Tour of Clapham South Station: The Hidden Shelter For 10,000 Londoners
Hiding in plain sight outside Clapham South Station are clues that there’s more to this tube stop than meets the eye.
But first, a bit of appreciation for the station itself please. This beauty, designed by Charles Holden and completed in 1926, is well worth a pause of admiration on the escalator-aided ascent.
But my recent journey took me to an entirely different part of the station, previously connected to the actual Clapham South Station (It’s now blocked. Don’t even bother searching for the entrance, warned our guide!)
Outside on the main road is a hard-to-miss white cylinder outside a new build block of flats.
This was once an entrance down into a hidden, deep-level air raid shelter, with the other a couple of hundred metres away on Clapham Common;
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Why was it built?
At the height of the Blitz the government ordered London Transport – the only company with the technical and logistical know-how – to construct 10 deep-level shelters to protect the public against aerial bombardment.
Although the public improvised, using London Underground platforms as shelters. There were disasters. Two of the worst were at Bank (56 people killed in January 1941) and Balham (1,000lb bomb hit a sewer, pouring its contents into the tunnels and killing 68) which meant the public pressure for safe refuge was huge.
Protest banner from 1941.
Balham High Road, 14 October 1940. This photo (c) London Transport Museum shows a Vauxhall-bound bus that was thrown into the crater.
So the government decided to build 10 shelters in November 1940. By January 1941 construction was underway. Despite a speedy turnaround, by the time they were finished in Summer 1942, the threat of The Blitz was over.
But that didn’t mean the shelters weren’t useful.
Many Londoners were still homeless, their houses destroyed by bombs, and so were in need of shelter. Plus, the government weren’t going to let them go to waste.
People were encouraged to use the shelters with the promise of free medical care and the government promoted stage photographs of the shelters for propaganda.
Unfortunately for London, In June 1944 the shelters did become necessary. the terrifying V-1 flying bombs started landing in the capital and Londoners sought shelter underground.
What was it like?
The organisation of the Clapham South shelter was incredible. Londoners were given a ticket with an assigned bed and each dorm was named alphabetically under a theme, like naval heroes. Those who had no home to return to were given a season ticket, ensuring they had the same bed each night.
Despite efficient systems, it wasn’t quite the ‘luxury tunnels under London’ that the government promised.
People were required to leave the shelter each morning, so had to carry all their bedding up 180 steps each day.
As you’d expect with a few thousand people in close quarters, the toilets were basic chemical ones. They fed into the delightfully named ‘slop hopper’ funnel which could accommodate 5 days of waste. Needless to say, it was of utmost importance that that valve remained tightly closed!
But from contemporary accounts most people remember the shelters very fondly. The children even complained it was cold rather than stuffy, with huge fans circulating air (amazingly you could smoke down there).
And the best bit was the opportunity for non-rationed meals. Margaret Barford (8 at the time) recalled “I particularly remember those jam tarts – a real treat!”.
Morale was kept high too, with dances, music and a even an organised kids club.
Post War Use
Clapham South Shelters closed swiftly after Allied victory was announced, but they reopened shortly after as a cheap hostel for homeless Londoners.
The bunks were spread out to make them more comfortable and a variety of groups were given accommodation here, including military personal and the first migrant workers who arrived on Empire Windrush.
(C) TopFoto – London Transport Museum
John Richards (standing, top right) re-visited the Clapham South shelters with researches recently, sharing his memories.
Now 92, as soon as he walked in he said he recognised the sound of the rolling Northern line trains above. He remembered being treated well and loving the pies and roast beef! He also talked about how easy it was to get to work, think about it, you could literally stumble from your bed onto the tube platform!
Former passageway that connected the bunks to the platform.
The last surprise for me was learning that the shelter was also a budget hotel for visitors to the Festival of Britain in 1951.
In 1956 after a fire in Goodge Street deep-level shelter, the government ordered the other shelters to be closed. Until it was opened for tours the former bunks were used as archive racks. Nothing salacious though unfortunately, just corporate legal documents.
Visiting Clapham South Station
Hidden London (part of the London Transport Museum) run tours across a range of TFL property and you can find out more here. If you’ve missed out on tickets, I’d advise signing up to their mailing list to be the first to hear about future tours of subterranean London shelters.