Clapham South WW2 Air Raid Deep Shelter, London

Clapham South is one of the eight deep level shelters constructed in London during World War II beneath existing underground stations. During the Blitz of 1940, a reappraisal of deep-shelter policy was undertaken and at the end of October the Government decided to construct a system of deep shelters linked to existing tube stations. Tube Stations at the time were already being used as makeshift shelters but this was seen as dangerous due to narrow platforms and live rails. As a consequence, the government decided that each shelter would comprise two parallel tubes with a 16 foot 6 inches internal diameter, 1,600 feet long and divided into 2 horizontally. The tunnels would be placed below existing station tunnels at Clapham South, Clapham Common, Clapham North, Stockwell, Oval, Goodge Street, Camden Town, Belsize Park, Chancery Lane and St. Pauls. St Pauls was not built due to fears it would destabilised the Cathedrals foundations, and The Oval was abandoned due to flooding. London Transport funded the construction of the tunnels from public money and retained the option to turn the tunnels into a new express line running into London when the air raid shelter role was no longer needed. The construction cost was three million pounds at the time, approximately one hundred million today.

Clapham South opened on the 21st of October 1942 and provided accommodation for up to 8000 people across two levels, it had taken less than two years to construct the tunnels by hand but the Blitz was over by the time they were completed. The shelter was controlled by the civil defence group, with a superintendent, wardens and fire wardens on duty when open. However the shelter provided invaluable cover when the V1 & V2 bombs started to drop onto London in the later parts of the War. The tunnels provided basic shelter facilities for those staying there, including a small canteen with enough for three days of ration, including treats available like jam tarts. Tea was available in the shelters and cost 2d a cup, comparatively at street level it would have cost 1d! Toilets were provided and ejected into the sewer via compressed air; there was also five days of fresh water available. Furthermore, the shelter provided a basic medical facility for those that required attention, free of charge. Those staying in the shelter could bring whatever was needed for their stay and were required to leave by 07:00 the following morning. Priority was given to those made homeless by the bombing.

The shelter closed at the end of the War but almost immediately in 1946 found use as a hostel for soldiers on leave. The shelter had various uses (including as a ‘hotel’ for the Festival of Britain in 1951) until it formally closed in 1956, and is most famous for housing Caribbean Immigrants who arrived in the UK in 1948 aboard the MV Empire Windrush (a former Nazi troop ship captured by the British at the end of the war) – notably about 1/3rd of its passengers were men from the colonies returning to re-join the RAF and among those were men of the calibre of Corporal Sam King MBE, who would later become the first Black Mayor of Southwark.  The shelter was then disused and on ‘care and maintenance’ until 1976 when the government leased them out to private tenants and Clapham South was taken on as a secure document storage facility until 1999 when the shelters were offered for sale after the data company did not renew its lease. TfL purchased the tunnels and in 2016 agreed to start running tours of the shelter through the London Transport Museum. The tunnels are now Grade 2 listed.

Modified: 23rd May 2022