The history of the World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station.
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.
A rare walk through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe.
The Thames Tunnel, once one of Victorian London’s greatest attractions, hasn’t been open to the public for nearly 150 years. While thousands pass through it every day on a London Overground train, many wouldn’t be aware they are travelling through an impressive feat of engineering. In May 2014, the London Transport Museum hosted special Hidden London tours for people to follow in the footsteps of Victorian Londoners by walking the tunnel as it was originally used for.
As you may have noticed, after Tower Bridge going east there is no bridge crossing the River Thames until you reach the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, Kent. In Victorian London, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the docks and factories east of the city were booming and it became apparent of a growing need for a river connection between docks on north and south of the river. Various ideas were considered over the years, but it wasn’t until 1823, Anglo-French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) produced a plan for an underwater tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping using his and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806-1859) new tunnelling shield patent, which revolutionised tunnel building.
With the tunnel originally planned for use by horse-drawn carriages, Marc found funding from the Duke Of Wellington, among others, and construction began in February 1825. Brunel’s team started building a shaft at Rotherhithe – which is still there today and forms part of the Brunel Museum – which is where pedestrians and (ideally) horse and carriages would enter the tunnel. In November 1825, the shaft was complete so the tunnelling could begin. Using the Brunels’ tunnelling shield, work progressed slowly, with only about 8-12 foot of tunnel being built a week. Conditions were horrible, with many workers falling ill from the sewage strewn water seeping into the tunnel. Marc’s son Isambard ended up taking over the project at just 20 years old when resident engineer William Armstrong fell ill in 1826. At one point, they started allowing visitors in to see the shield in action, charging a shilling each, to boost the spiralling budget.
In November 1827 – while the tunnel was still being built – the Brunels hosted a banquet in the tunnel for 50 guests with music provided by the Coldstream Guards. In May 1827 and January 1828, the tunnel flooded, with the later incident resulting in the loss of six men and Isambard himself narrowly escaping death. Following this, there was loss of confidence in the project and it was put on hold for seven years. However, by December 1834, Marc managed to raise enough money – including a loan from the Treasury – to resume the project. Despite more floods, fires and gas leaks, construction was finally completed in November 1841. It measured 35 feet wide, by 20 feet high and 1,300 feet long, at 75 feet below the Thames surface. It was swiftly fitted out with lighting, staircases and roadways. An engine house was built next to the shaft for machinery used to drain the tunnel, which can now be visited as the Brunel Museum. The tunnel had taken so long to build, there was no money left to construct two further shafts to transport the horse and carriages down to tunnel level. So with the original design brief unfulfilled, it was opened to pedestrians in March 1843, who entered via the Grand Entrance Halls in the shafts using spiral staircases.
After hearing so long about the delays and dramas of the tunnel construction, unsurprisingly Londoners and those from further afield were curious to see the engineering wonder. It was initially hugely popular with tourists, with 50,000 people visiting on opening day, with a total of 1 million visiting in the first three months – equivalent to half the population of London at the time. Billed as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, visitors paid a penny to pass through the tunnel and soon found plenty of occupy them as stalls were erected in the arches between the adjoining east and west tunnels. Among the products on sale included snuff boxes, paper weights and gin flasks. In 1852, organisers hosted the Fancy Fair, the world’s first underwater fair, featuring entertainment such as tightrope artists, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and magicians. Despite the initial popularity, the novelty soon wore off and 10 years after opening, the tunnel was home to some very unsavoury characters, including thieves and prostitutes.
Investors were relieved when the East London Railway Company purchased the tunnel in 1865, with trains eventually running through it four years later after they had extended it further south. In 1884, a disused shaft was used to create Wapping station. Eventually the line came into ownership of London Underground for the East London Line and then in 2010, became a line used by London Overground.
- The London Transport Museum very rarely conducts tours to the Thames Tunnel, but keep an eye out on their events page for further openings. The Brunel Museum is open all year round, with regular tours to visit the Grand Entrance Hall. Brunel Museum, Railway Ave, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF. Nearest Overground: Rotherhithe. For more information, visit the Brunel Museum website.
Metro Girl Likes: When you’re in the area, check out the nearby 17th century Mayflower pub with a deck overlooking the River Thames.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused Aldwych tube station, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s London history posts, click here.
The history of the disused London Underground station Aldwych.
I have always been fascinated with derelict and abandoned places since I was a child. It was probably the result of reading too many Enid Blyton books and dreaming of being an explorer. Growing up in London, I have seen a few stations renamed or cease to exist over the years – such as the King’s Cross Thameslink station where I used to pass through on my way to work in the early Noughties or the Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross. I had read about the disused underground station Aldwych online – and passed the familiar red tilework of its former entrance on The Strand many times and found there were rare opportunities to actually visit it.
After ages of keeping my eyes peeled for a potential chance to visit, the London Transport Museum occasionally opens the doors for its Hidden London tours of Aldwych for a limited time only so a friend and I jumped at the chance to go. The one hour tour was arranged by the London Transport Museum with volunteers generously providing their time to share their knowledge of the history of the Grade II-listed building.
Finding out the history of Aldwych – a station just a stone’s throw away from Temple – could easily make you question why it was even opened in the first place. Owners knew it wouldn’t be a busy station and despite building three lift shafts – which could hold six lifts – only one was ever used. It was the lifts which prompted the final closure of the station in 1994 because the expense of fixing them could not be justified for such a lightly used station.
Aldwych station was originally conceived as the southern terminus for a new underground railway line owned by Great Northern and Strand Railway in the late 1800s. However when the tube project merged with another – becoming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway – the Piccadilly line was born, with Strand station – as it was known in the early parts of its life – becoming a branch off the main line.
After the demolition of the Royal Strand Theatre on the site, construction of The Strand station started in October 1905 and was opened in November 1907. The design followed that of architect Leslie Green‘s standard station design – distinct dark red glazed brick on street level, with platform walls tiled in cream and green. Above the entrance, featured arched windows with office space. Green also designed Oxford Circus, Elephant & Castle and Leicester Square stations, among others. Strand station was a L shaped building with entrances and exits on The Strand and Surrey Street – which can still be seen today.
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