Stanley was in the cinema with his mother. The cinema was near the York Hall Baths. When the sirens sounded and the anti-aircraft guns were in action Stanley and his mother left the cinema and quickly made their way to the Bethnal Green tube shelter. They ran from cinema which only took two or three minutes. Their friends Mrs Barr and her daughter were behind them but didn’t hurry. They died in the tragedy that followed. There were no problems getting down the stairs and into the station where there were two-tier bunks. After a little while no-one came down to the platform. Stanley thought they may have shut the gate. No-one knew why until a man came along asking for volunteers. There had been an accident and assistance was needed. Then bodies started being carried down to the platform.
You can listen to the recorded INTERVIEW below.
Read the interview SUMMARY online below, or click on the icon to read or download: stanley watkinson summary.pdf
The summary gives timed sections which direct you to specific parts of the recording.
Click on the icon to read or download the complete TRANSCRIPT: stanley watkinson transcript.pdf
Date of Interview:
25th November 2013
Length of interview: (4 separate takes)
2 mins 25 secs; 7 mins 57 secs; 13 mins 11 secs; 25 mins 02 secs.
Any other info: Stanley Watkinson has some interesting and vivid memories of the disaster but has never been involved with the Stairway to Heaven project.
01 mins 00 secs
01 min 15 s
01 mins 12 secs
PLEASE NOTE RECORDING OF THIS INTRO SECTION OF THE INTERVIEW IS MISSING
Interviewer: Early days
He was about 9 in 1943. Born and bred in Bethnal Green. Lived there until he got married. Ames Street no longer in existence. Went to Cranbrook Street School. Went to new flats ‘luxurious’ after the war.
Lived in Weavers’ Cottages. One long street. Weavers use to work from home. There were 30 cottages and his family lived in three different houses. Windows opened outwards. They were the old Huguenot cottages. He describes the interior of the cottages. Hooks in ceilings to hold the looms. Tiny cottages. Two storey. Narrow passage way and then went down below the level of the road outside. Front room. Kitchen at the back and toilet at bottom of the yard outside. One big bedroom upstairs. Nearly all the houses were the same.
RECORDING: Part 1 (2 mins 25 secs): Recorded at his home on 21/11/2013
Stanley talks about his life at home in Bethnal Green during the Second World War. Just him and his mother. Home was like a cottage. Father in the Army. Played in the park. No traffic to worry about. Mainly horse and carts.
Flats when houses were pulled down; near Bonner Street School. and all his friends still lived nearby. He was under 10 at the time and lived with his mother.
His father was serving in the Army and away from home. Before that he lived in a rented weaver’s cottage (links to the Huguenot immigrants of the 17th century).
After the war, the authorities decided to demolish the homes around where he lived (Bonner Street School ?) and build blocks of council flats.
(Interviewer: Back to Weavers’ Cottages: Stan returns to that subject)
He lived close to other family members notably his grandparents. Near Globe Road. Lived in Ames Street (?) during war until 1947. Eventually they were moved to modern accommodation nearby when the weavers’ cottages were pulled down (1947-48). Went to Bethnal Green Road.
Part 2 (7m 57s)
Stanley talks about the community spirit which existed in and around Bethnal Green during the war. Never went far. All his friends were there. He cried when they moved from the weaver’s cottage to a new flat even though it was only a short distance away.
He talks about life in the cottage. Only cold running water. Huge iron pot was used to boil water. They had two bedrooms, some homes had three. Tin bath in the back yard. No-one knew anything different.
Moved to the flats where there was hot and cold running water, a bathroom and central heating (?). Everyone rented their home.
Stanley remembers that his cottage was owned by someone called Evans who had a pawnbroker shop close-by. Various landlords. Everyone was a tenant. Paid weekly rent.
(Interviewer. What about family background?)
His father was born near the Salmon and Ball pub (Seaforth Street) before moving to Digby Street. Nearby there were garages (stables?) for the council cleaning department (Possibly horse-drawn carts) This was a Borough (Council) Yard. Garages there for horses and carts used for cleaning the streets. Only 4-5 minute walk from Seaforth Street. Lived there from 1938 to 1949. Sister born in 1947.
(Interviewer: Want more details until living through the Blitz)
Stanley remembers the blitz “like yesterday”. He was five years old at the time (1940-41). Has vivid memories of the day Silvertown (Tate and Lyle factory) was bombed. Estimates 300 bombers came over in daylight (to hit the docks). It was a lovely sunny day. . At night the sky glowed red with from the flames of the burning Tate and Lyle factory… “like a sunset” Night raid, Saw the dogfights with Spitfires.
His experience as a child in the war is interesting. It was an exciting period. His friends were like a gang. No sense of danger. Could hear the guns going flash.. bang.. wallop. Not frightened. Went out collecting shrapnel that was so hot it burned the skin off your fingers.
Still went to school regularly. Attended Cranbrook Street School (the caretaker, Sidney Godley, won a Victoria Cross in the first World War. Didn’t know about this until after the war. Godley manned a machine-gun post and held off the advancing Germans at the Battle of Loos during the early days of the war) Stanley describes the action briefly but only heard about from his Dad after the war. There is now a block in Digby Street named after him – Godley VC House.
Part 3 (13m 11s) Stanley Watkinson
Stanley describes the events of 3rd March 1943 and his recollection of the tube station disaster. Some people seemed to live down there. Used to go down the shelter 2/3 times a week. Use to run their from home. Just a short distance. Sometimes had to go back if there was another raid. (re-adjustment of the microphone)
Describes what happened on 3rd March 1943. At the time, early evening about 8.00 pm he was in the cinema with his mother. The cinema was near the York Hall Baths. When the sirens sounded and the anti-aircraft guns were in action in Victoria Park, Stanley and his mother left the cinema and quickly made their way to the Bethnal Green tube shelter. Ran from cinema which only took 2/3 mins. Mrs Barr and her daughter were behind them but didn’t hurry. They died in the tragedy that followed.
There were no problems getting down the stairs and into the station where there were two-tier bunks. After a little while no-one came down to the platform. Stanley thought they may have shut the gate. No thoughts of an accident. Someone spent so much time down there that they claimed ‘ownership’ of certain places and bunks. Men, women and children continued to fill up the shelter until, suddenly, the steady stream of people turning up on the platform stopped. No-one knew why until a man came along asking for volunteers. There had been an accident and assistance was needed. Then bodies started being carried down to the platform. Stanley recognised one of the boys and he remembers his face being mauve/purple. Didn’t know his name. Then more bodies were brought down
He didn’t know what happened and nor did many of the others who were in the shelter. He thought it was just an accident. Next day they found out. Some hours later, when Stanley and his Mum came up from the shelter (about 6.00 am), he remembers seeing handfuls of hair, babies bootees hair clips and grips and other personal bits and pieces on the stairs leading to the station. People were waiting outside. Stanley and his Mum ran home stopping to buy some bread on the way. Others were clearing up around the station entrance. Ten minutes later there was another air raid warning, Stanley and his mum went back to the shelter. (Interviewer then stops to clarify the situation.)
Stanley says they didn’t have an Anderson shelter in their yard. Like most people he and his Mum often stayed indoors and sheltered under the table. (another interruption from the interviewer)
Now Stanley goes back over some of the details. Stanley’s grand-dad heard of the disaster and went looking for him. It was an accident he believed. He saw bodies on the pavement. Stanley recalls there were not enough ambulances available so bodies were put in buses that came from Old Ford.
The bodies were on the seats but fell off the seats and onto the floor as the bus drove away and went round a corner. (Interviewer again clarifies details)
His mother went to work the following morning and Stanley went to school where everyone was talking about the disaster. People talked about it and how they were affected. Everyone seemed to know someone who had been killed or injured.
Then Stanley recalls the first doodle-bug that fell on London at nearby Grove Road. His classmates were telling the story that it was German aircraft that crashed and the pilot bailed out and was then chased down the road by one of the fathers of Stanley’s classmates (child’s imagination!)
Talks among the parents was – how could something like this happen? Everybody seemed to know someone who was killed because they were all local people. All from about a radius of a mile around. Some people went down there every night whether there was a raid or not. We went as soon as the sirens sounded. We could be there in 4/5 minutes by running
It was an extension of East End life (down in the shelter). There was a canteen and you could get a cup of tea. You weren’t worried about bombs; two tier bunk beds. Some people had their own beds. Same every night. There was a social life down there.
Part 4 (25m 02 secs) Stanley Watkinson
Stanley describes the living conditions in the shelter. The smell from the toilets was strong. Couldn’t get away from it. Not crammed together. There were lots of bunks, many double-tiered both sides of the tunnels. Lower deck and one on top. Some people went down there early, almost lived down there and created their own living area. Had to be out by a certain time in the morning. There were boys from his school and other local youngsters he knew who were always down there. Children seemed to like it. Stanley was always racing around with his pals – occasionally getting ‘ticked off’ for being a bit too lively. He liked it down in the shelter.
Talks about his fading memory and the woman and child who were sitting near them in the cinema and were later caught up in the crush at the station and died. She and the daughter lived in the next street (Mrs Barr). Her daughter Lottie (Charlotte Barr) was killed. Had a heel mark on her throat when the body was examined.
He was shocked by what happened. Lost his hair. Didn’t eat and then couldn’t walk. His father was brought home on compassionate leave. Sat on window sill watching to see when his father was coming home. Then talks about how the arrival of his Dad helped his recovery from the shock of the disaster. Gave him Parishes Food.
Stanley does talk briefly about the scandals and rumours after the disaster that people were being robbed.
Married in 1960, moved further out East into Essex. Continued to work in Stepney. Talks about the Pie and Mash Shops in Bethnal Green. You miss it.
(Interviewer talks about looking back and his fondness of East End life)
Just before war ended he went back to see Nan and other friends and relatives near Globe Road. Went past an old Anderson Shelter. In there he kicks an old window. Talks about what happened when he cut his leg.
Still recalls what happened to children and grand children when they ask.
(Interviewer: Any involvement with Stairway to Heaven Trust?)
He is not involved in the Stairway to Heaven Trust and feels there are too many people involved who are telling ‘second-hand stories’ about what happened that night. Only passing on information they were given. We were more involved it was just part of the war. How many people on the committee were involved?
(Interviewer: Are you aware of controversies and scandals?)
There were stories about the robberies going around; a big stink about it says Stan. He is aware of those things being discussed. (Questions about the political scandals)
(Interviewer: Inviting comments about the condition s of the shelter)
If only the Council had done something about it. Was dangerous. The stairs were so rough. Bits of concrete and rubble. People went down these stairs carrying their bedding. Bed clothes and mattresses. Easy to fall over. There were empty purses and handbags lying on the stairs. (hours after the disaster).
Was Stanley aware in later life that the authorities had hushed up what really happened?
He didn’t hear much about it. He was only nine at time and wasn’t told to keep quiet about.
It was so easy to see how the accident occurred. People carried their bedding and mattresses down the stairs to the shelter. There were always women carrying children in their arms. It was easy for someone to stumble and people to pile on top of one another. He was only 9 years old at the time but wasn’t aware of the
disaster being ‘hushed up’.
Stanley considers this to be a “wonderful time in my life”. He is referring to a young boy like him growing up in Bethnal Green during an exciting and dangerous time. Just walked in and out of friend’s houses. A different way of life. He was glad he lived through the war.
Interviewer: Are you still an East End boy?
Stanley was born in 1934 and came to live in Essex when he was 27 years old. But the East End was “never out of my blood”. Every Christmas he meets up with his old East End friends – although there are fewer of them these days. Only three or four of them remain alive. In all the time they have been meeting the Bethnal Green disaster was never mentioned.
He still talks about it to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He has two daughters.
David Williams: December 2013