When the Blitz began on 7 September 1940, ‘It was the people of London who took command…Men, women, and children went straight to the safest place they could think of – the Underground stations.’
In this special blog, over 80 years after the beginning of the Blitz, we take a look at how London’s main transport system – the Underground – became a popular place of shelter for those seeking protection from the German bombing campaign, using an assortment of articles and photographs all to be found within the British Newspaper Archive.
However, the government was not keen on the Underground being put to such use. An article in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 20 September 1940, reveals how ‘Little heed was paid last night to the appeal of the Ministries of Home Security and Transport asking the public to refrain from using the London Tube stations as air-raid shelters except in the case of urgent necessity.’
Instead, Londoners of all classes flocked to Underground platforms to keep themselves safe from the destruction that was being wrought above the ground. The Daily Herald gives an overview of how popular sheltering on the Underground had become by the end of September:
Every night London’s Underground stations are crowded with people seeking shelter. Many of them arrive early in the evening with their bedding prepared to settle down for a night’s sleep on the platforms. Some come from the suburbs and outlying districts.
Families from the East End with scraps of bedding jostled West End folk with luncheon baskets and expensive travelling rugs in underground stations in the Metropolitan area last night.
The same article goes on to describe ‘bearded Bohemians, dignified dowagers, typical Cockneys [and] a young woman in black’ all passing along the platform.
So with eighty or so London tube stations crowded with thousands of people – was the Underground system able to continue? The answer is yes – that with true Blitz spirit, both shelterers and Tube travellers were able to co-exist.
Indeed, as journalist Alison Barnes discovered during her ‘Night Underground’ in November 1940, ‘There is kind of tacit understanding between Tube residents and passengers.’ Children would be reprimanded for straying into the part of the platform reserved for waiting for trains; meanwhile ‘no traveller, however jostled or pushed, would dream of treading on the bedding.’
Some more inventive methods were trialled to stop shelterers getting in the way of Tube travellers. The Daily Herald reports in November 1940 that the Ministry of Home Security was considering erecting three-tier bunks in Underground stations, and by February 1941 these bunk beds had become a reality in some tube stations.
The traveller’s last train has gone, and the shelterers’ last train has pulled up at the platform to give extra floor and seating space. An official ‘lights out’ has sounded, the chatter dies away, the family parties, the bands of friends, the lonely individuals who are no longer lonely here, all stretch themselves out side by side under blankets, rugs, coats, newspapers. The broad white line which marks the permitted boundary for ‘passengers who do not travel’ disappears under a tide of sleep.
But the shelterers were in for a rude awakening once the Tube service began again in the morning. However, as Alison Barnes observes in her article in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, some took advantage of the arrangement. One shelterer arrived to meet his family on the platform from the last train, and hopped onto the first train of the morning to go back to work. ‘It’s so convenient for him,’ his wife commented.
With thousands of people sheltering Underground, ‘muddling along,’ as the system had been in the early days of the Blitz, was no longer enough, and the need for formalised amenities became strongly apparent.
Some took advantage of this need, such as this ‘enterprising caterer’ who was doing ‘a brisk trade in breakfasts’ at Aldwych Station.
The providing of refreshments was to be eventually formalised by the government. The Birmingham Daily Gazette reports that in November 1940 the London Passenger Transport Board had introduced the twopenny meal for shelterers, served by the Board’s own ‘waitresses.’
These women – recruited for their ‘tact, common sense and ability,’ according to the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough – would serve cups of tea, cocoa and coffee (a bring your own mug policy being in place), as well as cakes, buns, biscuits, chocolate, apples, meat pies and sausage rolls.
Lavatory facilities and drinking water were provided in all the big stations, and shelterers were even given entertainment. Here, shelterers at Aldwych Station are treated to a concert.
However, using the Underground as a mass air-raid shelter was not without its difficulties and its risks. Journalist Alison Barnes proclaims at the end of her article that the ‘airlessness, the lack of real ventilation was far more disturbing than all the noisy concrete horrors of London above ground.’
These children sleep in their damp clothes, until the early morning hours, when they are dragged off to their cold homes. Already a complaint known as ‘shelter throat’ is common, but the danger to children forced to sleep under conditions which provide a breeding place for influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, quite apart from the more common infectious diseases, cannot be over-emphasised.
Such conditions forced some into drastic and tragic action. According to the Daily Herald, 1 November 1940, one James Miller strangled his 75-year-old mother to ‘save her being dragged round the shelters…she was suffering, through her having to sleep on the steps in the tube.’
Elsewhere, Underground shelterers faced censure from their peers. A heated debate in the Daily Mirror saw the shelterers branded as ‘Shelter Rats.’ The point raised from Molly of the Battersea AFS was that those who were sheltering Underground were shirking their war duties by not putting themselves forward for war work – volunteering for the Home Guard, as an ambulance driver, or fire watcher, for example. The ‘Shelter Rats’ of Belsize Park hit back, proclaiming they were ‘performing a national service by keeping casualties down.’
Tragically, Underground stations were not always the safest places to be. Over 60 people were killed at Balham in 1940 when a bomb hit the street above and collapsed the tunnels below; whilst in 1943 a rush at Bethan Green Station saw 173 men, women and children crushed to death in a stampede. These events, risking the nation’s morale, were kept out of the press, and as such, cannot be found within the pages of the British Newspaper Archive.
However, what can be evidenced in The Archive is how, for many Londoners, the Underground became a place of sanctuary during the most terrifying time of their lives. This was the true definition of Blitz spirit, for as Alison Barnes writes:
Don’t imagine it’s a dreary life down below. There are the home-going travellers to watch, there are card parties, lending libraries organised among the shelterers, evening papers, and books – and best of all there is undisturbed sleep to come later on.