Hidden London: The Cavernous Shelter Beneath Clapham

By M@ Last edited 26 months ago

Last Updated 10 March 2022

Hidden London: The Cavernous Shelter Beneath Clapham

Tours have now begun of Clapham South deep level shelter, a half-forgotten subterranean relic of the second world war. Here's what to expect.

Ever noticed these drum-shaped structures around town? You'll find them at various points along the Northern line — Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Stockwell and three pairs in Clapham. The two shown below are either side of Clapham South station. One lurks on the Common while the other, recently tiled, skulks beneath a modern housing block.

The drums lead down into a series of tunnels, dug as shelters during the second world war. The intention was to extend them after the war and build a high-speed version of the Northern line. That, alas, never happened. But the shelters still pack plenty of historical interest. The public can now visit via special 'Hidden London' tours organised by Transport for London.

It's a long way down. 180 stairs, we're told. The tunnels of Clapham South are the deepest of the deep-level shelters, and sit beneath the Northern line.

After a brief introduction from the Hidden London tour guide, we get our first bit of theatre. A long, dark tunnel stretches off into the distance, its full extent unclear. Our guide flicks a switch and the lights come on in sequence. It's a huge space, but represents only about a twelfth of the complex. All told, Clapham South contains about a mile of tunnels.

1940s signage still hangs throughout the warren. During the war, those seeking shelter were assigned to a specific section of Clapham South, each of which was named after a famous British admiral.

The signs aren't the only reminder of that terrible decade. Many of the original bunkbeds are still in place. Around 8,000 shelterers could be squeezed into these banks of triple bunks. In the event, the shelter was never filled to anything like capacity. It opened in 1944, long after the end of the main Blitz. Still, it served as a useful respite for families who'd lost their homes and, by all accounts, a buzzing community existed down here. The bunkbeds were kept after the war as shelving for secure document storage.

The shelter is full of other relics from 70 years ago. We're shown the gents' toilet, where the fixtures for urinals are still apparent. One chamber contains the base of a food bar, while behind stands a fuse box marked 'buffet'.

Those who sheltered down here sometimes left their own marks. Several chambers contain graffiti. It's often upside-down, presumably written by someone lying on a bunk bed.

Our tour loops through so many passages and chambers that we're soon completely disorientated. Round another corner, our guide points out an old exit point, which leads up to Clapham South tube station.

After the war, the tunnels continued to offer shelter to those in need. Most famously, many of the passengers from the Empire Windrush — the first post-war ship to bring large groups of immigrants from the West Indies — slept down here in 1948, while seeking accommodation elsewhere. Many eventually settled in nearby Brixton, the site of the nearest labour exchange, thereby beginning the area's association with Caribbean culture.

The tour lasts approximately an hour. It's far more than a poke around some dank, forgotten tunnels. It's also a treat for history buffs, entertainingly delivered. If the 180 steps back to the surface put you off, just remember that those sheltering here in the war had to climb them while encumbered with blankets, mattresses and screaming children.

Hidden London tours of Clapham South are £35 via London Transport Museum. Tickets are also available for tours of Down Street ghost station.

See also: a tour of the neighbouring deep-level tunnels, now used as a subterranean farm.