You know when you book tickets for something and forget you did…? This happened to us, when we looked at our calendars and realised that we had tickets for a Clapham South subterranean shelter tour, run as part of London Transport Museum‘s Hidden London. So, we headed along one night after work and congregated at the entrance to Clapham South Underground. But this wasn’t a tube tour – instead, it took us down to the tube level, 36.5m below street level, but into huge, cavernous tunnels built during World War Two, as a response to heavy civilian bombing during the Blitz.
Our surroundings seemed [remarkably] modern and sleek, with some incredibly well thought-through details considering the rush in which they were built. One of our favourite features was the double helix staircase so that people could descend twice as quickly in the event of a raid.
Although ten of these shelters were planned, ultimately eight were built, by the London Passenger Transport Board and the Ministry for Home Security between 1941 and 1942. They were a response to the inadequacy of tube stations as refuges from bombing raids, after 111 people were killed at Bank station. The tube stations were often not sufficiently deep, and in addition were liable to flooding if a water main was hit. Although not built quickly enough for the Blitz, they were used during all the bombing that followed by V1 and V2 bombs, and were also a temporary solution for those who had lost their homes through Blitz attacks.
They worked in a bizarrely simple yet effective way. When the raid started, or when night fell, you used the coupon given to you by your local council to gain entry. You brought all your own bedding and anything else you would need for the night (unless you had lost your home, in which case you were permitted to leave your possessions there) and staked out your space. You then slept there until night was over and you could return to your home. Or, at least, assess the damage that had happened above you overnight.
The tunnels above and below have had their beds removed, although shelving denotes how they were since used for storage. The Clapham South complex as a whole had capacity for 8,000 people, although was never used to its fullest extent.
Signs still exist, showing not only how difficult it was to navigate the enormous area, but also that the inhabitants were well catered for. The lavatories were emptied into a huge hopper, and pressurised air tubes were then used to empty that into the sewage system, as it was above these tunnels. Sounds like a messy job… There was a café where you could buy a cup of tea, although to everyone’s horror it was twice the price of a cup of tea on the ground. We were told that the response to any complaints was the suggestion to go up and get one! Rationing was suspended in these tunnels, though, so eyewitnesses remember the joy of a jam tart.
There was an additional staircase linking the tunnels to the tube, although this is no longer in use. This meant that disabled people could access the tunnels via the tube system. The tunnels, in fact, were built to accommodate a tube train, just in case they were ever to be used for this purpose, and the sound of the nearby trains were very loud, which can’t have helped people in getting a good night’s sleep.
The below beds are the originals, built in threes along the wall, with another layer to the left of this shot. They were extremely narrow and did not look very comfortable!
The control room had three telephone lines, in case each was damaged by bombing, and the whole site used an air ventilation system powered by four fans. They were confident that, even if only one fan was working, the air would be ~40% of the quality of the open air. Two more impressively thought-through details.
The better-equipped beds below hint at the tunnels’ later history. They were used as a penny hotel for the Great Exhibition of 1951, and shortly thereafter, but most interestingly were used to house 236 Jamaican men who travelled to this country after the war on the Empire Windrush. Aware that we were lacking in men to rebuild and work in the shattered city, the Government offered the British citizens in Jamaica half-price travel to come and live in London. Many did, and took up jobs with the London Underground, the NHS and other large companies. Although they were very temporary (and disgruntled!) residents of the tunnels, they obviously developed a fondness for the area, particularly Brixton, where the labour exchange was, which is why it has such a multicultural population today.
After it was used as a hotel, the tunnel complex housed soldiers while on exercise on Clapham Common. They hated the conditions even more than the Jamaican men, however, so as well as continuing on the graffiti tradition started by the hotel guests (below):
They also burned their names into the structure. After this caused a fire at Goodge Street, the tunnels were closed for accommodation, deemed unhabitable, and used as secure Government storage. Below, shelving is visible, although often the original beds were also used.
The tunnels at Clapham South are now only open for tours; although not by any means a frugal option at £32.45 each, at least it goes to a great cause and supports the maintenance of these incredible tunnels. The tunnels are open for just a few weeks a year – check the Hidden London website for details.
At least Clapham South tube is still there, looking rather picturesque and historical itself in this photo…