Site Records

Site Name: Clapham South Deep Level Air-Raid Shelter

The south entrance before redevelopment of the site in 2011. Only the entrance 'pillbox' remains. All other buildings have been demolished.

South Entrance: Location: On the west side of Balham Hill opposite Gaskarth Road, SW 12.

Description: A circular concrete 'pillbox' with small brick extensions on opposite sides that housed the original entrance doors. There is a square brick intake ventilation shaft on the roof. In the compound a few yards to the west is a second brick ventilation shaft with double doors. When inspected in 1995 the tunnels were leased by Security Archives (later renamed Recall). After lying empty for a number of years redevelopment of the southern entrance began in 2011. OS Grid Ref: TQ288742

The north entrance remains largely unaltered.

North Entrance:
Location: On Clapham Common at the junction of Clapham Common South Side, Nightingale Lane and The Avenue SW 4.

Description: A circular concrete 'pillbox' with a semi-circular brick extension fronting onto the road. There is no ventilation shaft on the roof. There is a square brick ventilation shaft standing a few yards behind the 'pillbox'. This entrance appears to be unused other than for emergency access. It has recently been stripped back to bare concrete as part of restoration programme by Lambeth Council which will include a panel on the history of the shelter. OS Grid Ref: TQ287744

Sub Brit site visit 5th November 2008
[Source: Nick Catford]

The Bombings of 1940 forced a reappraisal of deep-shelter policy and at the end of October the Government decided to construct a system of deep shelters linked to existing tube stations. London Transport was consulted about the sites and required to build the tunnels at the public expense with the understanding that they were to have the option of taking them over for railway use after the war. With the latter point in mind, positions were chosen on routes of possible north-south and east-west express tube railways. It was decided that each shelter would comprise two parallel tubes 16 foot 6 inches internal diameter and 1,600 feet long and 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.

Photo:Clapham South shelter nearing completion in September 1942. Cross bunks are seen on the left with longitudinal bunks on the right.

It may be assumed that at these points the deep-level express tubes would have no stations as the diameter was too small. Each tube would have two decks, fully equipped with bunks, medical posts, kitchens and sanitation and each installation would accommodate 9,600 people..

Photo:Clapham South shelter north entrance, probably taken in July 1944 shortly before the shelter opened.

All the deep level shelters were sub-divided into sleeping areas. Each tunnel was divided into 4 sections with connecting doors between them. Each section was given a name. At Clapham South they were all naval commanders. The northern entrance sections (i.e. those accessed directly from the northern lift without crossing to the other side) were named: Freemantle, Beatty, Evans, Anson, Nelson, Jellicoe, Madden and Inglefield while those accessed from the southern entrance were: Grenville, Hardy, Drake, Oldham, Keppel, Parry and Ley. Each section had bunks fitted longitudinally along the outer wall, a single at the top, a double in the middle and a single at the bottom. Along the inner wall bunks were fitted across the passage forming bays. There were 7.952 bunks in total and each bunk was allocated to a named person. If they didn't turn up one night the bunk remained unused. (PRO file HO205/191-82364). The capacity of each section is listed in the table below.

Section name
Cross bunks
Longitudinal bunks
Total Bunks

Photo:Clapham South shelter warden's office.

Although work on them began in November 1940 there were difficulties in obtaining sufficient labour and materials so the first one was only ready in March 1942 and the other seven were finished later that year. Access to them was by ticket in order to help control numbers and prevent disruption to the underground network. There was considerable pressure to open the shelters to relieve the strain on London’s tube stations from people sheltering from the bombing, but the authorities were concerned about the cost of maintaining the shelters once opened and preferred to

One of the cross passages that gave access to the main shelter tunnels. (Click)
keep them in reserve in case the bombing intensified. Clapham South was used as weekend troop accommodation from 1943. The start of the attacks on London by V1 flying bombs (commonly known as ‘doodlebugs’) in June 1944, followed by the V2 rocket campaign in September that year, caused many of the deep shelters to be made fully available to the public; Clapham South opened on 19 July 1944. The south entrance, next door to what was the Odeon cinema, was in a small compound that housed administrative offices and ticket printing presses for all eight deep shelters.

Plan of Clapham South deep shelter.

The shelters were used for their original purpose for less than a year. The north section closed on 21 October 1944 and the shelter was transferred from the Ministry of Home Security to the Ministry of Works on 1 October 1945. Clapham South closed completely on 7 May 1945 and from June 1945 it found a new use as a military leave hostel and for one month in June 1946 it acted as an armed-forces troop billet.

Photo:A busy night at Clapham South in July 1944

Many of the original shelter signs are still in place today. See below (click)

At the end of the war, London had a severe labour shortage and the Colonial Office sought to recruit a labour force from Britain’s colonies. At that time there were no immigration restrictions for citizens from one part of the British Empire moving to another part. An advertisement appeared in Jamaica's Daily Gleaner on 13 April 1948 offering transport to the UK for a fare of £28.10s (£28.50) for anyone who wanted to work in the UK. As a result the ship MV Empire Windrush arrived in Tilbury later in 1948 carrying 492 worker migrants from Jamaica. However, as there was no accommodation for the new arrivals the Colonial Office decided to house them in the deep-level shelter at Clapham South.

The nearest labour exchange to Clapham South was on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton so the men sought jobs there. As a result Brixton became a focus for West Indian settlers from that point onwards with successive arrivals making their way to the developing
community. The actual time the deep-level shelter was occupied by new arrivals was relatively short as the men all quickly found jobs and accommodation, and successfully integrated into many parts of south London. The deep-level shelter at Clapham South is therefore celebrated not only for its role in protecting Londoners from the worst excesses of the Blitz but also its fascinating and positive contribution towards helping make London one of the most culturally, socially and economically diverse places in the United Kingdom.

Jamaican immigrants using the shelter as a hostel in July 1948.

A far more cheerful event and a clear sign to the people of Britain’s resurgence after the war was the Festival of Britain, held in 1951. Coming a century after the first Great Exhibition of 1851, it was intended as ‘a Tonic to the Nation’, to display the country’s expertise in science, the arts and much more. The chief exhibition centre was in London on the rejuvenated South Bank, and early on in the planning process it was realised that London’s hotels might not be adequate to cope with the millions of visitors arriving from all over the country and world. In this they were not wrong; the Festival site attracted over 10 million paid admissions. It was also recognised that at a time of austerity not all visitors would be able to afford hotel accommodation and someone had the bright idea of reopening one of the wartime deep shelters to provide low-cost bed and breakfast facilities.

For further information and pictures of the Clapham South shelter click here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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