Less central than the tube stations but more spacious, Chislehurst Caves became one of the best known of all Second World War public air raid shelters, both due to their enormous size (they contain an estimated 35km of tunnels) and also their relative accessibility from the centre of London.
“Caves” though, is a misnomer as they were originally chalk and flint mines, worked from at least the 13th century. Extraction ended in the early 19th century and then they were largely abandoned, though over the next century or so they saw periods of use as a tourist attraction, a First World War ammunition store, and in the 1930s even had a spell as a mushroom farm.
It was the would-be mushroom farmers who organised the caves as an air raid shelter on a voluntary basis, and from September 1940 onwards there was a nightly population of around 5,000 people. A remarkable system of self-organisation developed with every fifty or so shelterers electing shelter captains to see that shelter rules and codes of conduct were followed. The shelter captains organised money collections to pay for the emptying out of chemical toilet buckets by a sanitation squad who in turn were paid the princely sum of 1⁄6 (one shilling and sixpence) per hour and were on more or less permanent duty, occasionally assisted by small ponies.
There was a canteen for which the Rector of the local parish church sought volunteers in October 1940 declaring that, “The migration to the Caves has brought to our doors a splendid chance of service… Helpers are wanted in the kitchen at the Rest House from 10 to 2 each day, where we serve anything from 80 to 200 hot dinners… Helpers are wanted for the canteen, where about 1,000 cups of tea are made each night.”. The greatest concern of the police in October 1940 though was the clandestine distribution of communist literature.
During the heaviest raids of the Blitz there were reports which estimated a peak population of 15,000 souls, principally women and children, and described the caves functioning like an underground city. Special trains were laid on to carry families to the shelter from central London, and stations would at times have to post “Caves Full” signs outside to deter latecomers. On arrival at the caves entrance, prospective shelterers would be greeted by a board listing shelter rules and displaying the nightly charge of 1d per adult, which helped to pay for the improved facilities. They would then be given a pitch as though they were renting space at a market, and would have to clean it and not abandon it for four consecutive days.
Conditions were amongst the best available and earned it the nickname “The Chislehurst Hotel”. The caves were reasonably dry and relatively untroubled by stray bombs. Facilities eventually included toilets, washrooms, a hospital with seven wards (two of them isolation wards), chapel and canteens. Its size also allowed quite unusual facilities to exist, such as a barber shop, a gym and a dance floor. New tunnel exits were dug and a shaft sunk to provide more ventilation which was circulated by large fans.
Even so a Medical Officer’s report in 1944 referred to the deaths of three babies from gastro-enteritis and suggested a range of options including temporary closure until improvements could be made. His report estimated the shelter population to be between eight and fourteen thousand, over a half from London and the remainder from Kent. Other fatalities included a boy scratched climbing a tree outside the shelter who contracted tetanus, and two years later in 1944 a girl buried by sand while digging a cave outside the shelter, both revealing how families and particularly children may have lingered outside shelter entrances during quiet periods.
After the war the site was opened as a tourist attraction and in the 1960s it also enjoyed a period as a music venue, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and David Bowie all performing there
For opening times refer to the operator’s website at Chislehurst Caves.