Guest post by: Jessica Francis Kane
Author of The Report: A Novel, Jessica Francis Kane appears at Wordstock Festival on October 10th at 12pm and again at 3pm on the OEA stage.
The Bethnal Green tube station disaster was the largest civilian accident of World War II, and yet it was a mystery: In all cases death was by asphyxiation; there was only one broken bone among the victims. No bombs fell in the area that night, so why had the crowd panicked? For two days the government withheld information, citing issues of home security and the importance of keeping word about the tragedy from reaching the enemy. Eventually an inquiry was held in secret, the results of which were published after the war.
I first came across this story ten years ago, when I attended an event at the British Library for a new series of books published by the London Stationery Office. The series is comprised of official government reports not previously available in popular form, and the one the series editor held up in his hand—and spoke passionately about for a few minutes—was The Tragedy at Bethnal Green. He sketched the time and setting, explained that conditions were very difficult, morale very low at that point in the war. The magistrate who’d investigated, he said, had done an unusually good job and then had delivered an elegant report. The editor suggested, I don’t remember exactly how, that this was nothing short of heroic. I bought a copy of the book and later visited Bethnal Green to see the plaque that commemorates the accident. I took a few notes and thought I might turn them into a story someday.
That was the fall of 2000.