Black and white shot of a staircase in an underground tunnel

New discoveries at Clapham South’s deep-level shelter

Siddy Holloway, Hidden London Engagement Manager

At the southern end of Clapham Common stands a rather peculiar, circular structure that many Londoners walk past every day without thinking much of. Very few people would know it to be the entrance to a Second World War bomb shelter located beneath the Northern line, but that is precisely what it is.

A circular concrete building in the middle of a green area
The entrance to Clapham South’s subterranean shelter, 2018

Clapham South’s deep-level shelter totals over a mile of tunnels and has had an incredibly varied life: originally opened as a wartime shelter in 1944, it was turned into temporary accommodation for thousands of people coming to Britain to visit or live after the Second World War, and it’s now one of our Hidden London sites.

When the Hidden London team first visited the shelter with the aim of doing tours there, it had recently been an archive and racking was covering the walls of the entire site, stretching for over a mile. We cleared most of the racking and started to run tours in 2015.

A an walks between rows of bunk beds in an underground shelter
Archive racking along the walls of the shelter.

The shelter itself is divided into 16 sub-shelters, all named alphabetically to help those who stayed there to remember where in the colossal structure they were bedding down for the night. Every sub-shelter had been used for archive purposes and the original bunk beds in the shelter were converted to archive racking by raising the top bunks up slightly.

Close-up of the top of a wooden bunk bed
Bunk beds converted into archive racking.

While designing the tours back in 2015, we decided that we would take people into seven of the 16 sub-shelters, so that visitors would get a good sense of the place without having to walk for over a mile. We focused on the selected shelters, clearing them up and getting them back to their authentic state, but that meant that the other nine shelters were left largely untouched, awaiting the day we would have the capacity to explore the shelter further.

A sign with arrows and names of the sub-shelters listed in alphabetical order.
An original wayfinding sign in Clapham South directing visitors to different parts of the shelter. Each sub-shelter was named in alphabetical order.

Over the last two years, we have had the opportunity to start clearing out the remaining racking in the shelter and what we found was astounding: hundreds of different messages written on the walls of the shelter by people who had stayed there between 1944-1953. Everything from names and addresses, to the purpose of their visit, and even a few love letters, were all unveiled when we cleared away the racking.

Graffiti on a wall
The history of the shelter written on its walls.

These messages and notes have helped us fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the people who came to stay in the shelter after the Second World War. We knew the shelter had been used as a hostel for Windrush migrants in 1948 and for visitors of the Festival of Britain in 1951, but discovering these graffiti really highlighted the role that Clapham South had played in London’s history during and after the War.

Due to the devastation of the Second World War, with over a million homes destroyed or damaged, anyone looking for accommodation in the Capital had very few options available, and that’s where Clapham South came to use. The shelter housed thousands of people during the War, but even more after it, providing a haven for those who needed it, whilst the country was being rebuilt.

A concrete staircase leading on to a tunnel
The central staircase in Clapham South c. 1942. Since the 1960 that staircase had been filled with racking for the storage of archival materials.

Although the areas we recently cleared are not accessible to the public just yet, removing the archive racking has also restored the main staircase to its former grandeur, to the delight of visitors of the Hidden London tour of Clapham South: Subterranean shelter.

Visit our website for more information about the tour and to book.

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