Clapham South Air Raid Shelter

The deep level shelter at Clapham South, built to protect local residents from the bombing in the Blitz of World War Two, through a “butterfly” moment was pivotal in creating Brixton as we know it today.

World War Two

During World War Two Clapham, like the rest of London and the UK, was at times relentlessly bombed by the then enemy – Germany. The civilian population clamoured for the safety of air raid shelters. The tunnels of Clapham South were excavated and ready for use by 1942 but by this time the intensity of the Blitz bombing had greatly reduced. But it was not to last.

In 1944 the Germans created new ways of bombing targets using V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets. It was then the shelters were finally opened to the population they had been built to protect.


The shelters had been built with a view to possibly incorporating them into future express tube lines running North/South and East West. Shafts were sunk and the tunnels then excavated horizontally from the bottom of those shafts with all the work being done by hand without much in the way of machinery. Similar shelters were built in Goodge Street and Clapham North to name two others.

Empire Windrush

Surprisingly, the Clapham South Shelter made a significant contribution to the Empire Windrush story. In 1948 the ship “Empire Windrush” arrived in Tilbury carrying hundreds of people, a large number of whom were coming to work to help ease the labour shortages within the UK.

The authorities quickly realised that a substantial number of those aboard did not have any accommodation arranged. So where could several hundred men be accommodated at short notice? Someone suggested using the air raid shelters with Clapham South being settled upon as the one to use. The seed of Brixton as we know it today had been planted.

Clapham South was basic as accommodation, but it was enough whilst the men sorted themselves out in their newly adopted country. The nearest Labour Exchange (job centre) was located in Coldharbour Lane. In an age before computerisation, lots of the jobs were in the immediate locality and so the men rented accommodation in the locality. As more immigrants arrived they naturally went to stay with friends and family who had travelled over previously, so also found work in the Brixton locality.

If, for example, the decision had been made to use the air raid shelter at Goodge Street then what we now know as Brixton would have established itself in the Tottenham Court Road area instead.

Visiting Clapham South

London Transport Museum run tours as part of their Hidden London program which must be booked in advance.

Visitors enter the air raid shelter through a door in a circular white feature of the building the descend a spiral staircase in the middle of which is a lift that no longer works.

Hidden London Tours

London Transport Museum’s Hidden London tours take people to parts of London Underground normally completely off limits.

The tours are all excellent with my favourites being Charing Cross and Kingsway Tram Tunnel.

  • Aldwych: Used for historic films and Prodigy’s “Firestarter”
  • Baker Street: The world’s oldest underground station
  • Charing Cross: Very long construction tunnels and see where films are made
  • Clapham South: Air raid shelter and part of the Empire Windrush story
  • Down Street: Used by Winston Churchill to escape air raids
  • Euston: Huge numbers of posters from the 1960s
  • Holborn: The other end of the Aldwych branch
  • Kingsway Tram Tunnel: Huge sub-surface space for tram
  • Moorgate: Lots of tunnels to walk through and a huge fan
  • Piccadilly Circus: See behind the mysterious platform grills
  • Shepherd’s Bush: Ventilation and air raid shelter tunnels

The Long Tunnels

The long tunnels of Clapham South have a mezzanine floor installed to vertically halve the tunnels.

Dormitory Bunks


Original signage remains in place from wartime.

Cross Passages

The two long tunnels are cross linked by smaller tunnels.

Staircase To Underground Station

Medical Room

Control Room

Further Uses After World War Two

Clapham South was later used as a cheap hostel for the many visitors to the 1951 Festival of Britain held on the South Bank, close to Waterloo station.

The most recent use of Clapham South was as a secure document storage repository. Many of the bunk beds have bar codes on them which were used to record where individual boxes had been placed.

Miscellaneous Pictures

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