Going underground: Visiting the Clapham South deep-level shelter
Last month, I was fortunate enough to have a peek of one of London’s secret subterranean treasures. As part of their Hidden London series, the London Transport Museum were running tours to visit the Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter, one of the only purpose-built World War II shelters that is still accessible to the public, albeit rarely.
Following the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Blitz, many Londoners were using tube stations as shelters from the Nazi bombing. However, many civilians were concerned the stations weren’t adequate protection, which was confirmed in October 1940 when a bomb hit the road above the north end of Balham underground station. Water from the burst sewers above and earth filled the southbound tunnel, killing 66 people who were sheltering there at the time. Three months later, a further 111 civilians were killed when a bomb hit Bank station.
The same month of the Balham disaster, the Government started making plans to build deep-level shelter accommodation for 100,000 people. Having lots of experience of building underground, it made sense for the Government to enlist London Transport to co-ordinate the project within the swiftest time possible. With Londoners frequently dying in bomb attacks by the Nazis, time was of the essence. It was decided it would be easiest and quickest to create shelters below existing tube stations, specifically the Northern and Central lines. Originally the plan was for 10 shelters to be built, however ones at St Paul’s and Oval were abandoned during construction due to concerns over being too close to the Cathedral and unsatisfactory ground quality respectively.
Construction – by hand – began on the tunnels in 1941, with final eight complete in 1942. Situated 30 metres (just under 100 foot) below ground level, the tunnels were built from either end using two vertical shafts. When they were complete, each shelter consisted of two parallel tunnels around 400 metres long divided into upper and lower floors. The tunnels at Clapham South were divided further into 16 sub-shelters with each named alphabetically after a senior British naval officer. The sub-shelters at Clapham South were named Anson, Beatty, Collingwood, Drake, Evans, Freemantle, Grenville, Hardy, Inglefield, Jelicoe, Kepple, Ley, Madden, Nelson, Oldam and Party. Each sub-shelter featured triple-tier bunk beds and some wider bunks for mothers with young children, bringing the total number of bunks to 7,952.
By the time the shelters were ready for action so to speak, the Nazi bombing campaign on Britain had eased off. The Government ended up letting the American military use half of the Goodge Street shelter. By June 1944, Hitler’s armies had set their sights on destroying London again – albeit this time with V-1 flying bombs, followed by V-2 later that year. Finally, the shelters could be used for the purpose they were intended for.
Civilians had to obtain a ticket to stay in a shelter and were encouraged to bring only bedding and a few belongings with them. Every night they would have to carry their mattress, sheets and pillows 180 steps down to the shelter and all the way up again the following morning. Only people who had lost their homes in the bombings were permitted to leave their possessions in the shelter during the day.
As well as sleeping quarters, there were lavatories, a medical room (which offered free medical treatment compared to the paid for above), recreation rooms and eight canteens serving hot drinks and snacks. Although some complained about the higher prices of tea down below, they were able to buy luxuries like meat pies and cakes which were tough to get hold of up above due to rationing. While people felt safe underground, with the tube trains rattling overhead, sharing a room with 100s of people and fears of what was happening to their homes up on higher ground, a good night’s sleep wasn’t high on the agenda.
While the shelters undoubtedly saved lives during the War, the Government had spent vast amounts of money on building them. Once the War was over, the Government decided to turn the shelters into budget hostels. Following the arrival of migrant workers from the Caribbean on Empire Windrush to fulfil Britain’s workforce shortage in 1948, many of the newbies had nowhere to live. The Clapham South shelter became temporary housing to give workers a base until they found employment and housing. The nearest labour exchange was in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton – hence the area’s strong Caribbean community, which still exists today.
In 1951, the shelter was used again as a hostel for those visiting the Festival Of Britain, which was taking place on the South Bank a few miles away. Britain was still recovering from being bankrupted by the War so the hostel gave affordable accommodation offers to those on low-income. In 1956, following a fire at Goodge Street Deep-Level Shelter (being used by troops), the Government decided to close all of the shelters. In the subsequent decades, Clapham South was used as a secure site for storing documents, before it and six other shelters were sold to Transport For London in the late 1990s. Clapham North shelter is currently used as a controlled environment for growing ingredients for some of London’s top restaurants.
Although there isn’t much opportunity to visit these shelters, look out for the entrances above ground. The pill-box shaped brick buildings are easy to spot, such as the one across the road from Clapham South station on the corner of Clapham Common or the traffic island for the one-way system at Stockwell.
- London Transport Museum occasionally run tours to Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter. Keep an eye on their events page.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to one of London’s ‘ghost’ tube stations, Aldwych, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.