Junior casualty officer Joan Martin thought it was a test to see how the staff would manage when a call came through to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, saying there were 30 ‘faints’ on their way from a tube shelter. Then corpse after corpse was brought in, many of them children. Staff were forbidden to speak to anyone of the disaster and for fifty years, Joan never did.
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Dr Joan Martin
Joy Puritz and Barbara Humphreys
Date of Interview:
20th December 2013
Length of interview:
Any other info:
Background to Joan’s medical training which began in 1936. Joan discusses the effects of the war on training. She explains that she was based in the medical school of the Royal Free Hospital. It was near to Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations, so it was very busy.
Joan says that she started her clinical training in 1939. She was terrified of fire during the Blitz, and remembers that the bombers often used to come on nights when the Thames was low so that there was a lack of water to put out fires.
Early in the Blitz Joan recalls how she was on a train back to the hospital when Farringdon station suffered a direct hit. Everyone had to get off the train and she ended up walking home to Kensington instead. It looked like the whole of London was on fire. She had a dog with her so she couldn’t go into any shelters as dogs were not allowed.
Joan remembers that she did her midwifery training in Amersham. She explains that women who were going to have babies were evacuated out of London to give birth. However she says that it was very quiet there because many of the women hated the countryside so they went home again!
More memories of the Blitz.
Joan explains that because of the Blitz the medical students learnt a lot of surgery. They did their normal studies during the day but were expected to help with bomb casualties on alternate nights. They were not paid for this. Out of all the medical students she trained with only 12 chose to stay in London.
Joan remembers a serious incident one night when a parachute bomb landed on the roof of the hospital. This was near to where the operating theatres were on the top floor. The medical students had to evacuate all the equipment from the theatres to the ground floor. This took all night and in the morning they were told to leave the premises.
She says that after a while she decided she’d like to be paid for some work, so she worked some nights at an ambulance station near Euston. She couldn’t tell anyone about this as she wasn’t supposed to be doing it. They often had to go to the docks which were frequently on fire. After 3 months she gave up as it was too tiring working nights and studying during the day.
Joan tells the story of how one afternoon she was working in Outpatients at the medical school when a doodlebug dropped very close by. The casualties were all taken to the medical school and at first the consultant she was working with told her to carry on with Outpatients. However after a while the matron came up and told them they would have to help with the casualties as there were so many. They ended up working there until 8 pm that night.
Joan talks about the Bethnal Green tube shelter disaster. In March 1943 she was a junior casualty officer working in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital For Children in Hackney Road. She had 2 male medical students from the London Hospital helping her out.
On the night of the disaster they received a phone call telling them to prepare the ward to receive 30 ‘faints’ from an incident in a tube shelter. They hadn’t quite finished replacing the ward’s children’s cots with adult beds when the bodies started coming in. Joan remembers that they were all wet and a pale lilac colour. They were all fully clothed and she couldn’t understand what had happened.
The bodies were all brought into the casualty department which wasn’t very big so there was a lack of space. Also the ambulance men wanted the stretchers back quickly so they could return to the scene of the disaster. So Joan and the medical students had to roll the bodies off the stretchers onto the floor. At this point the senior casualty officer went off duty so Joan was left to cope with the situation.
After a while live casualties came in including a little boy aged 9 who explained what had happened. The boy had climbed over the pile of bodies to get to the top where someone had rescued him.
Joan explains what she thinks caused the disaster at Bethnal Green tube shelter. The sound of the anti-aircraft guns in Victoria Park had changed without warning, so people thought it was a new type of bomb. As a result mothers and children ran to the shelter with their bedding.
She thinks that an old lady fell at the bottom of the stairs with her bedding and as a result one of the doors into the shelter was closed by her falling. Everyone else then fell on top of each other and were crushed in the small space.
Joan says that when people arrived to help they had to fight people at the top of the stairs in order to get to the bodies. She thinks that more schoolboys survived than women and children because it was easier for them to climb their way out.
She recalls that eventually the bodies were taken to St John’s church, the London Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital For Children which were used as mortuaries.
Joan explains that in the morning after the disaster she and the medical students were told they could go. Nobody thanked them and the medical students were not allowed to return. They had been moving dead bodies all night long.
After she left the hospital in the morning she walked across London to Hammersmith - to the home of the consultant she had been working with at the hospital. She told her what had happened but then agreed not to tell anyone else about the disaster. Everyone was sworn to secrecy. She didn’t even tell her family. She’d thought they’d hear about it on the radio but there was radio silence on the incident so they never did.
Joan is asked what she think about the memorial. She says that she definitely wanted the names of all the victims on it. There is a quote from her on the memorial saying that it was “the worse night of my life”. She still has nightmares about it – always of people trampling on top of each other.
She also has a fear of crowds from that time. Once or twice she has had to leave the underground when people have been pushing.
Joan says that talking about her experiences recently has helped. She also finds it interesting that when she attends the memorial service, as an outsider, people always come up to her and tell her that she treated their relatives on the night of the disaster.
Recently Joan was involved in a TV programme about the disaster, along with others who were there that night. She saw then that a lot of the survivors were men who were schoolboys at the time.
Barbara Humphreys now interviews Joan about why she wanted to become a doctor and the difficulties she faced as a woman. Joan explains that when she was a child several of her friends died of diseases. As a result she felt that she wanted to be able to make people, especially children, better. Her family organised their lives so that she’d be able to go to medical school.
She returns to the fact that the medical students who helped her the night of the disaster weren’t allowed to come back to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She doesn’t know why that was but says that the arrangement to train medical students from the Royal London Hospital broke down after that.
Joan talks again about the fact that she was sworn to secrecy after telling the senior doctor what had happened. She says that she only owned up to having been there that night when a close friend brought up the incident in conversation. He asked her if she’d heard of it and she had to admit that she’d actually been involved. This friend then said that she should go to the memorial service. She’s glad that she did because, as far as she knows, she is the only doctor there that night who has been traced.
Joan says that she still feels angry about what happened on the night of the disaster. She just hopes that it made the authorities realise the terrible mistakes that were made. She feels that exactly the same occurred with the Hillsborough disaster. People involved with both tragedies still want justice.
Joan says that last year she was involved in a TV programme that filmed her and others outside the memorial. She says that, even though it was so many years after the disaster happened, she couldn’t make herself go down the stairs of Bethnal Green tube station.