Hidden London – Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter

CS - entrance

The last of 180 steps leading into Clapham South deep-level shelter

Last Sunday was a nice warm summer day, Clapham Common was packed with picnickers, families and people playing football. What better to do than head eleven stories underground for a tour of Clapham South deep-level shelter??

The excellent London Transport Museum operate several tours as Hidden London: 55 Broadway (London’s first skyscraper) and Euston station’s lost tunnels are now sold out for the foreseeable future but there are still tickets for Down Street (Churchill’s secret station) and for Clapham South.

It was in 1940 as the German bombing campaign intensified that the British government made the decision to look into building the deep-level shelters. The public had taken to using tube stations as substitute shelters of their own volition, and it wasn’t really safe to have so many people sleeping on platforms etc. As well as Clapham South there were another nine shelters planned, though a couple were shelved due to flooding. The other shelters were built at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Stockwell, Clapham North and Clapham Common. Basically, all along the Northern Line as the original plan was to use them after the war as part of a Crossrail type project of high-speed rail (the post-war depression put paid to this). Each was designed to hold 12,000 people, though this was decreased to 8,000 per shelter before they opened, and in reality they never housed anywhere near this number.

Although the shelters were ready by the end of 1942 they did not see real use until the summer of 1944 when the V1 and V2 flying bombs were unleashed on the city. The Clapham South shelter opened that July, yes with the aim of saving lives, but this was also propaganda. The London public was terrified and the government had to be seen to be acting in the best interests of the population. There are cheery photos that went into papers: happy mothers and children setting up their bunks; volunteers serving in the canteen; even people dancing underground!

Our group was assembled outside the tube station(group size is max 22) before walking from the main entrance to a nondescript door two minutes walk along Balham Hill. It may look a lot different these days but this is one of the original entrances, now redeveloped so it looks just like a normal part of the street. From here it is 180 steps down a spiral staircase into the shelter. Back in 1944 if you needed to shelter from the air raids you would make your way to one of the two concrete ‘pillbox’ entrances, one of which we used. We also saw an exit leading up to the station which wasn’t in official use but there is anecodotal evidence that mentions parents using it to leave the shelter for work.

CS - sections

There are signs everywhere to make sure people didn’t get lost.

Once in the shelter the scale of the project is striking. There are two levels with connecting stairs at either end. On arrival each temporary guest would have been allocated a bunk in a particular section – these sections were named after naval officers at Clapham South. Our first stop was at the medical post. The tiles from the sink splash-back  are still visible which help indicate the room’s use. People with medical conditions had priority and there was no charge for treatment which, in this pre-NHS era, was a big draws. We then moved into one of the tunnel sections, the lights turned off until we were all gathered at one end. When the lights were turned on we saw the view below (more impressive when you’re suddenly confronted with it from darkness).

CS - tunnel

One of the sections with the bunks removed to show the scale of the tunnels

The bunks were pretty crammed in and bedding was not provided. People had to carry everything they needed overnight down into the shelter and then be back up 180 steps by 7am the next morning, most of them with kids in tow as families were given priority.

CS - bunks

One of the bunks made up as it may have looked during the war

So people had beds and medical supplies but what about food and drink? What about the basic necessity of a toilet? Well, there were canteens set up, mainly by volunteers. The canteens were outside of rationing so you could buy as many sandwiches or cakes as you wanted as long as you had the money to pay for them. Generally prices were around twice those of above ground but once in the shelter people had little choice if they had not brought their own supplies. For the loos the situation was considerably sophisticated. We went into one of the gents’ and could see where the urinals were by marks left on the walls. Behind those would have been stalls. Human waste was emptied into a hopper at the end of the room and then  hydraulically pumped up to a sewer near the surface.

The shelter was only open for a brief period during the war but that was not the end of its use. After the war when Jamaicans came over on the Windrush, enticed by the promise of guaranteed jobs, many had nowhere to stay when they first arrived. A labour exchange was set up at on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton and so it was fairly convenient for men to stay in the deep-level shelter for a few days until they found proper lodging. Conditions were not ideal and jobs were plentiful so the longest tenant was a week, most only staying a night or two.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marks the last occasion that people stayed overnight in the shelter. On the centenary of the hugely successful Great Exhibition of 1851, a moral boost to a country that had survived years of war and depression, the Festival was a huge event with millions of visitors arriving from all over. There weren’t enough hotel beds in London, and with austerity still in full force many people couldn’t afford such luxuries. At Clapham South one could stay underground for a low price.

CS - exit

The disused exit up to Clapham South tube station

There was a fire in the Goodge Street deep-level shelter in the 1950s and it was decided then that the tunnels were not safe enough to house people overnight. For a long time Clapham South was used as an archive, but after the contract ran out a few years ago it has been possible for the public to go down and explore. This is a fascinating tour and there are still available dates for this summer.

Check out the London Transport Museum website for more details.

Clapham South tours  operate five days a week until 21 August, then 2-26 March 2017 and cost £35 per person (ticket also gives you half price admission to the museum if presented within one month of taking the tour).

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