Underground Stations

People in London also used tube stations during the Blitz. People would buy platform tickets for a penny halfpenny and camped on the platforms for the night. They were popular because they were dry, warm and quiet. The government, fearing that the overcrowded platforms would hamper troop movements, attempted to stop the public from using the tube stations as shelters. The people refused to give them up and the government was forced to back down. In some cases underground stations were closed down and given over to the public to use during air raids.

The tube stations were not as safe as people thought. High explosive bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe could penetrate up to fifty feet through solid ground. On 17th September 1940, a bomb killed twenty people sheltering in Marble Arch station. The worst incident took place at Balham in October 1940 when 600 people were killed or injured. The following year 111 people were killed while sheltering at the Bank underground station. One night 178 people suffocated at Bethnal Green station after a panic stampede.

A census held in November 1940 discovered that the majority of people in London did not use specially created shelters. The survey revealed that of those interviewed, 27 per cent used domestic shelters like Anderson Shelters and Morrison Shelters, 9 per cent slept in public shelters whereas 4 per cent used underground railway stations (4 per cent). The rest of those interviewed were either on duty at night or slept in their own homes.

Elephant and Castle Underground Station (1940)
Elephant and Castle Underground Station (1940)

Primary Sources

(1) Barbara Castle, Fighting All The Way (1993)

What we also lacked was an adequate shelter policy, and I had been agitating together with our left-wing group on the Council for the deep shelters which Professor J. B. S. Haldane had been advocating. Haldane, a communist sympathizer and eminent scientist, had studied at first hand the effects of air raids on the civilian population during the Spanish Civil War and had reached conclusions on the best way to protect them, which he had embodied in a book ARP published in 1938. In it he argued that high explosive, not gas, would be the main threat. He pointed out that modern high explosives often had a delayed-action fuse and might penetrate several floors of a building before bursting and that therefore basements could be the worst place to shelter in. He stressed the deep psychological need of humans caught in bombardment to go underground and urged the building of a network of deep tunnels under London to meet this need and give real protection.

The government did not want to know. In 1939 Sir John Anderson, dismissing deep shelters as impractical, insisted that blast- and splinter-proof protection was all that was needed and promised a vast extension of the steel shelters which took his name. These consisted of enlarged holes in the ground covered by a vault of thin steel. They had, of course, no lighting, no heating and no lavatories. People had to survive a winter night's bombardment in them as best they could. In fact, when the Blitz came, the people of London created their own deep shelters: the London Underground. Night after night, just before the sirens sounded, thousands trooped down in orderly fashion into the nearest Underground station, taking their bedding with them, flasks of hot tea, snacks, radios, packs of cards and magazines. People soon got their regular places and set up little troglodyte communities where they could relax. I joined them one night to see what it was like. It was not a way of life I wanted for myself but I could see what an important safety-valve it was. Without it, London life could not have carried on in the way it did

(2) Evelyn Rose, who was a child during the Second World War, was interviewed about her experiences of the Blitz in 1987.

If you were out and a bombing raid took place you would make for the nearest shelter. The tube stations were considered to be very safe. I did not like using them myself. The stench was unbearable. The smell was so bad I don’t know how people did not die from suffocation. So many bodies and no fresh air coming in. People would go to the tube stations long before it got dark because they wanted to make sure that they reserved their space. There were a lot of arguments amongst people over that.

We did not have an Anderson shelter so we used to hide under the stairs. You felt the next bang would be your lot and it was very frightening. My grandmother was a very religious person and when she was with us during the bombing raids she would gabble away saying her prayers. Strangely enough, when I was with her, I always felt safe.

(3) Constance Holt was editor of Woman's Own during the Blitz. After the war she was interviewed by Jonathan Croall for his book Don't You Know There's A War On? (1989)

Most of the tube stations were taken over as shelters, as there weren't enough big public shelters that people could get to. Russell Square Station was one of these. I remember on several occasions coming back from the theatre by tube, and when I got out at Russell Square they had put bunks all along the platform, and you'd see "women putting on their face- cream, doing up their curlers and getting right for the night. Of course you'd politely not stare at them because they were in their bedrooms. I remember there was a little bit of snobbery about stations. I heard one woman say, 'Oh, us and our family go to Regent's Park now, it's nicer people.' And the children used to go for rides on the tube. At least their mothers knew where they were, and it was much safer than the street.

(4) Government circular, Underground stations must not be used as air raid shelters (1940)

The public are informed that in order to operate the Railways for essential movement, Underground Stations cannot be used as air raid shelters. In any event a number of stations would have to be cleared for safety in certain contingencies.

(5) Mary Davies worked as a civil servant in London during the Second World War.

It was quite a nightmare going into the underground in London. I found it very claustrophobic. I didn't shelter there, I just travelled on the trains. But people came down quite early in the evening and stretched themselves out on the platforms. Bunk beds were put up for them after a while. I remember feeling that I'd rather be in a house, however dangerous. There were accidents, though of course they didn't tell you about them at the time. But some people enjoyed it down there - they would have dancing on the platforms.

(6) Tom Hopkinson, Of This Our Time (1982)

At Lancaster Gate station I would step out on to a platform which seemed at first sight to be piled up with corpses from some terrible catastrophe. Sleepers of all ages and both sexes lay half-clothed, with arms flung out in every attitude of abandon, leaving a path only a yard wide along the platform's edge. Here and there among the sleepers were a few still sitting up, two women with a thermos flask of tea, a young man trying to read by the light of an electric torch. A child stretched its leg over the path and had to be stepped over carefully. The heat was terrific and the smell appalling, but since it was a daily occurrence one came by degrees to expect it and brace oneself automatically as one stepped onto the platform. No lifts ran at night so there was a long climb up the winding steps, at the top of which was the welcome coldness of the night. There was no light in the streets - once when there was fog I became totally lost on a quarter-mile journey which I made twice every day - but tonight the sky was full of light, an enormous tent of wavering searchlight beams all focused on one spot in the tent roof where two or three silver flies were turning and twisting in the effort to escape. Anti-aircraft guns sounded continuously, but the shell-bursts all fell far short of their targets.

The popular move into the tubes had at first been spontaneous and unorganized, and there was much discussion by authority as to whether they would allow it to go on or not. Wisely, since it would have gone on in any case, they decided to provide a modicum of comfort and some primitive sanitation. Bunks with wire mattresses were fitted one above the other; regular occupants would leave possessions, such as a rug or coat, to mark their ownership and these would remain all day untouched. Some old people carried their treasured possessions down with them to their bunks for safety night after night, and I would occasionally give a hand to an old lady with a bursting suitcase in one hand and a bundle which appeared to contain all her cooking pots, china ornaments, and her tea service in the other.

(7) Angus Calder, The People's War (1969)

"For the first time in many hundreds of years," Mass Observation pointed out, "civilized families conducted the whole of their leisure and domestic lives in full view of each other. Most of these people were not merely sheltering in the Tubes; they were living there."

Queues began to form outside the stations as early as six in the morning. Children or servicemen on leave would be sent to establish priority for their families - 'The constant worry', writes Bernard Kops, 'was whether we would find a space for that night. We lived only for four o'clock when they let us down.' Spivs joined in, to reserve places on the platform for which they would charge half a crown or more when the raid 'hotted up'. Rain, wind, and even daylight bombing did not shift the queues.

Two white lines had been painted on the platforms. Until seven thirty in the evening, shelterers must keep within the one drawn eight feet from the edge, leaving the rest for passengers. From eight until ten thirty, they might encroach as far as the second line four feet from the edge. Then the Tubes stopped running; the light was dimmed; the current was cut off in the rail. People would sling hammocks over the rails, and would walk a little way down the dark tunnel to relieve themselves. In the early days, the platforms were packed tight, and people slept on the escalators or even on the bannisters between them. The snoring rose and fell like a loud wind.