20160720 Clapham South 1

Just a hundred yards from the tube station entrance lies a reminder of the Blitz

I’ve known about the wartime ‘deep shelters’ beneath London’s tube network, but I’ve always doubted that I’d ever get the chance to explore one. Now, thanks to the London Transport Museum’s Hidden London programme, that’s another experience ticked off my somewhat bizarre bucket list.

As ever, let’s start with a bit of history. By late 1940, it was clear that even the tube network was not impervious to the Blitz, with bombs on Bank and Balham Stations causing multiple casualties. Even so, it was equally clear that the tube network represented safety to many and so, if the Blitz were to be sustained, the only way of ensuring protection for those who could not leave London, particularly in built-up areas, was to take shelters deeper. Fortunately, there were already plans for a series of high-speed underground lines, shadowing existing routes but burrowing beneath them (a forerunner of Crossrail, in fact); although these had been shelved for the duration of the War, they seemed to offer a ready-made plan for constructions that would provide the necessary shelters and, when the War was over, have a future utility as the start of the new lines. So it was that digging began in 1941 – by hand, no less – to construct a series of tunnels, to full railway tunnel dimensions at locations around London. Ten were planned, and eight actually constructed, and by 1943 they were ready for occupation, by which time the Blitz had subsided and the authorities mothballed them for fear of simply providing alternative accommodation. The renewed Blitz of 1944 and the threat of the V-bombs that had already caused over 2700 deaths changed that, and the Clapham South, one of four shelters on the southern portion of the Northern Line, was opened on 6 July 1944.

We’ll return to the history bit later – what of the tour? We met outside the busy Clapham South station in the midst of a Wednesday night rush hour but, having checked in, were led down the street to a large cylindrical construction emerging from the face of a modern office block. An innocuous door led us inside, and to the top of a 180-step double-helix staircase (in other words, two staircases running one slight above the other) leading us some 120 feet below street level. The shelter is essentially two parallel tunnels, each some 400 metres long, and each divided vertically into two levels, giving four ‘floors’, two in the top halves with a curved roof and their mirror images with curved bases below. There’s a staircase near to each end (the other end of this one is on Clapham Common), with the double helix arrangement each providing separate access to top and bottom floors, meaning that it was possible to get a lot of people in and out very quickly during and after a raid. There’s also a separate exit giving access straight into the station at platform level, though this was used only for those lucky few given permission to travel to work straight onto the tube train, plus those who needed the escalators to help them down when the lifts were busy.

It’s a strange world. With tunnels capable of taking 8000 shelterers and the tunnels curving slightly to follow the line of the road above, the space in every section stretches out beyond line of sight. It’s remarkably clean, with cream-painted tunnel sections throughout. To help in navigation, each section is signed with names beginning with A to P, and each shelter taking a different theme. In Clapham South it was Naval Commanders, so familiar names like Nelson and Drake are blended with forgotten heroes like Madden and Oldam to keep the alphabetic consistency. Of course, the overwhelming use of the space is for bunks, thousands and thousands of them layered three deep on each side of the tunnel – narrow for adults and children, wider for mothers with small children. Today the air is naturally climate controlled and remarkably fresh and dry (a benefit on a stifling July afternoon), but one has to wonder what it would have been like when filled with shelterers for whom regular bathing and personal hygiene products would have been a luxury in peacetime, let alone during the privations of the War. It was a sociable existence, though. A team of supervisors oversaw the running of eight canteens, recreation rooms, ablutions (although with a number of showers that would seem paltry to our modern expectations) and a public address system that mixed business with broadcasts of popular records – a captive audience for any budding shelter DJ. There were even medical rooms, providing free medical care at a time when the NHS was still a gleam in Lord Beveridge’s eye. It can’t have been restful, though – the comings and goings of hundreds of people in each sector, the need for constant illumination, and the rumbling of the Northern Line trains just yards overhead with only a few hours respite at night must have made for many disturbed nights. But then these were people who had learned to sleep with one ear cocked for the siren, and the ability to take a pre-booked place every night, with belongings left there during the day, must for some have been infinitely preferable to the prospect of the choice of risking death by staying at home, or making the trek to a cramped public or damp Anderson shelter.

Though the end of the War in Europe quickly brought the end of the shelters’ intended role, the desperate shortage of accommodation in a post-War London short of all kinds of housing gave them a new lease of life as hostels. Occupants included youth groups visiting the Capital, including hundreds, many from overseas, for the 1951 Festival of Britain – original graffiti, much written upside down by those lying on their bunks, bears witness to their names and home towns. Servicemen were billeted there for the 1952 funeral of King George V and the following year’s Coronation, but a particularly poignant party of visitors were the 236 arrivals aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948 who had no pre-arranged accommodation and so who spent their first nights in cold, bleak Britain over a hundred feet underground. No wonder that they tried so hard to find work and new homes through the nearest Labour Exchange at Brixton, so giving birth to the heart of London’s Caribbean community.

A fire at the deep shelter at Goodge Street in 1956 triggered the rapid decommissioning of the shelters for occupation and the start of a new role for many of them, Clapham included, as secure archives. As the demand for hard copy storage has begun to wane, so new uses have been found, including as hydroponic farms for salad crops. Most of them have passed from Government to Transport for London ownership (who else could effectively manage complex underground constructions adjacent to tube lines), and very few are accessible to the public. We’re fortunate that Clapham South is little-used enough to be included on the Hidden London itinerary, as it contains many of its original features and is thus a perfect example of its kind. As with all the Hidden London tours, the guides bring it to life with knowledge and experience combined with subtle theatricality (but no naff dressing up!). Life-size blow up photographs on gauze are carefully hung in exactly the position they were taken 72 years ago, and the route is meticulously planned to take the tour through the story without doubling back.

Back to the surface and the entrance shaft

Demand is always high for the tours, whatever the location, and it’s well worth signing up to the London Transport Museum’s mailing list through their website to get news of each ticket release as far in advance as possible. New locations are promised for the next season of tours but, as I risk getting carried away by the excitement of exploring another slice of Hidden London, I remind myself that these are places that tell a story of a city and its people, and in this case, a city under nightly bombardment whose occupants would emerge from their shelters each morning to see what toll the night’s bombing had taken on their homes, schools, workplaces and shops, and which names from amongst their family and neighbours had been added to the growing list of civilian casualties. This was a city at war, and places like the deep shelters pay silent testimony to their courage and determination not to abandon it.