Dig for Victory – The Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter

The London Transport Museum are currently running a series of Hidden London excursions to abandoned sites on or near tube stations. Last weekend Mr. @enjoytheviewEU and I headed deep underground to visit the Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter. Below you’ll find the history of and images of this incredible abandoned site in London.

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The Tunnels and World War II

During the second World War, it became necessary for Londoners to seek shelter underground to survive the onslaught of German bombs dropped on their city. London’s extensive tube network became an obvious choice in which to seek protection, but tube stations were often at breaking point when it came to space. They also were not always the deepest of options, something that became abundantly clear during the tragic 1941 bombing of Bank station in which 56 people were killed.

This led the government to consider digging deeper to protect their citizens and thus the Clapham South Deep-Level Shelters were constructed to provide shelter. The tunnels (technically) connect to Northern line station Clapham South and were constructed in a similar manner to other ‘tube’ lines and stations. Incredibly, they were all dug by hand and constructed using leftover materials from earlier construction projects on other tube lines. Construction began in 1941 and the tunnels were completed by 1942 – but the tunnels were not put to use sheltering Londoners at this time.

By the time the tunnels were completed the worst of the bombing had ended and the government wasn’t keen to spend money protecting small numbers of people. It wasn’t until 1944 and the arrival of the German V-I flying bomb that the shelters suddenly roared into use. Within days of the bombs’ arrival, the shelters were open and ready to accommodate up to 8,000 people.

In Times of Peace

The majority of tunnels purpose-built for shelter were along key points on the Northern and Central lines. Those locations were chosen as the longevity plan for them was to utilise the structures to create express Tube lines through busy areas. Unfortunately, forward-thinking plan was never realised.

That’s not to say the tunnels haven’t been busy since the end of the war; in fact, they were steadily occupied for years to come. In 1948 economic migrants from Jamaica stayed in the tunnels as temporary accommodation after traveling to Britain to alleviate the labour shortages after the war. In 1951 the tunnels were used as dormitories and as a hostel of sorts for visitors traveling to see the Festival of Britain. The tunnels were used as hostels until a fire at Goodge Street deep level shelter led to concerns about people sleeping overnight underground. In the tunnels’ last incarnation, they were used as secure archive sites for data.

Today

Today the tunnels are owned by Transport for London and are open for tours to the public on rare occasion. The absolutely brilliant London Transport Museum run these tours as part of their Hidden London project. We went along in October 2015 to delve underground into a time-capsule of Britain at war – and we weren’t disappointed.

Here’s what we saw and learned:

The tunnels feel like an endless rabbit warren of tunnels. The guides helpfully explain maps of the tunnel layouts and keep the visitors informed as to the twists and turns we take, but it’s impossible to keep up with where we are underground. There’s so much to see here – and the guides do their best to ensure we see all of it. It’s pretty incredible how close you are to the functioning Northern Line trains. Visitors are able to hear – and feel – every single train as it passes and it surely must have been impossible to sleep here during train operational hours.

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The tunnels had a dedicated medical area for any coughs, cuts, scrapes and worries obtained whilst underground. This is the original sink fitting from the medical station.

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The tunnels are largely formed from leftover pieces of tunnel equipment from the Piccadilly and Northern lines and most of the tunnel reinforcements substantially pre-date WWII. The tunnel rings proudly announce where they’ve come from; this one pictured is quite clearly property of the London Passenger Transport Board (the Transport for London of the 30s and early 40s.)

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The tunnels are decked out with “nearly” original signage. The signage in place in the tunnels was put in around 1951 for the Festival of Britain and is in remarkably good condition around the site.

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Here, in the bathrooms, you can just see where the urinals attached to the wall.IMG_5919

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Throughout the tunnels that were designed for sleeping, the majority of the bunks remain. In most areas, the bunks had three levels and a small wall for privacy between rows of bunks. People had to bring their own bedding, and vacate the bunk by 7am each morning. For those who had lost their houses to previous bombing, they were able to leave some personal effects in the bunks, but they still had to leave the shelter every morning at 7am.

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There is a really interesting section of the tunnels which suddenly resembles the style of tube station that we are familiar with. This bit of the tunnels does – in theory – connect to Clapham South station. However, according to the guides, although the tunnels could – and perhaps should – connect directly to the station, a large amount of concrete deliberately obstructs the tunnel to prevent this from happening.

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The area in which the buffet was housed is of interest also; this post indicates exactly how high the counter over which food was bought stood. Mystery hand courtesy of some random on the tour.

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In the deep-level shelter’s most recent incarnation it served as a data-storage facility. These boxes were added for the tour to give some context to how the tunnels looked at that point in time.

Someone at the London Transport Museum has a sense of humour.

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How the tunnel appears from outside; the white roundhouse is the South end of the tunnels and is rather cleverly incorporated into the modern block of flats which surrounds it. The rougher cement roundhouse is the more Northern end of the deep-level tunnels.

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For more information on tours of wonderful pieces of tube history, please check out the London Transport Museum’s website here. You can also follow them on twitter @ltmuseum.

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