Clapham South Deep Level Shelter
Paul Surma reports back from Clapham South Deep Level Shelter, a London Transport Museum ‘Hidden London’ event, October 2015
The term ‘Hidden London’ features so much in guided walks and events around the Capital it’s a surprise that there is anything still ‘hidden’ for anybody to find.
However one feature of London’s deep history which is truly difficult to get a chance to visit are it’s disused Underground Stations and shelters which whilst fairly visible on the surface are certainly hidden from public view beneath ground.
Throughout October 2015 London Transport Museum are hosting 1 hour tours down one of the deep level shelters in London, every Thursday to Sunday. Sorry folks before you scramble to check out the Museum’s website, they’ve all sold out, however I’m reliably informed they’ll be repeated in 2016.
There are some features which however are visible from the surface, namely the ‘pillbox drum’ entrance on Clapham Common and the very nicely tiled entrance on Balham Hill.
It’s this drum which the tours begin at, and down you go, gently ignoring the lift and descending down the 180 steps (11 floors down, or 36.5 meters below the surface)
At the base the tour commences and the very charming Museum guides whisk you through a rather delightful 60 minute walk through what seems like an endless maze of repetitive tunnels and corridors leading to god knows where next.
In total there are 8 of these underground shelters, built by the London Passenger Transport Board and the Ministry for Home Security between 1941-1942 as a result of a mass outcry and demand for dedicated shelters to keep London’s population safe from German attack after tube stations proved not to be safe enough after attacks on London killed 68 people sheltering at Balham Station and 111 at Bank to name just two.
Each shelter had a capacity of 8000, four north of the river and 4 south of it, mainly on the Northern Line, following the Charing Cross branch, with the exception of Chancery Lane on the Central. Two other shelters were planned, Oval (which flooded and is now a ventilation shaft) and St. Paul’s which actually had a mass outcry against it (if you can believe it).
The rush to build these structures was such that a team of miners worked 24 hours a day to dig out the spoil using conventional tunnelling techniques until a shield device was employed, subsequently many lost their lives in the process.
Within just a year a mile of tunnel was laid beneath London’s streets at each location, divided into two tunnels with 16 sections all named after British Naval Officers, which sheltered everybody who would come.
Signs dating to the Festival of Britain (1951) were scattered across the complex, which I am sure helped (if you had a map to hand!)
One of the only remaining features in the shelter are the bunk beds, some of which the Museum has made up to look as it might have in the 1940s.
The tunnels themselves seemed to go on forever, however a good job was done to recreate certain rooms, with large visuals installed and even sound effects which was good fun.
The shelters themselves were used only from 1944-1945, as once the Blitz had subsided they weren’t as relevant to use. Only when the V1 & V2 weapons began landing were they opened for the public, but never saw maximum capacity.
The shelter had all the modern conveniences, canteens, toilets, medical bays and even hilariously named ‘recreation rooms’ which we were taken through.
We were told how people would try to make the best of times, by dancing, singing and enjoy the quality food on offer (served by London Transport no less) such as jam tarts, sausage rolls etc, all of which was not rationed (tea however was an extortionate 2d! Twice as much as on the surface, of course the public could always go back upstairs if they wanted a cheaper cuppa!)
After the war the shelter was used as budget accommodation, and in 1948 was home for around 236 Jamaican men from the Empire Windrush, who used it as their first bed on foreign soil before moving away to better (and roomier) parts of London, namely Brixton where the local labour exchange was. It’s easy to forget that this one shelter housed some of the individuals who would go on to make London a great multicultural city that it is today.
It was later used in 1951 as the Festival Hotel as part of the Festival of Britain and saw many people from the around the world stay. Some of whom gratified their names, or messages into the shelters concrete surfaces from their bunk beds.
The shelter closed in 1956 alongside all 8 after a fire in Goodge Street caused by army troops stationed there who decided it might be fun to engrave their names with their lighters.
Subsequently the shelters were used as an archival storage facility or a telephone exchange such as Chancery Lane, or film storage in Goodge Street and even hydroponic gardens in Clapham North by a company called Growing Underground who produce salad crops within that site.
It’s fantastic that London Transport Museum are opening up more of these disused sites, earlier this year in June they had the disused Jubilee Line platforms open at Charing Cross and the old Piccadilly Line station of Aldwych seems to be an annual occurrence now, with the next coming up in January. The one to look out for in December is Down Street of course with an exclusive look at Churchill’s station.
Part 1: First, Future and Failed is coming up on the 1 November: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/transporting-london-first-future-and-failed-tickets-18251971137
Part 2: Meat, Mortality and Mail is next up on the 12 October: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/transporting-london-mail-mortality-and-meat-tickets-18344923159
Where Paul discusses other underground ‘secrets’, disused stations and other tantalising glimpses into the history of London as it evolved alongside its transport network.
Part 3 & 4 coming soon!