During the darkest days of World War II, a small underground library in an east London Underground station provided a happy escape for children taking shelter from air raids, as Kate Thompson discovers.
The Library at Bethnal Green Underground Station in 1941
On June 13, 1944, Bethnal Green came under fire. The streets are bathed in choking, acrid smoke as a German V-1 flying bomb plunges through the sky, explodes on a railroad bridge and destroys a dozen nearby homes. Screams pierce the air. Six people are pulled dead from the scorched wreckage destroyed by Hitler’s first “weapon of revenge”.
Deep underground, a 15-year-old girl is oblivious to the horror above. Pat Spicer wanders the long, dark tunnel with his nose in a book, after visiting Britain’s first and only underground station library, built in October 1941 on the closed westbound tunnel tracks of the underground station Bethnal Green in East London. Milly-Molly-Mandy has Pat so captivated that she barely notices the distant sound of the rocket impact.
The story of this remarkable little library, which transformed the lives of Londoners in wartime, begins in December 1940, three months after the start of the Blitz. At the time, Bethnal Green Underground was a partially completed station that had been locked up and left to rats when war broke out in 1939. Being 78 feet underground, the station and its tunnels were one of the few safe places to shelter in the area, so the local council leased it to the Transport Commission and within months it was transformed into a fully functioning underground community with an amazing range of facilities.
Metal berths (less hospitable to lice), accommodating up to 5,000 people, stretched three-quarters of a mile down the eastbound tunnel. There was also a 300-seat theater built in the westbound tunnel with a stage, spotlights and a grand piano, which hosted operas, ballets and wartime weddings, a café serving hot pies and bacon sandwiches, doctors’ quarters, and a nursery staffed by the Women’s Voluntary Service. , which allowed newly emancipated women to go to work. And, from October 1941, a small library.
The previous year, on September 7, 1940, a bomb had struck the roof of the Central Library in Bethnal Green. In a split second, the orderly interior became a scene of destruction. For Borough Librarian George F Vale and his deputy, Stanley Snaith, the underground village that had grown up at Bethnal Green station was the perfect opportunity to set up a makeshift library and give the local community access back to free books.
Patsy Crawley (front) played in the underground tunnels while her mother Ginnie (rear) worked at the refuge cafe
“The opportunity to found a library of tube shelters was too good to be missed,” Librarian Stanley wrote in a Library Review article. “It may be the least pretentious secondary library ever built. Fifteen square feet is a mere gatehouse of a place. We could have had more room, but the powers that be didn’t agree with us.
The library, which had a captive audience during a raid when the shelter doors were locked, was open from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. every evening and loaned out 4,000 volumes that had survived the bombed library. Romances rubbed shoulders with literary classics, children’s books, poetry and plays. Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and many other classics, including those by Enid Blyton, have fed young minds and helped children escape the above nightmares.
It was a sanctuary for me after so many horrors
Patsy Crawley, now 84, from Essex, spent much of the first six years of her life in the Bethnal Green tube shelter, where order was maintained by a tough, no-nonsense caretaker air raid precautions named after Mrs. Chumbley. “It seems funny now, but back then it was just normal. I didn’t know any other life,” she laughs. “My mum Ginnie volunteered at the tube shelter cafe. When she worked, I hung out with my six cousins. We had so much fun going up and down the tunnels like little tube rats. We used to challenge each other to go to the “Hall of Horrors”, as we called the ventilation shaft. It was strictly forbidden but, being adventurous kids, we climbed. We all used our imaginations, playing hopscotch and chasing kisses through the tunnels.
“During the war, the facilities were incredible in the metro; there was everything you needed. There was even a mobile hairdresser, who used to go down the tunnels to comb people’s hair in rags before going to bed so that they would wake up with beautiful curly hair. Creepy!
“When the war was over I missed life underground, and even now when I go to Bethnal Green and see the tube sign I feel a warmth spread across my chest. For me it was my home .
Heartbreakingly, this house was tinged with horror one night in March 1943 when 173 people died in a human crush on the uneven steps leading to the shelter. ARP guards worked alongside housewives and scouts to rescue the injured. Ms Chumbley snatched the children from the crush with such force that their shoes were left behind. It took three hours before the last victim was removed.
The entrance to the station’s air-raid shelter where 173 people were crushed to death on the stairs
Authorities have ordered those who witnessed the tragedy not to say anything. The terrible explosion that sent people rushing to the shelter weren’t even enemy bombs, but the government was testing new anti-aircraft missiles in nearby Victoria Park. One of the greatest civil disasters of World War II was quickly covered up under the Official Secrets Act by a wartime government desperate to keep news of the calamity from falling into the hands of the ‘enemy.
The enforced silence only deepened the survivors’ feelings of guilt. Rescuers’ hair turned gray overnight, whole families were torn apart. Patsy lost five members of her family on her father’s side.
The underground library staff felt a fierce loyalty to their patrons, who had suffered so much. “Each twilight sees the first contingent descend to the bowels of the earth,” wrote Stanley. “The healthy and the sick, the old and the young, they come in droves… In the library, the young people are busy vocally with their selection of books, but why shouldn’t they chat as they please?”
These “young people” are now over 90 years old and the memories of the little library which, in the darkest times, gave them access to books, entertainment and culture, are anchored in their hearts. “It was a sanctuary for me,” Pat Spicer, now 92 and living in Berkshire, told me. “In 1943 I was 14 and there had been so many horrors – the Blitz, the tube disaster. You cannot imagine what this library meant to me as a place of safety. This sparked a lifelong love of reading.
In October, Bethnal Green Library – now firmly relocated above ground – will celebrate its centenary and its amazing history as a symbol of resistance. Today, Bethnal Green station echoes with the hum of Central Line underground trains, but 80 years ago it was the magical sound of children’s laughter and the satisfying ‘thunk-thunk’ of the timbre of a librarian echoing through the tunnels.
- The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £19.99. To order a copy for £17.99 until March 4, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
- Patsy Crawley, London Borough of Tower Hamlets