Underground Stations as Shelters
The government decided that it did not like deep shelters such as tube stations because they feared that once people entered them they would be reluctant to come back above ground and continue normal life. Before the Blitz started, the government ordered London Transport not to allow people to use the tube stations as shelters. Underground station staff found, however, that it was impossible to stop people entering and setting up their own primitive camps below ground. Churchill's private secretary, John Colville, wrote in his diary that although the Prime Minister was happy to use a disused underground station as a refuge himself, he was "thinking on authoritarian lines about shelters and talks about forcibly preventing people from going into the underground." (1)
Barbara Castle, a young Labour Party local councillor in London, supported people who ignored the government ban: "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)
The public ignored government instructions about using the underground as a public shelter. They were dry, warm, well lit and the raids were inaudible. In October, 1940, Herbert Morrison, was appointed as Home Secretary and he changed government policy. A short branch line to Aldwych station was closed and given over to the public. Three disused stations were specially opened to the public. An uncompleted extension running from Liverpool Street under the East End became one vast shelter holding about ten thousand. Some seventy-nine stations in Greater London became shelters, and by the end of September, 1940, around 177,000 people were sleeping in the Underground system. (3)
Evelyn Rose was one of those who used underground stations but did not enjoy the experience: "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." (4)
Large numbers of people sheltering in underground stations caused problems for passengers: "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." (5)
Tube stations were not as safe as people believed. A high explosive bomb could penetrate up to fifty feet through solid ground. When a small bomb scored a direct hit on the Marble Arch subway, filled with shelterers, on 17th September, 1940, its blast ripped the white tiles off the walls as it burst and made them deadly projectiles killing twenty people. On 7th October, seven people were killed and thirty-three at Trafalgar Square station when an explosion caused the concrete and steel casing over an escalator to collapse. The next day nineteen were killed and fifty-two injured at Bounds Green station. (6)
The most destructive incident was on 14th October, at Balham station, when a 1400 kg fragmentation bomb fell on the road above the northern end of the platform tunnels, creating a large crater into which a double decker bus then crashed. The northbound platform tunnel partially collapsed and was filled with earth and water from the fractured water mains and sewers above. Although more than 400 managed to escape, 68 people died in the disaster, including the stationmaster, the ticket-office clerk and two porters. Many drowned as water and sewage from burst mains poured in, soon reaching a depth of three feet. (7)
Despite these tragedies people continued to shelter in underground stations. An account in the South London Press described the scene at the Elephant and Castle tube station: "From the platforms to the entrance to the platform was one incumbent mass of humanity.... it took me a quarter of an hour to get from the station entrance to the platform. Even in the darkened booking hall I stumbled over huddled bodies, bodies that were no safer from bombs than if they had lain in the gutters of the silent streets outside. Going down the stairs I saw mothers feeding infants at the breast. Little girls and boys lay across their parents' bodies because there was no room on the winding stairs. Hundreds of men and women were partially undressed, while small boys and girls slumbered in the foetid atmosphere absolutely naked... On the platform, when a train came in, it had to be stopped in a tunnel while police and porters went along pushing in the feet and arms which overhung the line. The sleepers hardly stirred as the train rumbled slowly in." (8)
Queues started to form outside tube stations as early as ten in the morning - only a couple of hours after people had left the underground. There was a thriving black market trade in pitches selling for as much as 2s 6d. The only solution was some form of ticketing. Printed reservation tickets were issued by shelter marshals and wardens appointed by the various local authorities in whose borough the tube stations were located, though roughly 10 per cent of the accommodation was unallocated so people who found themselves in the area in the event of a raid could use it. (9)
Bernard Kops, aged 14 at the time, spent a large amount of time in underground stations in 1940. "We were underground people... The soldiers forced us to get into trains, to go further up the line. Liverpool Street was the closest geographically and umbilically, was the most popular. So we were forced to move on and we tried the next station along the Central Line, and then the next and the next... I would scoot out of the train ahead of the family and under the legs of people... and I bagged any space I could along the platform. The family followed and we pitched our tent, then we unravelled and unwound and relaxed.... Here we were back on the trot wandering again, involved in a new exodus - the Jews of the East End, who had left their homes and gone into the exile of the underground." (10)
In early 1941 local councils were authorised to provide waterborne sanitation in large shelters, including chemical toilets. Changes were made to those underground stations that were closed to trains. The walls were whitewashed, the lighting improved, the track was boarded over and 200 three-tier bunks were installed, improved lavatory facilities replaced the original buckets, and a system of tickets was introduced to provide a bunk or reserved floor space for regular shelterers. Westminster Library donated 2,000 books and educational lectures were arranged to take place on the underground platforms. (11)
Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) gave a series of concerts throughout the winter; there were film shows and Shakespearean plays. The London County Council ran classes on a wide variety of different subjects. People also organised their own entertainment including quizzes and sing-songs. One night the people sheltering at Marble Arch tube station were treated to an impromptu concert by Glenn Miller and his band, who had been practising in a nearby theatre when the air raid siren was sounded. (12)
(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.