Site Records

Site Name: Blackheath Hill - Railway tunnel and air raid shelter

Blackheath Hill
London, SE 10
OS Grid Ref: TQ380767

Sub Brit site visit March 2008

[Source: Nick Catford]

The original plans for the Greenwich Park branch of the London Chatham & Dover Railway (LCDR) proposed a line from Nunhead through Greenwich terminating at the Royal Dockyard in Woolwich. However, with the opening of the South Eastern Railways(SER) extension from Greenwich to Woolwich in 1849 there was no longer a need for the Greenwich Branch extension to Woolwich and the LCDR were eventually authorised to build a 2mile 18chain line between Nunhead and Crooms Hill, on the western side of Greenwich Park, by an Act of Parliament in July 1863.

Financial problems delayed construction until 1871. The branch opened as far as Blackheath Hill on 18th September that year with one intermediate station at Lewisham Road; a second at Brockley Lane was opened in June 1872.  Despite disappointing receipts, the LCDR continued with their proposal to extend to Greenwich but financial difficulties meant the extension wasn’t completed to Greenwich Park (Greenwich until 1900) until 1st October 1888.

The extension failed to attract additional traffic to the line which was unable to compete with SER's direct line from Greenwich into central London. A push-pull service was introduced in 1913 in an attempt to cut losses, but the Greenwich Park branch closed on 1st January 1917 as a war time economy measure and never reopened. The station was, however, occasionally used after that date for the public to travel to Blackheath for events on the Heath. 

In 1927 the Southern Railway refurbished the section of line between Nunhead and Lewisham Road with a new spur being built down to the Mid Kent line between St. Johns and Lewisham; the remaining severed section of the branch between Lewisham Road and Greenwich Park was formally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1929.

Blackheath Hill Station was sited in a deep cutting on the south side of Blackheath Hill and after leaving the station for Greenwich, trains immediately entered a short brick-lined tunnel under the A2 (Blackheath Hill) which was 55 yards in length.

Photo:Blackheath Hill Station in the mid 1920s before the line was officially abandoned. The 55 yard tunnel can be seen beyond the station.

The brick and timber street-level building of Blackheath Hill station had a covered footbridge giving access to the platforms in the cutting below. After closure, the station building was used by the ‘Services Remembered Club’ from 1921 and from 1929 it housed the ‘MacCormack Billiard Club’ which became the ‘Blackheath Billiard Club’ in 1931. It seems unlikely that the club would have used the tunnel.

The billiard club remained there until the outbreak of war in 1939 when the station was leased to the Helliot Machine Tool Company who were involved in war work.

This 1937 map clearly shows the tunnel extends beyond the road. The station building is shown as a billiard club.

On the north side of Blackheath Hill, the tunnel extended for a short distance before opening into a deep cutting. There were retail shops on the north side of Blackheath Hill, with houses on the east side of Plumbridge Street which runs parallel with the railway line on its west side. At some time after closure of the line, a concrete floor was laid through the tunnel forming a large underground work space. This was done before the track was lifted in 1929 as the concrete was poured over the track and sleepers. It is unclear what this underground area was initially used for, but the 1927 Kelly’s directory lists a company called Express Cable & Engineering in Plumbridge Street. This was the only business shown so it seems likely that they might have occupied the tunnel from this date. By the mid-1930s there was a builders yard on the course of the railway line on the north side of Blackheath Hill and this company used the tunnel to store breeze blocks.

This 1949 map shows the surface entrance building to the shelter on the north side of Blackheath Hill
On 17th June 1940 the tunnel was leased to Greenwich council by the Southern Railway for use as an air raid shelter. This conversion was approved by the Ministry of Home Security on 11th July 1940 and the total cost of the conversion was £394 plus £80 for temporary works. It was known as the Blackheath Hill Shelter, with access from Lindsell Street and Sparta Street plus a set of steep steps down from Blackheath Hill to a midway point within the shelter. The main entrance to the shelter was
from Sparta Street from where there was a short walk along the infilled cutting and down a gentle slope into the shelter (the slope was later replaced by a series of wide steps).  Chemical toilet cubicles were sited at the entrance and just inside the tunnel there was a small canteen, kitchen and first aid post. The internal walls were whitewashed. A second set of chemical toilets was later proposed for the Lindsell Street entrance but these were considered unnecessary as those at the Sparta Street entrance were considered adequate.  The shelter was always damp and was fitted with an electric heater in January 1943. By this time the shelter was usually referred to as the Sparta Street Shelter.

Photo:The site of the Spata Street entrance in Autumn 1968. The infilled cutting is seen in the foreground. In front of the building steps led down below the building into the into the shelter. By 1968
the station building had been substantially altered and bore little resemblance to the original timber structure. Compare this picture to the 1920s picture above. The metal girders supporting the bridge linking the two platforms can be seen in both pictures.
Photo by Nick Catford

The tunnel was divided into two large rooms, the room on the north side of Blackheath Hill being slightly longer than that on the south side; it was necessary to go through one room to reach the other. Each room had triple bunks around the walls with another line of bunks across the centre of the room; the bunks were separated by curtains for privacy. Many local residents spent every night in the shelter during the blitz, often arriving there during the afternoon.  They were given regular numbered bunks and were allowed to keep personal belongings in the shelter. There was no segregation between male and female and families were kept together. The shelter was returned to the Southern Railway on 25th December 1946.

Photo:The tunnel in 2007 looking south
Photo by Nick Catford

By 1949 the houses on the east side of Plumbridge Street and the shops along Blackheath Hill had been demolished and replaced by a four-storey block of flats above shops in Plumbridge Street. This building extended along Blackheath Hill as a two-storey block with a single-storey extension at its east end accessed from the service road at the back of the shops in Plumbridge Street; from here there were steps down into the railway tunnel which was now back in industrial use.

Click here for further information and pictures of the Blackheath Hill tunnel

[Source: Nick Catford]

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