We explore the history of a bomb shelter right beneath Clapham Common, why it’s there and how it came to be.
What if we told you that there’s a massive set of tunnels right beneath Clapham Common? We bet your response wouldn’t be ‘well duh’, not unless you think we’re talking about the Underground that is.
We’re not. We’re talking about Clapham’s Deep-Level Shelter, a WWII-era bomb shelter that’s open for a look around. Oh, and we should mention, the story behind it is fascinating.
Why Visit Clapham South’s Deep Level Shelter?
There are truly not many places like this that you can visit around London. The shelter is at once a fascinating place to explore and a window into history.
Touring its eerie corridors you’ll spot glimmers of the people that once came down here to keep safe, be it in doodles on the walls or things they left behind.
The experience illustrates what they went through in a very visceral way, which combined with the strangeness of walking a bomb shelter you probably never knew was right beneath your feet, makes for quite an experience.
The History of Clapham South’s Deep Level Shelter
London, in the 1940s, was a very dangerous place to live. Every night when they went to sleep Londoners would wonder if that was the night a German bomb would come careening through their roof.
In spite of the fact that the Blitz was in full swing, there was still very little in the way of dedicated bomb shelters for the public. People would often gather in Tube stations – a logical way to solve the problem – but the government weren’t too keen on this. On several occasions, direct hits in these impromptu shelters would kill scores of hiding civilians.
It was decided that deep-level shelters were needed.
A plan was laid out to build ten shelters that would hold 10,000 people each. In a moment of solid foresight, they would be situated along the Northern and Central tube lines so that they could be turned into a fast train service once the war was over.
By the time the shelters were complete in 1942, The Battle of Britain was won and the Blitz, over. Instead of letting the shelters go to waste, many were used by the government as military communication centres until…
In 1944-45 Hitler, not content with the destruction he’d already brought to bear on Europe developed the V1 and 2 rocket systems and started launching them at London. Once again the people needed a place to stay when the bombs started landing, and so the deep-level shelters were opened up to the public.
Guests of the shelter were allocated beds by ticket and had to bring their own bedding with them but authorities did their best to keep spirits up. Music was played over the loud speakers and dancing was actively encouraged to build a bit of community spirit in the tunnels.
Thanks to the help of the shelters, the public weathered the storm of WWII and many lives were saved. However, due to the country being on its knees and all after six years of war, the plan to build that fancy high-speed rail link was scrapped. Instead, the Shelter at Clapham South found some unlikely uses in the post-war world.
The first of those came in 1948 when the Empire Windrush docked in London bringing with it the Caribbean migrants that came to help rebuild the wartorn country. Some of these people didn’t have homes to go to. Those who didn’t, stayed in Clapham South’s shelter until the government found them housing – a process that took no more than a month.
The Clapham Shelter was used as temporary accommodation again in 1951 as space for visitors to the Festival of Britain to stay in. They even rebranded it ‘Festival Hotel’ – a far cry from the shelter’s grim origins.
The Shelter in the Present Day
Today the shelter is open to the public through the London Transport Museum who organises tours. These are a fantastic way to explore the subterranean world of the deep-level shelter.
The other deep-level shelters around London, bar one, are also owned by the Transport Museum and some are even used to store their archives. Funnily enough, the Clapham location is home to a hydroponic farm.
Clapham South’s Deep Level Shelter: Practical Information
Address: Clapham South Underground station, SW12 9DU
Opening Times: The tunnel is only open to the public through tours. They run at 5pm and 7pm on weekdays and 11am, 12:55pm 3:35pm and 5:30pm on weekends.
Clapham South Deep Shelter: Map
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