The History Deep Below Clapham Common

Beneath south London there are a series of tunnels. They lie directly under the Northern Line and those that used them would complain about the early morning rumble of the trains overhead waking them up. The deep level shelters were originally conceived as much-needed air-raid shelters and there are sections at Clapham South, North and Clapham Common station as well as elsewhere on the line.

These were huge tunnels, where bunk beds could house 8,000 people under each station. They had their own canteens and toilets. Each section was named after a British admiral so you could find your way around.

Delays in construction did mean that they were not finished until after the worst of the Blitz. Then, worried about the management costs, the government decided that rather than local people they were to house British and then American troops. However, the arrival of the V1 and V2 rockets towards the end of the war did see them being brought back into use, although night time use rarely was above a third of their overall capacity.

The original plan was later to join the tunnels and make an express train service. But this, sadly was not to be.

The Clapham South Shelter played an important role in shaping London’s post-war communities. The Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948, carrying nearly 500 Jamaican men, responding to Britain’s call for labour to rebuild a war-torn nation. Due to London’s housing shortage many where initially housed in the shelter and found work via the nearest labour exchange, in Brixton, which was the origin of this neighbourhood’s important Caribbean heritage.

The tunnels were also used for those visiting the 1951 Festival of Britain, again as London had a shortage of hotels. Now one deep beneath Clapham is used to grow a range of very tasty salads!

Find out more about Clapham. Book tickets for Dr Stephen King’s Clapham Common Walk now. Private tour also available here.


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