Site Records

Site Name: Tonbridge - Slade School Air Raid Shelter

The Slade
OS Grid Ref: TQ588467

Sub Brit site 21st January 2007

[Source: Nick Catford]

With the approach of war with Germany the threat of an air attack on British cities by the German Luftwaffe was quickly recognised, to counter the effect of this, a mass evacuation scheme was put in place in 1938 and activated once Britain declared war on in September 1939.

Photo:Slade Primary School
Photo by Keith Ward

This scheme involved relocating up to 1.5 million people from cities to the relative safety of small towns and villages well away from the main target areas; among those evacuated were school children and their teachers. Once the children had been dispersed across the country, inner city school buildings were then available for other uses as part of the war effort with approximately 66% of schools being allocated for civil defence purposes.

Following this mass evacuation, the expected immediate air attacks didn't take place and we entered a period of 'phony war'. After several months without the expected bombing raids people began to wonder if the evacuation had been unnecessary. The government warned families that it was still unsafe for the children to return home but before long many families started to bring their children back to the cities once they heard that not all the children has been well received and well treated in their new homes. By January 1940 nearly half of the school children that had been evacuated had returned home.

Within months of returning from the country, the German heavy bombing offense began in earnest during the summer of 1940.

Having come back to the towns and cities the evacuees had no schools to go to as the buildings had been put to other uses. With children roaming the streets, hooliganism and vandalism was rife. As well as losing their education, children from the poorer families also lost their free milk and school dinners. Medical inspections in schools also ended with the result of a dramatic increase in the number of children suffering from scabies and head lice.

It was soon apparent to the government that some schools would have to be reopened. Some had reopened as early as November 1939 to accommodate those children that hadn't been evacuated. Schools were only re-opened once adequate air raid shelters had been provided but in many cases these were very basic consisting of little more than reinforced rooms within the school or a basement. The government issued guidelines in 1939 producing the circular 'Air Raid Precautions in Schools.'

A typical school trench shelter under construction
This recommended 'during times of danger children should not be assembled in groups of more than fifty in any one protected room or compartment.'

School children entering a typical trench shelter
It went on to recommend that trench shelters should be constructed away from but within easy reach of school buildings. The board's guidelines recommended that the trenches should have secure roofs giving them 'immunity from splinters, anti-aircraft shell fragments and machine gun fire' but there were no specific guidelines regarding the method of construction or the materials to be used with the trenches being lined with brick, corrugated metal sheeting or concrete.

School children receiving lessons in a trench shelter
It was suggested however that the shelters should have sloping floors with a sump at one end adding that 'provision must be made for pumping or bailing out this sump should it flood. Flooring should be of wooden duckboards or of cinders or ballast. Seating was to be arranged so that children sat along one or both the walls of the shelter on wooden benches, each child allowed 28 inches.

Gangways should be a minimum of 24 inches for a double row of seating and 18 for a single row.

The height of the shelter was to be at least 72 inches. Finally, each shelter was to possess a gas curtain over its entrance making the interiors 'reasonably gas proof'.

While shallow trench shelters would give protection from blast and those built away from the school building would also offer protection if the school building collapsed, they would however offer little or no protection in the event of a 'direct hit'

In Tonbridge, Slade Primary School was considered particularly vulnerable as it was located close to the town centre and was over flown by German bombers en route to London.

The only surviving stairway into one of the shelters at Slade Primary School. Note the sump pump on the right hand wall
Photo by Nick Catford

The school had no playing fields but rather than build less secure surface shelters three large trench shelters were built beneath the playground. Most schools had a number of small trench shelters, each consisting of a single trench about thirty feet in length that could accommodate up to 50 people. A typical example of this kind of shelter can be found at Whitgift School in Croydon where a number of similar shelters are known to have been built in the playing fields surrounding the school.

For further information and pictures of this site click here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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