever saw my father break down. We accepted that Lil and Vera were dead, and then we carried on as best we could because we thought there might be another raid that night. When we went to line up for the shelter, newspaper reporters were asking us what happened but we were instructed to say nothing. This is how it was covered up.
And we went down into the shelter and gradually it got around that one hundred and seventy-three people had died, sixty-two of whom were children.”
As Alf dictated to me in Nico’s Cafe, one sentence at a time, I could see he was reliving the events and describing what he saw precisely. Paradoxically, since Alf never spoke of it for over fifty years, the story retains absolute clarity in his telling. He has carried the experience itself and it has not become supplanted in his mind by the repeated narrative of the events. I was touched to be there with him having our private conversation (learning of these big events that once happened so close at hand in Bethnal Green), amid the banal public clamour of the steamy cafe. I found it impossible not to warm to this open-hearted man still struggling with the experience today. Time breeds indifference amongst the general populace yet brings Alf no solace. He is the solitary guardian of his story, lucky to survive but deeply unlucky to become part of a tragedy he can never escape. Watching him bring the events into the present tense, as we sat with our faces just inches apart, I could see the thirteen year old boy of 1943 still present in Alf today.
Now he has unburdened his lonely secret, the troubled emotions Alf carried all these years have come to the surface, “Inside me I am bitter because all these people died and no-one recognises it even after all this time.” he reveals. Alf wants a memorial to those who were killed that night in those unforgettable minutes while he was trapped under the bodies before he was rescued, this is the moral cause he has embraced to channel his grief. He is a passionate man, carrying raw feelings, yet although he describes himself as bitter, Alf revealed a warm human nature to me. Telling me how a recent newspaper feature brought him to meet Suzanne Lane, the grand-daughter of his saviour (who knew nothing of her grandmother’s heroism until she learnt it from Alf ), he remembers Mrs Chumbley, the air raid warden, with great respect and affection.
“She stood at the top of the escalator in a blue smock. She was a tall woman and she’d point at you and say ‘Stop running!’ or ‘Shut Up!’ and you’d do it. She scared everyone but when it came to this incident, she was a true godsend.”
Mrs Chumbley, heroine of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster.
Lilian Trotter and her daughter Vera.
Alf is one of the prime movers in the Stairway to Heaven project to raise money for the memorial to the victims of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster. In the next month, there is the launch of a book of survivors’ testimonies, a play reading and service of remembrance on 3rd March in Bethnal Green. Alf asked me to publish his phone number here, so anyone who would like to help may call him direct 07767402781