Sid rarely used the underground shelter, but on the night of the disaster he went with his sister Joan. They missed the crush and slept the night in the shelter unaware of the situation. It wasn't until the next day at school that he heard that his other sister, Olive was missing. She had been killed in the disaster. His parents had the traumatic task of visiting a series of mortuaries to find and identify her body.
You can listen to the recorded INTERVIEW below.
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Click on the icon to read or download the complete TRANSCRIPT: sid harris transcript.pdf
Date of Interview:
14 April 2014
Length of interview:
26 minutes 27 secs
Any other info:
Sid gives details about how long he has lived in Waltham Abbey. Born in Bethnal Green and gives details of his family connection and background, his father and grandfather.
He was still at school at the time of the disaster. Age nine years when war broke out so he was 13 in March 1943.
So what was it like living in Bethnal Green at the time?
People coped with everything Mum and Dad went to work and his sisters went to work. He went to school. Sometimes there were air raids. Doddle bugs and rockets were evil. They were terrible.
He recalls an ‘interesting incident’. When he left school at 14 he went to work in a show factory. A rocket fell nearby about 300 yards from the factory. One of the bombed houses belonged to a work colleague so he (Sid) and others went to see what had happened. His mate’s house was in ruins. His Mum was in there but she walked out of the ruins. It was really amazing.
Was it frightening living in Bethnal Green at the time?
No it wasn’t. Some went down the shelter and some didn’t.
They were a big family. Seven of them.
Some went down the shelter?
We didn’t go down shelters at all. That particular night was very unusual. My Olive went down there. She wasn’t afraid. Couldn’t be bothered to go down shelters most of the time. There were loads and loads of people like us. Some people were in bed and if the warning sounded they just couldn’t be bothered to get up. Yet some people use to go down the shelter night after night is there was an air raid warning or not. They almost lived down there. I couldn’t understand that.
Did they enjoy going down there? Was it a community?
Yes it was a community. They had a library and those sort of things. I’d never been down there before in my life.
Sid now explains what happened on that night. Sisters Olive and Joan and me were indoors. My Mum and Dad were out somewhere. Olive wasn’t afraid. Guns were going off ‘pretty bad’ that night. Joan was nervous and suggested they should go to the tube shelter. They agreed and set off but Olive was left indoors. He can remember her standing on a stool combing her hair and refusing to go to the shelter. So she stayed indoors as Sid and Joan went to the tube. (06.30) Sid and Joan were among those queueing up when suddenly a gun went off and it sounded like a bomb. Everybody then starting rushing down. There were no bannisters and bad lighting. We were down there all night. Wouldn’t let us up.
Came up in the morning and all the bodies had been cleared up. Got home and Olive was not there. Sometimes she would go and stop at ‘her mate’s. Mum and Dad weren’t bothered and they went to work. Sid went to school. Mum and Dad became worried after school finished and they started going round the mortuaries and ‘that was where they eventually found her’. Why she went down there we will never know; it was so unusual; maybe a friend came round but we don’t know what happened. It was the only time she ever went down there. Mother asked a few people but do-one knew why she went to the shelter.
The next morning we didn’t know she was dead. Sid found out but it was cruel. He then relates the story about how he met one of his school friends at lunchtime. She’s dead. Went home after school and Mum and Dad told him.
Death had a bad effect on his Mum and Dad. Victims died of suffocation. Lot of the bodies were dark, black through suffocation. His mother had to look at a lot of people before she found Olive.
They took the bodies all over the East End. Different mortuaries. Had to go to two or three before they found her.
We go every year to the Stairway to Heaven service. They read all the names out but I don’t recognise any of them. None were friends of his sister. We just don’t know what she was doing there that night. Never went to a shelter. Amazing.
She is buried at Woodgrange Cemetery Manor Park.
He talks about how we got involved with Stairway to Heaven. His son saw the notice in the church. They go to the special service every year.
What was the effect of the tragedy on his mother and father? They didn’t move away. Just carried on. Like all deaths you just carry on. You never forget.
One of his friends at school lost three members of his family. Some lost four in a family. It’s so tragic. Babies.
Resumes story of moving from Bethnal to Waltham Abbey. Right-to-buy house.
It was all swept under the carpet (the reasons for the tragedy). Did get some money (compensation) that was called Blood Money. Alf (Morris) started Stairway to Heaven brought everything to light. Was there a government apology. It was being covered up. Didn’t want to bring down the moral of the people. All that rubbish.
It’s becoming a distant memory. What sticks in my mind is how and why we left her indoors. And the reason why she was down there we shall never ever know. Perhaps 10 minutes later my mum might have been burying three children. No idea if it started 10 minutes after I went down the concrete stairs and was there on the concourse. (at the bottom of the stairs) First time down the tube for all of us.
Again he repeats the story that Joan was nervous and insisted on going to the shelter. She was older than Sid. Parents never ever went to the tube. People stayed indoors.
Questioned about the sound of the gun.
It was just a gun but it did sound different. Was a new gun apparently and made a screaming sound. That started the panic. They had to open the doors. You had to queue up before going down. When they opened them up everyone rush. (This is an account that Sid has been told) We were in the queue when the gun went off. Then Joan and I walked down the stairs following everyone but 10 minutes later….who knows? Did it start just after that?
It was fairly orderly. They kept us down there all night and let us up in the morning. Don’t remember anyone discussing (down there) what had happened. (Then repeats that the following morning they all went to work and he went to school)
Recording stops at 19.00 continues at 19.25
Lots of discussion (in the days following) about what happened. Everyone wanted to know. People would stop you and ask what happened. He then talks about a friend he met recently who told him that the guns were so bad that night. It was his first time in the shelter and had been at the cinema (Excelsior). Talked about it afterwards. The grown-ups talked about it.
There was anger about what happened. I can remember it so well. Two or three days later when you realise. Concrete stairs, no bannisters. It was disgusting. They didn’t want people to know about that. It was discussed for a long while afterwards and everyone started blaming the Government. It only takes one person to fall. Down to the concourse turn right and then down the escalator to the station. (NB: all those who died were trapped on the concourse) The station wasn’t finished (operating).
It happened at the bottom of those concrete stairs. That’s where it all happened. They were eight or nine deep the bodies. Alf was telling me this (another hearsay version?)
Sid claims he has never met other survivors but then recounts versions which Sid has told him….Alf was dragged out by his hair?
He can’t remember much about funerals except that Olive was indoors for a week or so. Bodies were kept indoors ‘in those days’. Sid can’t remember if he went to her funeral.
She is buried in the same grave (Woodgrange Park) as the boxer Dickie Corbett. We could only have a little stone. Only the top coffin was allowed a big stone.
His other siblings were evacuated at the time of the disaster. Sid had been evacuated twice then he came home and stayed.
Olive, who was killed, worked for Tyzack selling tools (Hackney Road) and didn’t have a boy friend at the time. She had plenty of friends and was a slight ‘cripple’. Born with dislocated hips and spent some time in hospital in plaster to try and straighten her legs. But it didn’t notice very much. Very popular girl. There are no photos of her although Sid thinks someone may have one. It was, he remembers, in a glass frame.