Site Records

Site Name: Clapham South Deep Level Air-Raid Shelter

South Entrance: West side of Balham Hill
opposite Gaskarth Road, SW 12. OS Grid Ref: TQ288742

North Entrance: Location: On Clapham Common at the junction of Clapham Common South Side, Nightingale Lane and The Avenue SW 4. OS Grid Ref: TQ287744

Sub Brit site visit 5th November 2008

The shelter selected was Clapham South, ‘borrowed’ from the War Office and titled (with great faith) for the occasion the ‘Festival Hotel’. Up to 1,500 visitors paid three shillings a night for bed and breakfast. Reporter Caren Meyer of the South London Press described the arrangements for visitors’ welfare made by the London County Council on behalf of the Board of Trade.

1950/1 1:2,500 OS Map shows the north entrance as a Hostel - London District Leave Annexe.

1950/1 1:2,500 OS Map shows the south entrance as a Hostel

‘Deputy manageress Mrs Florence Davison deals with incredible brusqueness and efficiency with all comers and with ubiquitous eyes sees to it that those down from the tube do not miss the cash desk and their 3s. contribution for the night. In navy blue with white spots, large hat and rimless glasses, her short but stocky figure stands at the crossroads of four corridors and with arms outstretched like a policeman, directing the traffic.

"Shove them down there," she commands. "Anyone else for ]ellicoe section?" Her daughter-in-law, Ivy, sits at the cash desk collecting the night’s money, her son attending the male shelter section.
Normally only parties are catered for but people stranded are given the look-over by manager Albert Cairns and if he likes the look of what he sees they can stay. If he doesn’t, he sends them over to Cavendish Road police station who vet them again. "It’s a paradise for pickpockets and pilfering, that’s why I have to be careful," Mr Cairns says.

The shelter provides two-tiered bunks in 16 sections on two floors, with three blankets to each bunk and a sheet for women. There are wash rooms with cold water, two canteens serving sandwiches, cakes, tea and lemonade until 12pm and a first-aid room, which is in much demand .

The spartan dining room.

Those staying the night are not encouraged to put in an appearance before 8.30pm at night and by midnight the air is filled with the whistle of mass snoring, the creaking of beds and an occasional cough. But after 6am there is no peace. Tube trains rumble across the ceiling, armies of people walk the corridor overhead. Little girls giggle and teachers admonish them to fold their blankets as they found them and hand in their sheets.

In the middle of all this, fatherly Mr Cairns broadcasts the various missing and found items and Mrs Gladys March, one of the attendants, on duty four times a week from 10pm, picks up her alarm clock with which she has awakened those catching the 4.30am boat train and wearily makes her way home. The 1,500 Festival visitors climb up the 192 steps to air and sunshine, or wait for the lift, six at a time.”

The shelter site was in fact very convenient for the large coach parking area set up on Clapham Common near Clapham South tube station. A special bus route ‘F’ operated by London Transport ran direct to the Festival Gardens (Prince of Wales Drive terminus) at a fare of 6d, using six buses allocated from Elmers End garage. The shelter itself was freshly painted for the occasion and no doubt its occupants were grateful for its economical comforts. Stephen Murray of Hunmanby, Yorks, recalls:

“I saved hard when an opportunity to go, on a school trip, to the ‘Festival of Britain’ cropped

The cramped washing facilities offered little in
the way of privacy. (Click)
up. That was a good experience and one I have long remembered, particularly sleeping in part of the Clapham Underground that had been used as an air-raid shelter during the war and was then some sort of hostel.”

A year later in 1952 the shelter was used again to house troops attending the funeral of King George VI on 15th February and after that as a public shelter of last resort. A newspaper article on 26th September explained that the War Office had sustained such heavy losses running the shelter for civilians that the 2,500 made-up beds and room for 6,000 more would no longer be available. "We are not a benevolent institution, running hotel accommodation for civilians at a loss. We opened the shelter only as an intermediate measure," said a spokesman. The night staff of 10 were to be dismissed, leaving only two cleaners and the caretaker Albert Cairns, who had spent 13 out of 24hours there daily since 1942.

The shelter saw action afresh in Coronation year to provide accommodation for visitors from the provinces. A visit if the South Wales Singers to the London Eisteddfod in April 1953 sets the scene,
‘Having failed to secure hotel accommodation for the party as a whole, arrangements were made for them to stay at the Clapham deep shelters. Here was a new experience for most of the members and there was much amusement at the way in which some sought to adapt themselves to the prevailing conditions. Tasteful light refreshments were served at a canteen in the shelter, the only drawback being that husbands and wives had to part as the ladies were accommodated in a separate dormitory. There were touching scenes at the parting. A wholesome breakfast was served in the shelter and enjoyed by all as husbands and wives had now been reunited, and if the first night was a trifle hectic to the dwellers in the deep, the company slept like innocent babes on Saturday night after having, at the request of the shelter and canteen attendants and others staying there, sung a few songs and hymns.’

Even when in use as a hostel most people would have used the stairs. The small;l lift seen on the left would only take four people.
Photo by Nick Catford

As the actual Coronation ceremony approached, these visitors made way for troops too numerous to be housed in London area barracks, which was a disappointment to Brixton MP Marcus Lipton. He said, "I had been hoping that children from the provinces would be allowed to see the Coronation Procession from the Embankment and be housed at Clapham one or two nights. As it is, only London children over 10 years of age will be allocated seats on the extended route of the procession along the Embankment?”

The mystery surrounding the shelters was reinforced by a brief incident involving the renegade ‘spy catcher’, Peter Wright, at one time assistant director of the government security department MI5, who made use of shelter facilities on an unspecified occasion some time after 1958.

He was using a technique code named RAFTER to try to track down Soviet ‘illegals’ (covert intelligence agents) operating in London. These spies received their
instructions by radio from the USSR and by tracing emissions from the local oscillator in their radio receivers, MI5 was able to home in on the spies’ whereabouts. Wright related the tale in his autobiography Spycatcher.

‘We drove our radio-transparent RAFTER van over to Clapham, and made a base in the walled forecourt of the old air raid shelter that ran under the south side of Clapham Common. We took power from inside the shelter and rigged up an aerial, which I estimated would give us a range of about half a mile. I sat with Tony Sale in the cold, poorly ventilated van, watching, waiting, listening.
We tuned our first receiver to GRUFF (the Russian transmission) and searched the nearby frequencies with our other receiver to see if we could detect any oscillator. In the second week we got a ‘hit’, a strange owl-like hoot, modulated with the Morse from Moscow. Someone was listening to the GRUFF broadcast within half a mile of us. Tony Sale looked across at me, momentarily, the scent of prey in his nostrils. We drove and travelled in every direction. Slowly the awful truth dawned on me. GRUFF must have been right on top of us, listening within yards of the air raid shelter. We drove back to our base and searched the area. Behind a high brick wall at the back of us was a large wasteland car park. GRUFF must have been parked there in a car, or perhaps a van like ours.’

The south entrance in June 1956, the wooden sign on the building says 'London County Council Clapham South shelter'.

The ‘wasteland car park’, entered from Malwood Road, belonged in fact to the Odeon cinema in Balham Hill and the ‘forecourt’ was in fact the works compound next door to Clapham South shelter Clapham South was the only shelter with an enclosed yard and served as the administrative headquarters for the entire eight shelter system. The gate into the compound from Balham Hill was immediately north of the shafthead structure of the south entrance, with an6ft high wall surrounding the site on all sides. This is where Wright parked his car while searching for his suspect, who was parked and transmitting in the Odeon cinema car park. The building in between is a temporary structure from World War II then used by a machine tool company. During the blitz of 1940-41, bombs damaged the cinema badly and destroyed the houses that had previously occupied the site. This is why a vacant site was available for the entrance and administrative compound.

During the mid 1950s the Home Office was trying to play down the strategic reasons for retaining the shelters as a last bastion for citizens caught up in a Cold War nuclear holocaust. Reporters with long memories also made the connection with the wartime plans for using deep shelters for post-war railways. The Daily Telegraph did exactly this on 24th May 1956, pointing out that eight shelters were built by London Transport under emergency powers in the early part of the war. They were designed as air-raid shelters but were all situated near to Underground stations, from which access was provided. Another reason for building them was that they could be incorporated in any new fast track it might be decided to build in future.

Many of the original bunks are still in place, making ideal shelves for archive boxes in recent years. The original cross bunks are seen on the right (and in several of the pictures above) while the blue units on the left are more recent and replaced the longitudinal bunks.
Photo by Nick Catford

London Transport was given an option to buy the tunnels but did not make specific plans to use them for either express service or for normal Underground trains. A London Transport official said: "They were not built with the clear idea of using them for an Underground track and we have not prepared any definite plans for using them" The final renunciation came in 1960, some eight years after the Executive’s decision of 1952 not to exercise a purchase option of the north London shelters, when a Mrs Norman Bentwich wrote to The Times on 29th ]uly. Obviously remembering the publicity that had surrounded their construction, Mrs Bentwich asked what had happened to the wartime ‘stations’. It fell to Anthony Bull, CBE, then vice-chairman of London Transport to respond and in his reply he stated that the ‘stations’ had been built on the instructions of the Government at public expense as deep air raid shelters and had never been the property of London Transport.

Although they had been constructed to act as part of a deep level express tube, they could form only a small fraction of the total length of a new line. Subsequent studies indicated that greater benefit would be secured by building new lines on entirely new alignments, such as the Victoria Line and the Fleet Line serving areas without Underground lines as well as relieving existing lines, rather than duplicating an existing line by an express line that would be of real value only during peak hours.

A campaign in the early 1960s to find new uses for the deep shelters achieved little. In March 1962 the London County Council scotched rumours that the shelter at Clapham South would be opened to house London’s 3.400 homeless people. "The plan was considered some months ago when the number of homeless rose sharply but there was never any firm suggestion that it should be used in this way," declared an LCC official.

Nothing happened in fact until the government finally changed its policy on deep shelters in 1975. By this time most of the deep shelters were used for secure archiving. A long period of inactivity (care and maintenance) ended in a change of policy in 1975.This saw the government endeavouring to recoup some of its investment by leasing all the shelters (except Kingsway, which was then still actively in use as a telephone exchange) to commercial tenants. The Property Services Agency placed advertisements in London and national papers worded: ‘Former Tube Shelters in Central London to be Let’. Leases on the seven shelters, each having a floor space of 94,000 sq feet (8,900 sq metres), and ‘the highest security’ were offered for ‘commercial or other uses’. Duncan Campbell (in War Plan UK) notes that a clause in the proposed lease reserved the government’s right to resume occupation if the need arose.

Photo:Throughout the shelter much of the WW2 signage is still in place.
Photo by Nick Catford

A permanent tenancy came in 1977 when the data storage company Security Archives Ltd (founded in 1976 and renamed Recall Total Information Management in 1999), took possession of the deep shelter at Belsize Park, later leasing also Camden Town and Goodge Street (in 1986). In the mid-1980s Security Archives also took on the two shelters at Clapham South and Stockwell.

By this time the seven deep shelters were managed by Property Advisers to the Civil Estate, PACE. By 1998 PACE were in the process of disposing of all seven shelters.  They were offered for sale and were all purchased by London Transport "to assist with the upgrading of the Northern Line".

An informed interpretation of this rather ambiguous statement is that it refers to minor building works at stations involving electrical improvements and staff accommodation. Where needed, these could be provided in the former shelters, avoiding the need for new tunnelling. In addition, London Transport now benefits from any rental income provided by companies using the shelters for archive storage.

In the mid 2000s London Transport decided to sell the surface compound at Clapham South which had once housed the administrative offices for all the shelters and the ticket printing works. The Grade II listed circular entrance building although within the compound was not part of the sale and would have to be retained as part of any future redevelopment of the site. Recall Total Information Management, who still occupied the shelter were given an option to buy the land but turned it down so their lease was not renewed.

The south entrance in January 2012 during redevelopment of the site.
Photo by Nick Catford

The land was put on the open market but remained unsold for a number of years until it was finally sold in 2010. Planning permission was granted on 25 January 2011 for the construction of an eight storey building at the front of the site straddling the listed entrance building, and a four-storey building at the rear, both with roof terraces, providing total of 62 residential units; with alterations to the listed building. The planning permission allowed for the demolition of the other surface buildings. At the time of writing the new residential blocks are under construction.

In 2011 the north entrance building, on the corner of the common opposite Clapham South station was stripped back to bare concrete as part of an ongoing scheme by Lambeth Council to manage and improve the common. This will include an interpretation panel close to the north entrance.

When visited in November 2008 by members of Subterranea Britannica in November 2008 the power had been disconnected and the lifts were no longer functioning. All the tunnels were found to be clean and dry. Many of the cross bunks was still in situ having been adapted as shelving by Security Archives. All the longitudinal bunks had been removed and replaced Dexion style metal shelving which was still in place. The shelter is below the platforms of Clapham South station and the physical connection between the two has been blocked at the top of the stairs.

The two plant rooms adjacent to the lifts still contained the original switch gear and electrical plant (including mercury vapour rectifiers) and ventilation plant, It is assumed this was still in working order prior to the power being disconnected.

Many of the original shelter signs are still in place throughout the tunnels, some are still mounted on the walls and bed frames while others are lying on the floor.

Much of the text is taken (with permission) from London's Secret Tubes by Andrew Emmerson & Tony Beard. Published by Capital Transport 2004 ISBN 185414 283 6
Other web sites: The Clapham Society

Looking into one of the two plant rooms near the bottom of the south lift shaft. A mercury vapour rectifier can be seen in the metal cabinet against the far wall on the right. In the foreground the exhaust fan sits at the bottom of the ventilation shaft.
Photo by Nick Catford

For further pictures of the Clapham South shelter click here

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Last updated: Friday, 13-Jan-2012 17:46:15 GMT
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