School air raid shelters are currently going through a period of renewed interest after decades of neglect. The emphasis on modern history in the key stage 2 curriculum has led to many schools revisiting the dank wartime shelters in their grounds. Many survived the immediate post-war period and subsequent development pressures by either being out of the way, or too much trouble to demolish, or occasionally even being seen as useful for groundkeepers’ storage. Small, wholly above ground air raid shelters have occasionally been converted to classrooms, although the costs of new openings in concrete walls can be an uncomfortable surprise to the unwary Governing body or Contractor.
The 50th anniversary of the war in the 1990s was an impetus for a few schools around the country to dust down their shelters and open them up for visits by their own and other school pupils. Schools in Ipswich, Southborough and Limpsfield are among those with regularly visited air raid shelters on Heritage Open Days and by arrangement at other times.
Whitehawk Primary School in Brighton is a good example. Like many school shelters it is built in the cut-and-cover method, relatively quick and cheap to throw up while offering some blast protection.
The perimeter walls are built of stretcher bond brickwork and the flat ceilings in-situ concrete, the clean board marks suggesting an early phase of the war when timber was not rationed. Steelwork angles are irregularly fixed internally with the intention of giving extra resistance to roof collapse, something usually carried out once the Blitz was underway when it was found that there was a distressing tendency for ground shocks to flex the walls and throw up the roof which would subsequently collapse.
Oral history records confirm that a large part of the construction works, most likely the initial excavation and final earth covering over works, were carried out by local volunteers, almost certainly the parents of the schoolchildren who would be sheltered. They had it ready for use in January 1940, and it was then used almost exclusively for children during school hours, only once sheltering mothers who were collecting their offspring.
The shelter is parallel with the school to allow rapid filling via its seven original entrances (only two of which survive today). Once inside there are two interconnected parallel tunnels, and a couple of vertical escape shafts should the school-facing entrances be blocked. Earth from the excavation is piled over the top, enough to soften the impact of debris from nearly explosions and render it splinter-proof although not bomb-proof.
For four decades it was unused and locked up until in the mid 1980’s when the school authorities found that children had been regularly getting into it. More drastic blocking up was carried out, and so it remained until just after the millennium when it was opened up for storage. It proved to be too damp for that but the opportunity to turn it into a museum that would tie into the school curriculum was taken up by volunteers. The entrances were reopened, new lighting was installed and benches were rebuilt to match the one surviving section from the 1940s. Now the shelter hosts visits from other schools as well as opening as a feature attraction of the Brighton Festival.
Water ingress only occurs after prolonged rain (like many shelters there was either no damp proof membrane or it has since perished), and is then caught by appropriate exhibits, such as a tin bath or a fire bucket, however condensation requires sensitive exhibits to be decanted after each opening.