diamond geezer

 Monday, January 15, 2007

Random borough (12): Lambeth (part 2)

Somewhere historic: the Northern Line deep level shelters
In 1940, at the height of the Blitz, wartime authorities urgently needed somewhere below ground capable of protecting thousands of London's civilians. They decided, in their infinite wisdom, to build several deep level shelters in tunnels alongside existing tube stations. Eight such shelters were completed, four of them on the Northern line between Stockwell and Clapham South. And one of these shelters changed the face of South London forever, in a way which nobody could have anticipated at the time.

Deep level shelter factfile:
» Access was via a spiral staircase or lift from a 'pill-box' structure on the surface.
» Each shelter consisted of two parallel cylindrical chambers, half a kilometre long and 5m in diameter.
» Each tube was subdivided into a top deck and a lower deck so that 8000 bunks could be crammed in.
» The shelters were completed in 1942, but weren't used by civilians until 1944 when V1 and V2 bombs started landing.
» It was originally planned to link the shelters together after the war as part of a parallel 'express' Northern line, but this never came to pass.
» More detailed information about London's deep level shelters here and here.


I went in search of the four Lambeth shelters, attempting to spot the entrance to each on the surface:

Stockwell [photo] [map]: You can't miss the Stockwell shelter. It's slap bang in the middle of a triangular roundabout, at the heart of the neighbourhood, on a grassy patch of land beside a squat clock tower. And it has the most marvellous mural illustrated across it, of the type that local taggers dare not daub over. This was originally painted to commemorate Violette Szabo, a WW2 special agent who met her end in a German concentration camp. The mural also includes several images from local history and a field of 600 red poppies (which, from the wreaths I saw lying beneath it, is now used for Remembrance in preference to the War Memorial alongside). You can read more about the images painted on the shelter here, at onionbagblog. Just across the road, on the pavement outside Stockwell tube station, is another memorial to a foreign national killed by the authorities - Jean Charles de Menezes (1978-2005). His memorial is more of a makeshift shrine, pinned with plaintive messages of anger and despair, and with a candle burning at its sorrowful heart [photo]. Few locations in London are quite so inextricably linked to war and loss as central Stockwell, so maybe its just as well that the giant bomb shelter is hidden away deep out of sight.

Clapham North [photo] [map]: Further down the Clapham Road, fenced off beneath some very ordinary flats, is the entrance to the Clapham North shelter. This shelter was recently offered for let, providing as it does 60000 square feet of underground storage accommodation. Expect it to be full of archived paperwork before the year is out. You can read an extremely detailed account of a recent trip (178 steps down) into the bowels of this most unusual warehouse-to-be here.

Clapham Common [photo] [map]: This station is accessed via a characteristic domed entrance in the middle of Clapham High Street, but that's not the way into the shelter. Instead the access point for the Clapham Common shelter is on a grim street corner opposite, hidden behind tall advertising hoardings. I'm sure that the Sainsbury's superstore nextdoor would have knocked it down had they been allowed, probably to create an extended deli counter or something, but I'm glad they weren't.

Clapham South [photo] [map]: And finally to the shelter that changed history. The entrance to the Clapham South shelter sits at the southern tip of Clapham Common, looking for all the world like a block of lavatories beside the road. But no, this was once the well-ventilated entrance to a place of safety for local residents. After the war the shelter lay empty, that is until 1948 when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury carrying the first black Commonwealth settlers from Jamaica. As a short-term measure, an anonymous Colonial Office official chose to house 230 of these immigrant workers in the Clapham South deep level shelter. From here the nearest labour exchange was in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, so it was in the Brixton area that they finally settled. When thousands of other West Indians followed over the next few years they naturally gravitated towards the same neighbourhood, and so South London's Caribbean community was created. It could so easily have been seeded in Chelsea or Hampstead or almost anywhere else in the capital instead, but no - thanks to a snap decision and a barely-used underground bunker, Lambeth is where it's at.
by tube: Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common, Clapham South


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