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On Saturday 7th September 1940

September 7, 2013
by the gentle author

Tom Betts

On Saturday 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 today he is returning to lay a wreath in Columbia Rd in remembrance of the events of that other Saturday, more than seventy years ago, 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!”

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.

These stone pillars in Columbia Rd are all that remains today of the Old Columbia Market

Photos of Old Columbia Market courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Commemorating the anniversary of the bombing of the air raid shelter beneath the Old Columbia Market Sq in which more than forty people lost their lives on the first day of the Blitz, 7th September 1940, there will be a wreath-laying next to Sivill House on Columbia Rd today at 1:00pm.

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. September 7, 2013

    What an incredible story, so personal and honest. I have never felt much affinity with war stories, even from my own family, but I almost felt like I was there whilst reading this, seventy years ago today. A unique piece of history beautifully told. Thank you

  2. September 7, 2013

    Pie and eels ! Love the idea .

  3. September 7, 2013

    That’s a terribly sad story. x

  4. Vicky permalink
    September 7, 2013

    Thank you Tom for telling this story to The Gentle Author. I found it very moving.

  5. Gary permalink
    September 7, 2013

    The true reality of war. I was a child living in London throughout the blitz, stories like that were an everyday occurance. Calling out “dead miss” when the school teacher called the name of a classmate who had “copped it” on the daily register. Sometimes little pieces of body could be seen in the streets before the birds ate them.

  6. Ron Pummell. permalink
    September 7, 2013

    I lived round the corner in those days. Then I always knew Columbia Buildings as the ‘Black Buildings’. I have always remembered that the internal corridors never had any lighting so we had to walk in the pitch dark along these passages when we were calling for friends, day and night.

  7. Joan Rose permalink
    September 7, 2013

    I remember that raid. I was 14 and sheltered in Shoreditch Church Crypt. This story made me cry. It is so sad that Tom lost his mother.

    My father Alfred Raymond was on the front line in the 1914 to 1918 war. On the 30th September 1940 my dad took my mum, my three sisters and me to Euston Station and we got on the first train out of London. We left everything behind and finished up in Blackpool for the rest of the war. I used to come back to London to visit my friends. Every Londoner during this terrible time was a hero.

  8. Beryl Happe permalink
    September 7, 2013

    What a moving story, and how brave that little lad was. I was brought up very close to this area, and could visualise it all vividly. It brings home the horrors of war and how ordinary people suffered.

  9. John Campbell permalink
    September 7, 2013

    A very vivid and moving account of a young boy’s life. Thanks for sharing this, your words bring the whole thing to life.

  10. David Cantor permalink
    September 9, 2013

    Fascinating story, Tom’s feelings of responsibility for his mother are understandable but the guilt is firmly attributable to the war mongers that unleashed the air raids. Tom has kindly added to my understanding of Columbia Buildings. In 1870, my great great grandfather was the lodging superintendent at the Buildings after serving in the Grenadier Guards where he was a Colour Sergeant. He died at the Gatehouse of pneumonia after surviving 21 years in the Army. Angela Coutts provided a pension for his wife and possibly found a job for one of his daughters in service at Buckingham Palace where she worked for several years, I have a few items that were smuggled out under her bustle!
    Thank you Tom.

  11. Mark Towersey permalink
    September 9, 2013

    A truly moving storey,I work occasionally in this area. I will make a point of looking for the gates from the above photographs. Tom it is a life changing storey as you say. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  12. Ron Higgins permalink
    September 11, 2013

    This is the first time I’ve seen this . My mum was in the air-raid shelter in Columbia Road in September 1940 it took a direct hit . Mum lost her right arm my granddad was killed . I never knew my granddad, mum was evacuated to Essex. My two older brothers were in the shelter both had miner wounds mum was pregnant with my sister who was also ok , my sister and another brother and myself were born in Braintree Essex me in1946 in 1949 we moved back to
    London Hackney

  13. Wayne permalink
    October 8, 2013

    What a sad but uplifting story. I absolutely adore this website I spent most of this afternoon looking at some enchanting photographs and reading some wonderful stories

  14. Caroline permalink
    November 12, 2014

    In memory of my father’s cousin Florence Rosina Button aged 38, her daughter Doris aged 18 and her son Ronald, aged 8, who all died that night in the Columbia Market shelter.

  15. May 7, 2015

    To those who had ancestors at Columbia Market on 7-8th Sept 1940, it is hoped that a memorial will be in place by the 75th anniversary for details see or find details on Faceboo
    or Contact the group via THE DORSET CENTRE. DISS ST LONDON E2

  16. Cindy permalink
    January 5, 2016

    Beautiful story, but one serious correction. There were estimated to be 14 killed, not 40 as the article says. However, that number is still significant. There were around 40 injured, but again, not killed.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It amazes me how humanity can persevere despite all odds.

  17. Cindy permalink
    January 5, 2016

    I meant to add, at least that was my understanding. I could be wrong.

  18. January 13, 2018

    The memorial unveiled in 2015 states 51 fatalities in this tragic wartime incident. I believe this is correct. One of my family members died in this.

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