I was lucky enough to snap up a ticket to the Hidden London Access All Areas Subterranean Shelter: Clapham South tour in association with the London Transport Museum. This was a unique opportunity to go underground and explore one of the shelters that was built during the Second World War as a refuge for Londoners to stay safe from the Blitz. I arrived at Clapham South station on Sunday morning and excitedly awaited my turn.
We were given wristbands and taken down the road to an imposing white cylindrical building, set into the side of a housing estate. I am sure the residents were bemused by all these people going in and out all day. We were taken around the space by several guides, all of whom were really knowledgeable and helpful. This is just as well as the shelter is a big place, and it would be very easy to get lost if you were separated from the group.
Clapham South subterranean shelter was one of eight shelters built between 1941 and 1942, 120 feet below ground and underneath even the tube itself. Previously, people had been sheltering in tube stations but even they were not safe in case of a direct hit: for instance, an bomb at Balham tube station in 1940 killed 66 people. The eight shelters together could hold 64,000 people, though in reality the total was never much more than 12,500.
The shelter at Clapham South was dug out by hand by workers on 12-hour shifts, with no protection from the conditions. Once the death toll reached double figures they were finally provided with a shield. The resulting tunnels were made of cast iron and concrete, with two entrances: one at Balham Hill, the other at Clapham Common. The excavation caused a huge mountain of dirt to appear on the Common.
Once construction work had finished, the worst of the Blitz was over and the shelters were initially used for other things, such as military occupancy. In 1944, however, the V1 and V2 raids began, and the shelters were hurriedly converted to their original purpose. Up to 8,000 people could be accommodated at Clapham South, though in practice the shelter never held more than 4,000 at once.
Clapham South shelter was well-organised. On entering, a shelterer would be allocated a ticket to a dormitory; these dormitories were typically named after admirals. The shelter had a superintendent and a small hospital, with a doctor, nursing staff and a consulting room. For entertainment, music was played over the PA system, and sometimes dances were held. Chemical toilets were provided, with an innovative air compression system to shoot waste to the surface every few days. There were eight canteens dotted around the shelter, staffed by volunteers, with food provided by London Transport. The food was off the ration, but more expensive than it was at the surface: a cup of tea, for instance, was tuppence.
The shelter was connected to the Underground via a tunnel designed, but never used, as an emergency exit. Sometimes, shelterers were allowed to leave this way to hop on a train and get to work in the morning. Plans to convert this and some other shelters to an express Northern Line after the war never happened, owing to lack of funds. Instead, another function had to be found for the shelters once the war had ended in 1945.
After the war, Clapham South was used as a penny hotel, cheap accommodation for those visiting London on a budget. It was also used to house some of the arrivals from the Windrush once they arrived from the West Indies. During the 1951 Festival of Britain, the shelter was transformed into the Festival Hotel, costing three shillings a night. Used mostly by young students, female guests got sheets for their beds while men had to content themselves with blankets. The shelter was also used to house troops during the funeral of George VI and the coronation of Elizabeth II.
After a fire took place in another shelter, it was decided that the shelters were no longer safe for accommodation. What then should they be used for? TfL took over the shelters in 1998, and many were used for archive storage. Here, the last archives left in 2008, but they are still in place in some other shelters, such as Goodge Street. Another is now used for growing micro salad for an upmarket restaurant.
I loved my fascinating tour of the Clapham South shelter. Everyone was really knowledgeable and it was amazing to be in such an atmospheric place.