News / City Life

Exclusive: inside Clapham South's secret wartime tunnels

Exclusive: inside Clapham South's secret wartime tunnels

TfL has just announced that the wartime tunnels underneath Clapham South tube station are to be revamped – along with tours the public can attend. So we went in for a look around and took a load of lovely photos. Welcome to the secret world of the old concrete tubes under Clapham Common.

If you've ever bought a pack of Monster Munch in the Clapham South branch of Tesco, you may have spotted this over the road. Looks like a vat made out of concrete, but is in fact the entrance to Clapham South's deep-level air-raid shelter – one of eight, which housed up to 8,000 Londoners within walls capable of withstanding a direct hit from a 500lb bomb.  

Clapham South war tunnels open london secret

 

To get in, you walk past a little ticket booth, where during the war an inspector would've checked your pass (each bed was allocated to a specific person who had a pass entitling them to that specific bunk – if they didn't turn up, it lay empty). Then, it's down a long, winding metal staircase, here captured inexpertly via iPhone (the rest of the photos are better: our photographer took 'em).

Clapham South war tunnels open london secret

 

Then you get to see part of the shelter without any of the beds or other paraphernalia that would've filled it during wartime (those photos come later). It's cavernous (the tunnels are a quarter of a mile long). But it's also pretty obvious when it's empty that it's basically a railway tunnel (the plan was to use them to run some kind of Crossrail of the day after the war, but for some reason it never happened): 

clapham south war tunnel shelter photo

There's loads of knackered signage lying around, too. Naval history buffs may note that all the different segments of the tunnels were named after famous navy commanders. If such people exist:

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

 

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

 

 

Then you step into one of the tunnels that's full of the actual beds that people would've slept in during wartime. The bunkbeds have three levels. In some of the photos you can see the exposed springs, which is how they would've been back in the day (albeit topped by mattresses). But in some they have wooden boards on them – that's because they were turned into bookcases during the '80s when the space started being hired out as a document storage facility.

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

Scott Chasserot

 

 

 

The big difference in wartime would've been that bunks would have run down both sides of the tunnel rather than just the one, like they are now:

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

There were all sorts of facilities. There were medical stations:

Scott Chasserot

 

Somewhere around the front left portion of this photo there would've been a canteen where people could buy snacks throughout the night (but it's since been demolished):

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

There was even a games room. A tiny games room. Which someone at TfL told us was probably only designated as a games room because 'it had a table'. This is it. (We didn't say they were GOOD facilities…)

Scott Chasserot

 

 

 

Looks depressing, right? Actually, reports suggest that that wasn't the case. There were loudspeakers in every corridor, and during the war, there are accounts of how they'd pipe music through them and the tunnels would be full of singing and dancing. You can see the speakers here. You have to imagine the wartime raving, though.

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

After the war, they opened up the tunnels as accomodation. For West Indian immigrants who came in on the Empire Windrush (the proximity of this shelter to the Brixton Work Station – where you'd sign on – is often given as the reason for Brixton's afro-caribbean population). Occasionally for military peeps. Once for people visiting the 1951 Festival of Britain. And also briefly as a youth shelter. There's graffiti scratched into the ceilings above the top bunks that still survives to tell you of the folks who slept there.

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

 

  Scott Chasserot   

Scott Chasserot

 

 

 

 

 

In some cases, you get totally lovely, inspiring messages, such as this one from James Dermott Sullivan. But the one underneath it from the teenager looking for a boy? Yeah, less heart-warming.

 

clapham south air raid shelter war tunnel photo

Scott Chasserot

 

 

Another big source of graffiti comes from the urban explorers who regularly break in (to TfL's annoyance) and then write their name in the dust on old book shelves. We don't really know much about them. But judging by the below writing, we're guessing that Place Hacking are not a popular group:

Scott Chasserot  

 

  

This, by the way is what the tunnels looked like during their usage as archive storage (but minus the TfL dude shining a torch creepily):

 

clapham south air raid shelter tunnels war

Scott Chasserot  

 

The place is powered by a shitload of equipment in the basement (bear with us, this gets interesting). The big tank on the left of the top photo is what stored the place's sewage. A literal shitload of equipment.

Scott Chasserot

 

Scott Chasserot

 

 

 

There's been some damage from a leaky water pipe, so it's not looking at its finest right now (to be kind): 

 

Scott Chasserot

 

 

See this piece of equipment? (This is where it gets interesting). Looks like a dusty lightbulb, doesn't it? It is in fact, a Mercury Arc Rectifier, which converts current from AC to DC (this isn't the interesting bit). When it's in use, it glows purple. And, apparently, back in the '60s this was so mind-bogglingly futuristic a sight that it was basically sci-fi. So sci-fi in fact that it ended up starring in an episode of 'Doctor Who' as a baddie (that was the interesting bit).

clapham south air raid war tunnel

Scott Chasserot

 

 

 

 And that's the tour done. From there you follow the exit signs all the way back to the surface.

 

clapham south air raid war tunnel

Scott Chasserot

 

Oh, and if you'd like to see what that journey to the exit looks like in ludicrously sped-up manner, here's a timelapse video we shot on our phone. You're welcome!

 

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Comments

3 comments
Tristan B

Thanks alexi. I lived on a road that touched the common so knew there was stuff under it as a kid but had never seen it.

Are the big Tarmac domes in the park part of it too? We guessed that was the size of the bucker but would have been smaller than you have shown and near the surface.

Andy L

When is this open to the public?
And where can we buy tickets?