A large communal air raid shelter at East Sheen in South West London is under threat from developers who are hoping to turn it into a pair of underground one bedroom apartments.
St. Leonards Court, a three storey block of flats at the junction of St. Leonard’s Road and Palmers Road, East Sheen, SW14 was built in the mid 1930’s. With the outbreak of war in 1939, a large communal air raid shelter was built for the residents on open ground in front of the flats; it was completed in about 1940.
The shelter is semi-sunken, approximately two-thirds below ground and one-third above ground. The whole was then covered by an earth mound and grassed over making a raised garden in front of St. Leonards Court. The entrance to the shelter is through a small circular brick building with a conical tiled roof, resembling a dovecote, from where steps lead down to the spine corridor running through the centre of the building. Clothes hooks are provided at the bottom of the stairs with more hooks at the far end of the corridor.
The shelter had a theoretical capacity of 70 people, roughly half the number of residents of St. Leonards Court and it’s suggested that there was a week on/week off arrangement. The shelter has four large rooms, two of which are ‘day’ rooms, one for men and one for women, on either side of the spine corridor. The day rooms have wooden benches resting on brick supports along both long walls and at the far end of the room a brick wall with two toilet recesses behind it, each still retaining their Elsan chemical toilets. The words ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ are painted on the white brick walls. Between the two recesses a steel ladder leads up to an emergency escape hatch in the ceiling.
Beyond the day rooms there are two ‘night rooms’, again ladies to the right and gents to the left. The night rooms have been divided into eight bays, four either side of a central corridor. Each bay had three bunks mounted one above the other where wooden planks would have been placed across bricks protruding from the partition walls: a total of 48 bunks in the shelter. Each bunk has a wooden shelf with its own light and light switch and the bunks are all numbered and provided with numbered clothes hooks on the end of the bay walls. At the rear of the night rooms there are two further escape hatches this time accessed by step irons in the end walls. The ceilings in the night rooms are approximately 2 feet higher than the day rooms to accommodate the triple bunks with correspondingly less earth cover above them.
At the end of the main spine corridor a cast iron stove is still in place which would have provided heating for the shelter; electrical switchgear is also located here.
The shelter is clean and dry and in good condition. All the internal walls are white and much of the woodwork, including the benches and shelves, is painted green; all the paintwork is original. At present, the shelter is partly used for storage by the caretaker of St. Leonards Court. It has an electricity supply and all the rooms are lit.
There is a wooden door in the spine corridor between the day rooms and the night rooms and two low recesses in the wall between the spine corridor and the night rooms. At the back of these recesses there is only one course of bricks and it has been suggested that these would have provided another emergency escape route if the door and emergency escape shaft in that room had been blocked during an air attack. It should be possible to ‘kick out’ the single course of bricks to escape from the room.
Nearly all the flats in St. Leonards Court have been sold leasehold and the freeholder now wants to convert the shelter into two underground one bedroom flats, with a sunken patio area for each flat. Although the flats themselves would be underground, the roof would be well above ground and the area fenced and hedged off. The outer walls of the shelter would become the outer walls of the flats. The end result would be the effective destruction of the shelter and also the destruction of the centre of the St Leonards Court front garden.
Residents and neighbours have lodged objections to the proposals on the grounds that they would lose their lawn and rose garden which makes up two-thirds of the area in front of the flats. Perhaps more importantly a valuable local historical asset would also be lost. Although the shelter is not unique it is a very good example of its type, remaining largely unaltered since WW2 and still retaining most of its original features and fittings. A similar shelter exists close to Deanhill on Upper Richmond Road opposite the junction with Clifford Avenue but when last inspected this shelter was flooded to a depth of two feet. The Deanhill shelter is owned by the same freeholder. It is thought that a third similar shelter was built for the Courtlands Estate in Sheen Road but this was destroyed during an air raid in WW2 with considerable loss of life.
The residents believe that the shelter would be better used as an educational resource for school parties to visit as part of the school history curriculum now includes WWII. Three local schools have already expressed interest in using the shelter for educational purposes and two local charities are prepared to contribute to funding towards the renovation of the shelter. A campaign to retain and restore the shelter is supported by many local residents who have raised over 1,000 signatures in a petition to save the shelter. Local councillors and the local MP have also actively supported the campaign and both the local civic society and the local history society have pledged their support. About 100 people have written to the Council to object to the development proposals and the local press, the London Evening Standard and BBC Radio London have also carried stories about the campaign.
The local council refused planning permission for the proposed development and there was a public hearing on 1st May 2008 to hear the appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.