On 7th September 1940
This afternoon at 2pm, a memorial will be unveiled in the Rose Garden between Sivill House and Ravenscroft Park, Columbia Rd, Bethnal Green to those who lost their lives in the bombing of Columbia Market on the first day of the London Blitz, seventy-five years ago on 7th September 1940
On 7th September 1940, life changed abruptly for twelve-year-old Tom Betts. It was the first day of the London Blitz, when bombs came raining down from the sky upon the East End and, that night, one fell into the shelter beneath the Old Columbia Market, where Tom and his family took refuge. It exploded killing more than forty people and, although Tom was seriously injured, he was lucky to escape with his life. Yet the events of that night brought an unexpected and sudden end to his childhood.
“I am happy to say that although my story was horrific, my life has been good since.” Tom reassured me when I spoke with him, “I went into the RAF at seventeen years old and then married at twenty-two in 1950. I became a specialist school teacher and I have a great and active life which I share with my lovely wife Betsy and two children.”
When Tom and Betsy asked to join the housing list in Bethnal Green after the war, they were told there was a twenty-five year wait. But then Tom learnt that new homes were being offered in the new town of Corby in return for six weeks work. “I got a job running the first bowling alley and I got a house, and that was beautiful,” he informed me in fond recollection.
Tom rarely visits Bethnal Green, the location of his formative experiences, anymore. It has changed almost beyond recognition, yet this afternoon he is returning for the unveiling of the memorial in the Rose Garden between Sivill House and Ravenscroft Park in Columbia Rd in remembrance of the events of that other day, seventy-five years ago today, when life broke apart.
“It was a very warm, cloudless Saturday, just like any other early September day. We lived in Columbia Buildings in Bethnal Green, part of a grand project built by Madam Burdett Coutts – of the banking world – as a philanthropic venture in the eighteen-sixties. It was an enormous Gothic creation that comprised a covered market, accommodation for several hundred, plus shops and storage for the traders. We had our own church, swimming pool and baths, and the luxury of a laundry on the fifth floor – it was by no means the typical East End block of flats, it was something far more majestic.
That Saturday, after my mother had cooked breakfast for my brother & me, I went out with friends knocking on doors to take orders of coke from the local gas works. Doing our bit for the war effort earned us threepence a sack which was enough to buy pie and eels, and also the means to go to the Saturday cinema. In the afternoon, the sirens began but since we had some light air raids in the previous nights, we were not too alarmed. Yet that day was different, there was much more anti-aircraft gun activity, so we were more curious and climbed up six floors onto the roof to take a better look. There were hundreds of German airplanes, flying so low that the crosses on their wings were clear to see. Then bombs began dropping from them and landing on the docks. It was bizarre – I remember looking down at the square below where children were playing, oblivious to the destruction not too far away.
Eventually, the all-clear sounded and because of the raid my mother was late for the weekly shopping trip into Bethnal Green Road. It took about an hour to buy the weekend groceries and our usual Superman comics. When we arrived home, we found that the water to the flats had been cut off. We learned later that this was due to the amount of water being used to fight the fires and, as evening came, the flames from the docks were very bright. I was sent to the standpipe in the next street to fetch water and I had just filled my bucket when a woman came out to tell us she had heard on the radio that another wave of bombers were on their way. So, fearing an even more ferocious attack, I raced home to persuade my mother to go to the shelter – a large area previously used as storage under the Market Square.
We were not too familiar with the shelter and had only used it once before, when there was light bombing. It was large – about one and a half football pitches in size, divided it into two equal parts by a wall. We had all been given the luxury of a sheet of corrugated metal to sleep on. The shelter began to get warmer and, with over a hundred people down there, it became very hot. Everyone was calm and in one spot there was a wedding party going on they were laughing and singing. The noise outside told us all that bombs were falling and the occasional rumble indicated they were getting closer.
As the night went on I must have fallen asleep, but I remember feeling very uncomfortable and hearing my mother next to me, chatting to my aunt. All that I can recollect after that was feeling giddy and sick. Still feeling very giddy, I opened my eyes. It was dark. I could hear screams and whistles. Startled, I remembered where I was and began to feel around for my mother and brother, as it was impossible to see. The air was full of dust and it was pitch black. In the far distance I could see a tiny light from a small bulb. I could not get my bearings. Still lying on the ground, I focused on the dim glow coming from that bulb in the distance. It was hanging above the exit doors.
I saw silhouettes of people pouring out of these doors, so I began to crawl towards the source of the light and I crawled over a sheet of metal covered by a blanket where a woman sat. She screamed at me to get off as she did not want her blanket covered in blood, but her words made no sense – what blood was she talking about? I felt my head. I had assumed that the sticky liquid I could feel was perspiration. It wasn’t. I began to realise that I was the source of the blood she was referring to.
As I neared the light, I realised fully what had happened and remembered that within the shelter was a First Aid room, as I had been to it as a volunteer to be bandaged up weeks earlier. So, instead of going into the street, I pushed my way towards the First Aid room and, after I nearly forced the door, they let me in. Inside, there were about twenty people including one of my friends. A nurse bandaged my head and we sat in there for what seemed like hours. When the ambulance cars arrived, I was led by two ARP wardens out into the street that was as light as day from the glow of the fires. The warden who was holding my arm asked me to put on a blanket that he held. He said it was for shock. The converted ambulance took me to the Mildmay Mission Hospital where they were really working hard, looking after dozens of casualties.
After being re-bandaged, I was taken onto another ambulance – this time with four stretchers in it and an attendant First Aid worker. It was an horrendous journey, all the time the raid continued, and often we stopped and turned around to avoid blocked streets. At one stage, the woman First Aider who was with us told the driver, through the slot in the cab, that the man on the stretcher above me had died. This really did scare me and when she touched me on the head I shouted out, “I’m not dead.” I am glad she believed me. The driver tried several hospitals and I could hear them saying, “Sorry mate we are full.” Eventually, a hospital in Kingsland Rd took us in.
I was cleaned up and put into a room alone, still listening to the guns and bombs raining down. At last, I heard the all-clear and felt a lot easier. It was now daylight. It sounds silly now but I waited in that room for a whole day before another person came. It was a nun. She gave me some jelly to eat and some warm tea to drink. Later, a nurse came in and changed my dressings – making me feel calmer. That evening, an uncle came to see me. He had traced me from the previous hospital and he told me that my father was on his way down from RAF Sealand in Cheshire to see me. I began to fret over my mother and brother, knowing that we had all been separated.
By an incredible twist of fate, it appears that a fifty kilogramme bomb had fallen through a ventilation shaft and exploded in the centre of the shelter, which was an approved Air Raid Shelter and an ARP depot. My mother, brother and I were less than fifteen feet from that ventilator, which was made from glass! How unlucky and how unbelievable that such a shelter could be built. To this day, I still do not know how many people died in that approved air raid shelter.
When night fell on the 8th September, the raiders returned. This time I really felt scared as I was alone, some four storeys up in a small room, listening to the bombs crashing down. Early next morning, a nurse came in with some tea and food. Then, about ten o’clock, two ambulance men carried me down the stairs to the front of the hospital where a Greenline coach, converted to carry stretchers, was waiting and I was taken to the Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield.
Arriving there, I was taken straight to the ward at the top of the block where I was bathed, fed and prepared for stitches to be put into my head. This was a rather painful experience as I was kept in my bed as they stitched. They were talking extremely kindly to me but it really hurt. At one stage, a black man from a ship who was unable to speak a word of English went berserk. Unable to understand anything going on around him, he screamed in his own language and began to throw things around the ward. I was concerned that he might hit the doctors while the needle was going into my head. However, eventually he was restrained and my head was sewn up and dressed.
After ten days, my father found me and told me that he had been looking for my mother since the event. By the time he discovered which hospital she was in, she had already died of her injuries. It appeared that she had been taken to a hospital and initially she was unable to speak but, when she was able to so, had given her maiden name making it impossible to trace her. I discovered that my brother had escaped without any injuries and was with my grandmother. I was devastated and I still have feelings of guilt because, on that day, I was the one who had insisted we all went to the shelter.
After a few weeks, I was allowed up and began to help on the wards and I worked the washing-up machine which was in another part of the hospital. I remember at one stage while cleaning up a casualty, a man who had been brought in, I noticed a piece of brick imbedded in his ear. I called a nurse and remember feeling that I was contributing something to the hospital. Although I felt well in myself, my head wound refused to heal and so I remained in hospital receiving an occasional visit from my grandmother.
Christmas came and a nurse took me on an outing to Enfield Town. It was a wonderful treat, she even bought me a waffle with honey on it – a treasured memory during a dreadful time. In the New Year, I underwent surgery and skin was grafted from my leg onto my head. I believe that this technique was in its infancy at the time. I stayed in the main hospital until May and was then transferred to a convalescent home, where I remained until the late August when my grandfather came and took me back to the Buildings where we lived. When I saw the first of my friends, they told me they were convinced I had been killed in the air raid. I assured them that that was not the case.
My grandfather had an allotment and the King came to visit, and spoke to us. He asked what I was doing and I said, “I’m helping my grandfather.” Then, on 24th March 1944, I was having breakfast in my grandfather’s kitchen in Columbia Buildings when the last bomb of the war fell upon Vallance Rd. My porridge flew up in the air, out of the bowl, and landed upon my leg burning the skin. So, on the very first day of the bombing and on the last day, I got hurt by a bomb!”
Tom Betts, 7th September 2015
Columbia Buildings where Tom grew up
Columbia Market constructed by Angela Burdett Coutts at the suggestion of Charles Dickens in 1859
Old Columbia Market during demolition in 1958, with the cellars that served as a shelter visible.
(Photos courtesy of Alfred Robinson from Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives)
These stone pillars in Columbia Rd are all that remains today of the Old Columbia Market
Tom Betts with his daughter at the unveiling of the commemorative plaque
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