A most unusual listed building

This morning I visited a most unusual listed building, although ‘building’ is stretching a point. I went to the deep shelter tunnels that lie underneath Clapham South Underground station, one of seven built on the Northern Line during World War Two (there was also one at Chancery Lane on the central line).

You go down 180 steps through an entrance which I at least had walked past a hundred times and ignored.

The two parrallel tunnels were built to the size of train (not tube) tunnels, following an idea for a fast track deep train service developed but not realised by London Underground in the 1930s. In the tunnels, which have been sliced horizontally to provide two levels, you can hear the tube trains passing overhead.

The tunnels were built in response to the Blitz, and there excavation resulted in a spoil heap 6 feet deep covering the adjacent Clapham Common. There were enough bunks to sleep 8,000. By the time the shelters were finished the blitz was over, so the tunnels housed soldiers, until the advent of flying bombs in 1944 made their original purpose necessary.

Those without homes (bombed out) could keep their bedding their permanently; everybody else had to carry theirs down. There were chemical toilets which had to be emptied into a giant hopper when full. The contents of these hoppers were then blown up into the sewers by compressed air. 

There was a canteen serving such unavailable delicacies as cakes and sausage rolls, all off the ration book, a PA system that was used to broadcast dance music as well, and free medical care which was highly valued before the days of the NHS. 

After the war, the shelters served first as a ‘penny hostel’ and then briefly provided homes for the new arrivals from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush. 

Most stayed for around 4 nights, with the longest stay a month. Because these immigrants were looking for work, they went to the nearest labour exchange which was in Brixton, and so many found lodgings there as well – the foundation of the area’s West Indian community.

Later, it became the ‘Festival Hotel’ during the 1951 Festival of Britain, and many residents scrawled their names and origins on the walls – upside down because they were lying in bed.

And later still, the tunnels were used for document storage. This century, the government handed them back to Transport for London. They are grade II listed and so will be preserved.

What a fascinating story beneath our feet.

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