Monday, 11 November 2013

Public art 3: Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven memorial, Bethnal Green, designed by local architect Harry Paticas with initial help from Jens Borstelmann
This memorial didn't attract much attention from passers-by who were busy going about their day when I visited it last month. It is sited near a library in a park next to Bethnal Green tube station on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road.

This part of the park had been a cordoned off as a building site for quite some time and I was keen to take a look at it now it is accessible to the public. I had no idea when I arrived how emotionally affected I would feel by the time I left. I also had no idea until I read more about the design of it that it is still incomplete. The trust that runs it need to raise the money for the actual staircase. In spite of this the memorial, as it stands, is an affecting tribute to the people involved in the worst civilian disaster in the UK during WWII.

During WWII it was common for tube stations to be used as communal air raid shelters. They could accommodate thousands of people unlike the cramped, airless shelters buried in back gardens. Londoners had endured relentless bombing during the Blitz in 1940-41 with the city being hit 57 nights in a row. The population got used to air raid sirens going off even though they might be false alarms and would spend the night in the shelters as a precaution.

Bethnal Green station is on the Central Line and was still under construction when this disaster took place on 3 March 1943 as a result of several things happening at once. The siren sounded, a cinema closed and three buses let off their passengers so they could make their way to the shelter. 

A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she walked down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect began. At the top of the stairs came a 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 rocket battery being tested in Victoria Park near by).

As a consequence of this it is estimated that around 178 people died that night, many of whom were crushed to death, and a further 60 people were wounded and needed hospital treatment. Many of the survivors never recovered from this experience and the Government of the day decided to hush it up. To me this is reason enough to have a very public memorial where local people can remember their families.*

*I found most of this information at the memorial's website. You can also read individual stories from this disaster at the same site.

This seat is part of the memorial and is where I sat while I drew this sketch


jacqui boyd said...

Rather appropriate that is it unfinished as it would seem its still is a forgotten story or the funds would be there to complete the project. Really sad.

Really like you drawing. This seems like a really interesting project and look forward to seeing more of your public art pieces.

Scotland still seems to have a healthy public arts program as whenever I am up there, I see a new piece somewhere.

Heather James said...

Jacqui, it's good to know that Scotland is investing in the arts. I think it is so important for the community.