Object of the Month – April 2014

April 2014 - We Demand Tunnel Shelters For All banner, 1942

We Demand Tunnel Shelters For AllAt the outbreak of World War II the government actively discouraged public use of London Underground stations for shelter. There was a fear that people would develop ‘deep shelter mentality’ and refuse to leave the stations. But alternative shelter provisions were far from adequate, so when the Blitz hit Britain in the autumn of 1940, residents of London defied official policy and people flooded into London’s underground network. In tandem with this defiance, the Communist Party of Great Britain organised demonstrations to demand ‘Better Tunnel Shelters for All; Against High Explosives & Fire Bombs!’

Underground shelters could be dangerous, evidenced through a number of high profile disasters such as that at Bank, when on 11 January 1941 a bomb landed in the ticket hall killing over 100 people. On top of this conditions were unsanitary and disease was rife. Pressure for deep level shelters persisted and on 3 October 1940 in his new role as Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison complied, ordering construction of ten deep level shelters.

In autumn 1942, eight deep level shelters were finally completed (the other two were scrapped during planning). Located 100 feet below ground, measuring 100 feet in length and 4.9 meters in diameter, they had a capacity for 8,000 people and provided beds, toilets, water and fresh air via ventilation shafts. They also had heavy concrete blockhouses at the top of the staircases to prevent recurrence of disasters like that at Bank.

Why, then, was this banner calling for ‘Better Tunnel Shelters for All’ produced in 1942, the year in which the tunnel shelters reached completion? Despite the demands and their completion, the tunnel shelters were not opened. Believing the worst of the Blitz was over, the government felt it would not be cost effective. Instead, several were re-purposed; as the head quarters for General Eisenhower, as a hostel for American troops and for housing British soldiers and government use. Only with the strike on London by V1 and V2 rockets in June 1944, did five of these eight shelters open.

Post war, the shelters weren’t used to plan either. Initially designed to be merged with the existing underground network, creating an express route across London, this was never born out and other uses were found; Clapham South, for example, provided accommodation for visitors to the Festival of Britain and the 1953 coronation. Today these deep level shelters are mostly in commercial use as data storage facilities.