Since moving to London six months ago, I’ve become interested in the process of engaging with the city as a historical entity: recognising that the urban space which we inhabit today is built on the foundations of thousands of years of history, and trying to search for these traces of the past in the present.
As part of exploring one instance of this link between past and present, I visited the entrances of each seven deep level air-raid shelters which were built during the Second World War, and photographed them as they exist today.
During The Blitz, the British government commissioned a series of deep level air-raid shelters to be built beneath London. These shelters were connected to existing underground stations, with the understanding that when the war was over they would be modified and incorporated into the existing tube network.
Each shelter consisted of two parallel tunnels 5m in diameter and 370m long, with two entrances above ground built in the distinctive ‘pillbox’ style. Initially, a single deep level shelter was expected to house 12,000 people each, but this was subsequently revised to 8000.
The original plan called for ten shelters to be built. However, midway through the construction process, a review commission decided that this would be too expensive. The committee ordered that those already under construction should be finished, but that no new shelters should be built after that. Ultimately, eight out of the proposed ten were constructed.
Construction on the last shelter was completed in 1942. However, it wasn’t until 1944, when the V1 and V2 rocket bombs began to fall on London, that the shelters were finally opened to the public. Three shelters, including Clapham Common, were never opened to the general population and remained in government use for the duration of the war.
After the war, the Clapham South shelter was temporarily used to house the first Jamaican workers to come to the UK on the Windrush. Subsequently, the workers found jobs and housing around this area, and it is for this entirely arbitrary reason that the area around Stockwell and Brixton came to be the heart of the Caribbean community in the UK.
Today, many of the shelters, such as the Goodge Street shelter above, are owned by Recall and used for the purposes of archive storage. During the war, this shelter was given to General Eisenhower for use as his headquarters in London, and still retains the name ‘The Eisenhower Centre.’
The Stockwell Shelter pays the most obvious tribute to its original purpose. It has been reimagined as a war memorial, and is decorated with murals paying tribute to the dead and celebrating peace. The writing visible here reads: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’ ■
This article was initially published by the Urban Times on 5th March, 2012.
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