Site Records

Site Name: Chancery Lane deep shelter & Kingsway telephone exchange

31 - 33 High Holborn

Sub Brit visit 13th July 1996 & 25th February 2008

Produced in association with


The Central London Railway was incorporated in 1891 to build a tube line between Shepherd’s Bush and Bank. Construction started at Chancery Lane in April 1896 and the line was eventually opened on 30 July 1900 with ten intermediate stations at Post Office (later renamed St. Paul’s), Chancery Lane, British Museum, Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Lancaster Gate, Queens Road, Notting Hill Gate and Holland Park. When the CLR excavated the running tunnels it routed them to avoid passing under surface

Chancery Lane station entrance in c. June 1914
buildings in order to limit the risk to buildings from vibration. At Chancery Lane, the tunnels are placed with the eastbound tunnel 15 feet above and slightly to one side of the westbound.

Chancery Lane booking hall in January 1928

The street level building at Chancery Lane was actually on the north side of High Holborn at nos. 31-33.  Originally the station was provided with four lifts in two shafts between ground and platform levels.  A general programme of new railways and rebuilding of existing stations was authorised by the London Electric, Metropolitan District, Central London & City & South London Railway Companies Act which received Royal Assent on 4th June 1930. Chancery Lane station closed for rebuilding with three escalators replacing the lifts. It was

not possible to construct the inclined escalator shaft between the platforms and the existing entrance, so a new sub-surface ticket hall was constructed 120 yards to the west below the junction of High Holborn and Gray’s Inn Road and the old entrance became redundant. The station reopened on 25 June 1934 and in recognition of the location of the new entrance, the station was renamed Chancery Lane (Gray's Inn) a month later, although the suffix subsequently fell out of use.

Photo:The old Chancery Lane station entrance building in August 2008
Photo by Nick Catford

Following the start of the London blitz the Government decided, in October 1940, to construct a system of deep shelters linked to existing tube stations. London Transport was consulted about the sites and was 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 deep level express tube railways. It was decided that each shelter would comprise two parallel tubes 16 foot 6 inches internal diameter and 1,200 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 on the Northern Line and Chancery Lane and St. Paul’s on the Central Line.

Each tunnel would have two decks, fully equipped with bunks, medical posts, kitchens and sanitation and each installation would accommodate 9,600. This capacity was later reduced to 8,000 as a result of improved accommodation standards. Work began on November 27th 1940 and it was hoped to have the first shelters ready by the following summer. There were great difficulties in obtaining labour and material and when the blitz abated the Government had second thoughts and in the middle of 1941 a select committee on national expenditure recommended that no further deep shelters be built, but those started should be completed.

Sleepers in a typical deep level shelter in July 1944 - this example is Clapham South

Work at St. Paul's was abandoned in August 1941 as it was feared the foundations of the cathedral might be affected. Oval was also abandoned shortly after this as large quantities of water had been encountered. The first shelter to be completed was Chancery Lane which was ready in March 1942 and the other seven were finished later in that year. The Board then urged the government to open the shelters to relieve the strain on the tube stations, but the Cabinet were reluctant due to the high cost of maintaining the shelters once they were opened and decided to keep them in reserve pending an intensification of bombing.

Towards the end of 1942, part of Goodge Street shelter was made available for General Eisenhower's headquarters. Eventually the shelters at Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham South and Belsize Park were opened to the public but those at Clapham Common and Chancery Lane were retained and later adapted for Government use. Chancery Lane was used as a troop hostel at this time.

The decision to allocate citadel accommodation at Chancery Lane was taken in January 1944, half to the operational staffs of the London Civil Defence region and Ministry of Works, plus some space for Combined Operations and the Inter Services Research Bureau (alias ISRB).

Beds in a typical deep shelter in January 2000 - this example is Belsize Park - click here to enlarge

The structure was adapted to meet these bodies' operational needs and to provide living accommodation for their staff

The precise allocation was:

  • London Civil Defence Region
    Report and Control Centre
    Liaison Officers of Government Department
    CD HQ operational staff

  • Ministry of Works Engineering Services
  • Inter Services Research Bureau
  • Combined Operations
  • Flag Officer, London
  • Movement Control (War Office)
  • Port of London Authority
  • Government Communications Bureau

Inter Services Research Bureau was a cover name for the research and development section of Special Operations Executive (SOE), itself an offshoot of M16 set up initially to help the Resistance in German-occupied countries and later expanded into a covert organisation of about 10,000 men and women. The Bureau's use of the Chancery Lane location may explain a reference in Leo Marks's book Between Silk & Cyanide, which describes his role in agent communication activities. The department known as the Government Communications Bureau was another cover name, relating to the combined signals intelligence (SIGINT) organisation of the three armed services. It later took the name of, and became more familiar as, Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ.

Telephone switchboard in General Eisenhower's headquarters in the Goodge Street shelter which, like Chancery Lane became a government 'citadel' rather than a public shelter.

Needless to say, these arrangements did not meet with universal approval. ISRB indicated the majority of their communications ran northward and Belsize Park would have been more convenient. The Ministry of Works argued this had no influence on cable routes; lines from both locations would run through the same Northern Line tube tunnels and where these surfaced at Golders Green they would lose protection in any case. Nevertheless, ISRB was content to establish a map room, signals room, operations room and sleeping area at `Chancery Lane West', as the file calls it.

In March 1944, it was agreed that staff of the Port of London Authority, Flag Officer in Charge and War Department Movement Control could join those other departments with allocated space in Chancery Lane. For the London Civil Defence Region, Chancery Lane became its `reserve war room' in May 1944, fitted out to handle ambulance provision, casualty service, rescue co-ordination, heavy rescue, research and experiments. The ponderous instructions issued to selected staff made abundantly clear what lay before them:

“When operations start on the Continent, or possibly before, the enemy may include London amongst other targets in an attempt to disorganise our military operations. As it is vital that these operations shall proceed with the minimum of interruption the Regional Commissioners, in common with other departments, have made arrangements to carry on in premises and under conditions likely to be impervious to enemy attack. You, as one of the officers needed to undertake this duty, will realise the vital importance of the work and accept any inconvenience to which you may be subjected during the emergency period. A move of this nature may have to be made at very short notice. You should therefore hold yourself in readiness to move ... at once.” The personal instructions also dealt with security and housekeeping matters, noting that although entrances existed in Holborn and on the tube station platform, Civil Defence London Region staff should use the “special entrance in Furnival Street”. Also that: “The lift service is not good, there being only one lift which moves very slowly, therefore, it should be used for upward journeys only.

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Last updated 2nd October 2008
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