Deep in the underbelly of Clapham South tube station, you will find a hidden location just waiting to be discovered.
A place that was once a hive of activity, from being a bomb-proof shelter in WW2 to becoming a temporary home for those arriving on the Windrush from the West Indies and later serving as a hotel during the Festival of Britain.
Undoubtedly, this subterranean shelter has seen a thing or two, and now you can delve deep into its rich history on one of London Transport’s Hidden London tours.
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Where is the Deep-Level Air Raid Shelter?
It’s hard to believe that eleven storeys below the busy commuter Northern Line at Clapham South underground station, there lies a secret bunker with many stories to tell.
As a child growing up a few streets away, I have always been aware that there was an air raid shelter beneath Clapham Common, but it was only as an adult that my curiosity to find out more about this important London landmark was sparked.
And I never realised that the main entrance to the subterranean shelter was not where I thought it was.
There are two entrances to the deep-level shelter.
One is directly opposite the Clapham South tube station entrance but is not used during the tours.
The other one is slightly further along the main road on Balham Hill and is the entry point for the London Transport hidden tours.
Even more impressive is that a block of flats has been designed around this Grade ll listed air-raid shelter!
What happens on a Hidden London Tour?
I wasn’t sure how many people would arrive for the Clapham South Air Raid Shelter Tour, but I am pleased to say there were quite a few that, like me, couldn’t wait to explore this underground labyrinth.
We were met by three tour guides, who checked our IDs, gave us visitor passes and led us down the 180 steps to begin our tour. There is a lift, but according to our guide, it is temperamental so walking down (and back up the stairs at the end of the tour) is the only option.
I had thought it would be freezing so far underground, but in actual fact, it was at a comfortable temperature, so when you come along, bear that in mind. My thick jumper and scarf were definitely not needed.
We were told that the air quality is tested regularly before tours are carried out, so there is no need to worry about breathing in any stale air.
The hidden tour lasted for 75 minutes, during which time we were shown around the main parts of the air-raid shelter and given lots of great information on how it was used and by who.
Why is there a deep-level shelter at Clapham South?
As WW2 bombings in London worsened, a deeper place of safety was required. London tube stations had already been used as ‘safe havens’; however, a bomb had destroyed Bank underground station, and lives had been lost.
The Government needed to restore confidence in the people, and it was decided that shelters deeper below ground were needed. Construction began in 1941.
Clapham South was one of eight deep-level shelters built around central London and its suburbs. They were dug by hand to a depth of 30 metres and completed in 1942.
Two other deep-level shelters were planned but not completed due to the proximity to St Paul’s Cathedral (concerns arose about digging beneath it and what the consequences could be!) and at the Oval due to the condition of the ground.
Bombings in London subsided as the shelters were ready for use, so they sat empty with a skeleton staff of ‘shelter wardens’ to watch over them.
The Clapham South shelter was used in propaganda images sent around the world to show the enemy that Britain was ready to protect its people regardless of what was sent this way.
In 1944, Germany released an almighty assault on Britain, sending flying bombs to London, and the deep-level bomb proof shelters were finally used.
Copyright: London Transport Museum
What will you see in the Clapham South air-raid shelter?
Things that will blow your mind!
With a capacity to sleep 8000 people and over a mile of crisscrossing passageways, this shelter became a safe sanctuary for overnight stays and longer accommodation for families whose homes had been destroyed by the London bombings.
To use the shelter, you had to get a ticket from your council which would assign you to a section and a bed.
Overnight shelterers had to bring their bedding on each visit and return it home the next day. Families who had lost everything were given a permanent area to sleep in and allowed to leave their belongings and bedding in situ.
On the tour, you will be amazed to see the endless rows of triple-tiered red metal bunkbeds which could accommodate individuals and whole families. Your guides will tell stories about how the occupants went about their daily business, from personal hygiene to dining and receiving medical attention. It’s all fascinating to hear.
Copyright: London Transport Museum
Navigating the shelter
The shelter is designed in the same arched form as a tube tunnel and lit with electric lighting. Watch as your guide turns on the lights to illuminate the long dark tunnel in one section. It’s quite a party piece!
Wandering around the tunnels, you will see the original wall signage that assisted the shelterers in finding their way around the site.
Each sub-shelter was given the name of a senior British naval officer using the first sixteen letters of the alphabet, starting with ‘Anson’.
Copyright: London Transport Museum
Living conditions in the shelter
Ventilation fans provided clean air for the shelterers; however, people were allowed to smoke in the shelter, which seems a ludicrous idea, but smoking was a common pastime in the 1940s.
The NHS had not been invented when the shelter was in use, so people with anything from shrapnel wounds to general ill health could be treated for free, a bonus of being in the shelter. Hear the stories of the injuries treated in this makeshift hospital and how diseases were kept at bay.
To keep depression at bay, music was played over the public address system keeping general morale high. Dancing was also encouraged.
Dining in the shelter
As food was rationed by the Government, to be allowed treats while sheltering from the horrors above was incredible.
The canteen offered everything from coffee and tea to sausage rolls and jam tarts. However, people complained about paying 2p for a cup of tea when it was only one penny at ground level. It just shows that the Brits have always been a nation of moaners!
You will also see the ‘secret stairs’ that led from the shelter directly up to the tube platform and were used by Windrush workers to get to work as bus and train drivers and nurses. The stairs are now bricked up, so you will never know whereabouts they come out!
For how long was the Clapham South underground shelter used?
The deep-level air raid shelter was opened in 1944 to be used during the bombings of WW2. Thankfully in 1945, the war ended, and it was no longer needed to shelter residents from the toils of war.
As groups and organisations had been kept apart during the Blitz, it was decided to turn the air-raid shelter into a hotel to gather large groups back together and charge a penny a person per night.
Many of the groups were children like the scouts and guides, and as you wander around, you will be shown lots of upside-down graffiti from where they lay on their beds and drew on the walls and ceilings!
The Windrush Generation
After so much destruction in London, the city needed to be rebuilt, so men and women were taken away from their jobs to help. This left big gaps in the workforce, so a call was made to Commonwealth countries to offer free travel to England and a guaranteed job in the transport or medical sector.
In 1948, Empire Windrush set sail from Jamaica to Tilbury Docks. Of all those arriving on the ship, 200 migrants without a place to stay were taken to Clapham South and given lodgings in the underground shelter.
It was not a great place to start a new life in England but convenient for the many that had taken jobs with London Transport, and within four weeks of arriving, they had all managed to find accommodation elsewhere.
Known as the Windrush generation, most migrants settled in Clapham and the surrounding areas, namely Brixton, where the employment office was.
One of the passengers was Sam Beaver King, a founding member of the Notting Hill Carnival. He also became the first black Mayor of the London Borough of Southwark.
In 1996 he also set up the Windrush Foundation to preserve and promote the memories of those that arrived in Britain aboard that vessel.
As I grew up in Clapham South, many of my friend’s relatives had come to England on the Empire Windrush. So, it was very interesting to see the shelter and hear the stories about their possible stay in the deep-level shelter.
In 1951, the subterranean shelter was used as a hotel to accommodate people arriving in London to celebrate the Festival of Britain. The celebration of the regeneration of London culminated with the newly built Royal Festival Hall opening along the Queen’s Walk on London’s South Bank.
Paying guests at the ‘Festival Hotel’ were treated to tablecloths, seating in the canteen (not previously allowed), and covered floors to make it feel more homely.
Staying at this makeshift hotel allowed guests quick access to the Northern Line, taking them straight into London to enjoy the festivities.
After the Festival of Britain was over, the hotel was no longer needed, so the War Office used Clapham South shelter as a billet for troops lining the route for the funeral of George V1 in 1952. In 1953 the shelter was once again used briefly for visitors who had arrived to see the Coronation of Elizabeth ll.
What made the deep-level shelters close to occupants?
Sadly, in 1956, another deep-level shelter at Goodge Street was being used to billet soldiers when a fire was accidentally started.
It took three days to extinguish, and although no one was injured, the authorities decided the tunnels could no longer be used for accommodation. After those events, they were left abandoned or used as secure storage for classified documents.
And there, the story of the Clapham South deep-level shelter ends – or does it?
Are the tunnels used for anything today?
Yes, they are!
Apart from the brilliant London Transport tours, the tunnels remain at the perfect temperature to grow organic herbs. Being so far underground means no pests are around to chomp away at the produce, so there is no need for pesticides.
And so, the company ‘Growing Underground’ is reutilising the passageways in Clapham South air raid shelter to grow herb varieties, including pea shoots, rocket and wasabi mustard, to name a few. They are then sold to Covent Garden Market and supermarkets, including Waitrose and M&S.
To use a hidden London landmark as a hydroponic farm is a stroke of genius and is the perfect use for a redundant air raid shelter in the 21st century!
Final Words on the Clapham South Air Raid Shelter
My London Transport Hidden London Tour was complimentary in return for a review; however, all opinions are my own.
I was fascinated by what I learnt about a hidden London landmark deep beneath my feet, and I highly recommend you book a tour and see it for yourself.
There are so many secret places hidden in London and the surrounding suburbs, and if you enjoyed reading about this air raid shelter, I’m sure you will want to find out how to visit the Kelvedon Hatch secret nuclear bunker in Essex.
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