Stiff Upper Lips
Not an English phrase, as it turns out, but American. Who’d have thought it? Nonetheless, as Ian Hislop’s recent series showed, it came to sum up a kind of Britishness – stoicism in the face of adversity, keeping calm and carrying on. Hislop’s series, inevitably, raised as many questions as it answered – it would be interesting to analyse further how the notion of the stiff upper lip varied according to class, for example, or the different forms it took between the sexes, or whether it is British, or English.
Hislop missed one fascinating and pertinent story from WWII. It’s the story of the largest loss of civilian life in the UK in wartime, at Bethnal Green Tube Station, in March 1943. No bombs fell that night, but 173 people died.
So what caused the disaster?
Although things had been quieter of late, on the night of 3rd March 1943 there was some concern as we had bombed Berlin quite heavily two nights earlier and people were expecting reprisals. With the sound of the Siren and the closure of the cinema, 3 buses had just disgorged nearby and their passengers dashed for the shelter. A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she went down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect started. At the top of the stairs came shouted warning of bombs falling and when a different deafening sound was heard they thought it was a new kind of bomb (it turned out to be a new, secret, anti-aircraft gun being tested in Victoria Park near by). People pushed more quickly into the shelter unaware of the horror unfolding below them in the dark. The way was blocked but still people poured down. There were no handrails in the middle, no white edgings on the steps and no police on duty. It was dark and the steps were slippery from the rain. Around 300 people were wedged into the stairway – an area measuring approximately 15 x 11 feet. By the time they were pulled out 27 men, 84 women and 62 children were crushed to death. Over 60 of the survivors needed hospital treatment. The tragedy was that there was no air raid or bombs dropped that night in the East End, it was just the sound of the new gun that had been secretly placed nearby and tested for the first time that night that caused the accident.
According to the official statement by the Ministry of Home Security: “According to accounts so far received, shortly after the air-raid Alert sounded, substantial numbers of people were making their way as usual towards the shelter entrance. There were nearly 2000 in the shelter, including several hundred who had arrived after the Alert, when a middle-aged woman, burdened with a bundle and a baby, tripped near the foot of a flight of 19 steps which leads down from the street. This flight of steps terminates on a landing. Her fall tripped an elderly man behind her and he fell similarly. Their bodies again tripped up those behind them, and within a few seconds a large number were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway. Those coming in from the street could not see what had taken place and continued to press down the steps, so that within a minute there were about 300 people crushed together and lying on top of one another covering the landing and the lower steps.
In the words of the official inquiry report, ‘the stairway was … converted from a corridor to a charnel house in from 10 to 15 seconds’ (p. 16).
The first instinct was to suppress news of the tragedy – not entirely feasible given the number of witnesses, survivors and bereaved who wanted answers, and recognition, but the press reports were remarkably sparse, given the scale of the disaster. Words like ‘panic’ were avoided at least in the British press, and even those international news reports which referred to panic or stampede in the headlines stated, as in the report in the Indian Express, that ‘there was no panic before the disaster occurred’. Significantly, reports in overseas newspapers appeared earlier, and allowed more speculation, than those in Britain. That information was not readily available is confirmed by George Orwell’s 1945 reference to the disaster:
… the strange accident that occurred in London in 1942, when a crowd, frightened by a bomb-burst nearby, fled into the mouth of an Underground station, with the result that something over a hundred people were crushed to death’.
The year is wrong, there was no bomb-burst, and the Underground station was a designated deep shelter which had been used on many nights of air raids, without mishap. Orwell’s reason for interest in the event lies elsewhere than in these details, as I’ll explain, but the inaccuracies and vagueness do confirm that whilst a news blackout wasn’t ever going to be achievable, the story was kept in the shadows.
Under pressure from the families and survivors, however, an inquiry was set up. It sat in camera, and its conclusions were not published in full until after the war. So, a cover-up, but this time, not an attempt to wriggle out of official responsibility or to divert blame towards the victims. The very last conclusion that anyone wished to draw would have been that stoic, blitzed-out Londoners had lost their nerve.
The decision to keep the report confidential would have been pretty simple, and easy to understand and sympathise with, given the context, were it not for one other factor. The citizens of Bethnal Green were as eager to find alternative explanations as was their government. They mostly focused on the failure of the council to make improvements to the shelter which had been recommended some time earlier, to avoid just such a disaster as had struck that night.
But some looked elsewhere – if a British panic was seen as a contradiction in terms, a Jewish panic certainly wasn’t. Some claimed that it was Jewish refugees who had started the rush forward which had taken so many people to their deaths. Others claimed that fascist agitators near the back of the crowd had shouted that there were bombs falling, and encouraged a stampede. George Orwell’s reference to the disaster occurs in his 1945 essay on Antisemitism in Britain. He notes that immediately after the event, ‘it was repeated all over London that “the Jews were responsible”‘ – an example of the absurdity of prejudice, and the willingness of the prejudiced to ‘believe stories that could not possibly be true’.
So, when the inquiry findings were submitted to the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, he offered a carefully worded statement to the House of Commons: ‘whilst drawing attention to certain matters which might possibly have been contributory causes, [the report] shows the accident to have been due to a fortuitous combination of circumstances. It is impossible to make a fair summary of the report or even of the conclusions, without conveying information valuable to the enemy.’ The redoubtable Eleanor Rathbone, referring to ‘a rumour that spread like wildfire all over London that the accident was caused by panic among the Jewish inhabitants of the shelter’, asked, ‘Cannot he do something to make it widely known that there was no panic?’. (HC Deb 08 April 1943 vol 388 cc786-8). Clearly not, since, as the House heard at a later point, ‘so far from knowing that there was no panic, I had before me an opinion delivered by an experienced Metropolitan Magistrate, after a pains-taking Inquiry during which 80 witnesses were examined, that the effective cause of the disaster was that a number of people lost their self-control at a particularly unfortunate place and time.’ (HC Deb 19 January 1945 vol 407 cc503-7). A fine line to tread – and more or less, they managed it.
The report unequivocally dismissed the ‘Jewish panic’ and ‘Fascist panic’ hypotheses:
There were certainly issues with the station – after all, not designed as a shelter – with the bottleneck single entrance, and the absence of central handrails or crush barriers. In this sense, the disaster was avoidable, and foreseeable (and had in part at least been foreseen by those who’d recommended changes, which had been rejected by the borough council). Lawrence Dunne concluded, however:
The surest protection must always be that self control and practical common sense, the display of which has hitherto prevented the people of this country being the victims of countless similar disasters.
Had the stiff upper lip wobbled, fatally? There’s not much to go on in the published report. But it doesn’t sound like a stampede. It didn’t need to be. A combination of factors – the aforementioned problems with the layout and lighting of the shelter, the heightened awareness of danger from reprisal raids and the sudden noise from the new anti-aircraft guns – meant that when a woman stumbled and fell, the pressure of people behind trying to get in was such that she could not right herself, and caused others to fall. If she was pushed, there’s no suggestion this was deliberate. Could ‘self control and practical common sense’ really have saved the day?
The echoes of Hillsborough are everywhere in this story, in the accounts from survivors. But what stays with me are the differences. The notion of panic, of any kind of failure on the part of the victims, didn’t fit the national narrative in 1943. In 1989, when the victims were football supporters, and scousers at that, vicious lies about them were all too readily believed, not only because they were propagated by people in positions of responsibility but because they did fit, as I’ve explored elsewhere. I spoke briefly to Barry Devonside of the Hillsborough campaign recently. He lost his son that day and the thing he wanted to say, more than anything else, was that he’d brought his son up with values of respect and honesty and he’d seen those values dragged through the dirt, both in the slandering of his son and all of the others, and in the utter negation of those values in the actions of the senior police and others who colluded in the cover up.
The 173 who died at Bethnal Green have been neglected, and forgotten. But not blamed, not demonised. The attempts to find within that crowd the strangers whose otherness made them more acceptable scapegoats were dismissed without reservation.
The survivors and the bereaved had to wait until 1993 for this modest memorial plaque:
and have been campaigning and fundraising for some years now to raise a more fitting memorial.
- L R Dunne, Tragedy at Bethnal Green: Report on an Inquiry into the Accident at Bethnal Green Tube Station Shelter (The Stationery Office, 1945)
- Jessica Francis Kane, The Report (Portobello, 2012)
- George Orwell, ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, 1945, in Essays (Penguin, 2000)