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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.