Now and then, the London Transport Museum offers guided underground station tours of areas not normally open to the public. I’ve managed to snap up tickets for the Aldwych and Charing Cross tours early next year and recently I went on a tour of the Clapham South deep-level shelter.
During the Blitz in 1940, the public were calling for deep-level shelters to be built. Although the London Underground had been providing shelter from people seeking refuge from the bombing, it was clear that the underground stations were not designed to be bomb-proof (an air raid at Bank station killed 56 people).
The Government laid plans to create shelter accommodation and commissioned the help of London Transport to design and build ten shelters, each able to accommodate 10,000 people. The shelters would be 30 metres below ground with five being built in the north of London and five in the south. Two shelters were unable to be completed - St Pauls due to restrictions on tunnelling close to the cathedral, and Oval because of poor ground conditions. The remaining shelters were completed during 1942.
By this time the intensity of the bombing had eased so the shelters were mostly unused until 1944 when the German V-1 flying bombs were fired over London. People who had lost their homes in the bombing were able to leave their belongings in the shelter during the day but everyone else was expected to carrying their bedding and belongings in an out of the shelter each day. It’s 180 steps up to ground level! Free health care was provided in the shelter to entice more people underground, as well as un-rationed food in the canteens although the prices were higher than elsewhere.
After the war had ended, the shelter reopened as a cheap hostel. The bunks were modified and spread out to increase space and comfort for guests. It was also used to house over 200 migrants who came to the UK during the labour shortages until they could find their own accommodation.
In 1956 a fire broke out in the Goodge Street deep-level shelter which was being used as an army camp. Although there were no fatalities the Government decided that the deep-level shelters were no longer suitable for sleeping accommodation. The sites are now being used as secure archives.
I thoroughly enjoyed this tour. We had two guides alternating at each stop along the way and both really knew their stuff. It has got me really excited for my next underground tour in February!
If you’re interested in joining one of the Hidden London tours, I recommend signing up to the London Transport Museum mailing list. You’ll be notified of upcoming events by email and subscribers get access to a pre-sale before the general public sale, so this gives you the best chance at securing tickets. These tours are quite popular and there is only a limited number of tickets available so they sell out pretty quickly. The staff mentioned there are more tours in the works for next year although they were tight-lipped on the locations, so keep an eye out.
Have you been on one of these underground tours?