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Alf Morris, Survivor

March 5, 2023
by the gentle author

The eightieth anniversary memorial service for the Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster takes place today, Sunday 5th March at 2pm at the church of St John on Bethnal Green. At 3pm there will be a procession led by the Bishop of Stepney to lay wreaths at the memorial with a blessing.


More than ten years ago, I met with Alf Morris at Nico’s Cafe next to Bethnal Green Tube Station. Alf was 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 wanted to create a memorial to this forgotten calamity, Alf broke his silence. The result was 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 retained absolute clarity in his telling. He carried the experience itself and it had not become supplanted in his mind by a 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. Time brought Alf no solace. He was the solitary guardian of his story, lucky to survive but deeply unlucky to become part of a tragedy he could 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.

When he had unburdened his lonely secret, Alf revealed a warm human nature to me. Telling me how a newspaper feature brought him to meet Suzanne Lane, the granddaughter of his saviour – who knew nothing of her grandmother’s heroism until she learnt it from Alf – he remembered 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.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. March 5, 2023

    I have travelled from and to Bethnal Green tube station many times. Like others where tragedy has fallen, it can be felt and in my small way, I mark my respect A culture of “don’t say anything” was almost obsessive during wartime, I know this from my own parents’ stories which I hope to record in writing. Alf’s story is an incredible first hand account of a tragic event. It is right and proper that they are remembered as well as acknowledging the trauma experienced by those who survived. Poor Alf would never have received mental health support to help him to come to terms with the awful scenes that he witnessed. According to my Mum it was very fortunate that this incident wasn’t replicated several times as she described doodle bugs flying overhead and their engines falling silent leading to panic and rush for the shelters. Thanks Alf and thanks GA for remembering those lost on that very sad day.

  2. Andy permalink
    March 5, 2023

    The smallest detail.
    Shines on authenticity.
    I remember the smallest detail too on tragedies.

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    March 5, 2023

    Thank you and Alf for telling this tragic story . So many lives . Every time I travel through Bethnal Green Station and walk up the stairs to the exit a feeling of sadness hits me .

  4. March 5, 2023

    I didn’t know that story before and immediately started researching it. This episode from the Blitzkrieg is very moving. The city of Kassel, where I live, got a fitting response from R.A.F. on 22 October 1943 — the city was destroyed. Today there are reminders of a curious kind: a bar calls its beer garden “Bomber Harris Garten” (after Sir Arthur Travers Harris, who was flying the raid), because you can still see the fire walls of the bombing raid today…

    The tragedy is reminiscent of ABERFAN, whose disaster I focus on on my website.

    To sum up: war is horror in its own terms. And Moscow should be ashamed of itself for provoking the third world war.

    Thank you for this contribution.

    Love & Peace

  5. March 5, 2023

    Thank you GA for sharing Alf’s story with us, A tragic episode in the history of Bethnal Green. The Stairway To Heaven is at long last, a fitting memorial to those Eastenders who lost their lives that day.
    My great grandmother lived in nearby Warley Street at the time and lost friends and neighbours in the disaster, she still found it difficult to talk about many years later.

  6. Mark permalink
    March 5, 2023

    What a dreadfully harrowing account by Alf.
    The poor man had to live his life with P.T.S.D.
    no doubt.
    There is a good and sympathetic film about the tragedy shown occasionally on Talking Pictures.
    This must’ve affected you G.A. as this brave man recounted the unfolding events, actually happening to HIM, not just as a witness.
    I once spoke to my grandma’s second husband, Bill.He recounted his experiences of the very first day of the battle of the Somme as a 15 year old.He was as “lucky” as Alf, receiving a bullet to the throat and leg, invalided out losing his leg to infection shortly after.
    One more thing. Why do the bloody church have to be involved. God giveth and takes away?

  7. Bernie permalink
    March 5, 2023

    ” in our home at 106 Old Ford Rd, the radio went off, as it did every time there was an air raid”

    I hate to disagree with testimony on such a disastrous event, but I lived through much of the blitz in Hackney and am as sure as I can be now that the radio (i.e. BBC transmission) did NOT go off during air raids.

  8. March 5, 2023

    …….”the story retained absolute clarity in his telling.” Indeed.

    Other readers have rightfully complimented Mr. Morris this morning; so I will direct my words of gratitude to The Gentle Author. I have benefitted from so many stories, presented with such richness, in Spitalfields Life. Long live the story tellers!

    Onward and upward.

  9. Susan Locke permalink
    March 5, 2023

    Thank you Alf for sharing your story and The GA for recording it.

  10. Cherub permalink
    March 6, 2023

    Many years ago I saw a documentary about this tragedy and I always thought about it if I passed through Bethnal Green tube station. Thanks to Alf for his story.

  11. Neil Aves permalink
    March 7, 2023

    Such a simple yet moving testimony. How different things are now when faced with a tragedy it seems most of the populations first response is to reach for their phone and video it.

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 9, 2023

    How very very sad

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