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The Experience of Sheltering in the Tube during WWII

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In early September 1940, crowds gathered outside Liverpool Street underground station demanding to be let in to take shelter from the first bombings of what would become known as 'The Blitz'. A 1924 Government directive had ruled out the use of stations as shelters in the event of air raids but Londoners had other ideas. Many bought tickets for the tube and then simply refused to leave.

A children's party in progress in Holborn Underground station, with the local Mayor and several London Passenger Transport Board officials present. 1944. LT000503/036

Once the decision was made to formally admit shelterers, they came in their thousands. On the 21st September 1940 around 120,000 people were seeking refuge in London’s underground stations. By October this had risen to 124,000, with 2,750 sheltering at King’s Cross alone.

A graph showing the number of people sheltering in Tube stations and tunnels between Autumn 1940 and April 1941. 1945. LT000074/006

A mass of shelterers asleep in a Tube station passageway. 1944. LT000503/036

Safety below ground was a major concern for the LPTB and shelterers were constantly requested to comply with 'conditions of use'.

A leaflet given to shelterers in Tube stations, highlighting safety issues. 1941 LT000341/054

Rules included: have your shelter ticket ready, arrive after 18:30; leave by 07:00; don't stand in groups; keep away from the platform edge; control children; take your rubbish home; and cooperate with staff.

A leaflet given to shelterers in Tube stations, highlighting safety issues. 1941 LT000341/054

Leaflet given to Tube shelterers explaining the rules for sheltering. 1943. LT001247/003

"...they didn't want the kids walking about because the trains were running...they'd start playing about on the escalators...there was one kid, one night, got his fingers caught in the belt..."

Extract from Oral History interview with Les Gaskin, a child shelterer on the Underground in WWII. 20 Jul 2017. 2017-07-20 Les Gaskin Safety

Legally enforceable public health regulations for public air raid shelters, including those in Tube stations. December 1940. LT001247/003

Legally enforceable public health regulations for public air raid shelters, including those in Tube stations. December 1940. LT001247/003

Legally enforceable public health regulations for public air raid shelters, including those in Tube stations. December 1940. LT001247/003

Legally enforceable public health regulations for public air raid shelters, including those in Tube stations. December 1940. LT001247/003

One unpleasant experience of sheltering underground was the presence of mosquitoes. By February 1941, "good progress" was being made on the delivery of sprays and compressors for aerial disinfection, with particular attention given to the elimination of mosquitoes.

Article describing ways to combat mosquitoes in air raid shelters. February 1941. LT000030/078 Pennyfare_017_00002

Where possible, entertainments were provided or encouraged for shelterers. People could bring gramophone records to play music.

Article suggesting music be played in air raid shelters. February 1941. LT000030/078 Pennyfare_017_00004

Shelterer Theresa Griffin remembers singing along to 'Knees Up Mother Brown'

"Knees up Mother Brown," by Mrs Gladys Mills. From the Album "Just Mrs Gladys Mills." Available from Amazon Music

Generally, those sheltering tried to maintain their spirits - if only for the sake of the estimated 25,000 children who were in the stations nightly at the peak of the war. Some stations held children's parties, part of Gloucester Road station was converted into a playground!

Shelterers sitting on a Tube station platform. 1944. LT000503/036

"...buskers come down...somebody might know a singer and they'd come down to entertain us..."

Extract from oral history with Theresa Griffin, child shelterer on the Underground in WWII. 16 Jan 2018. 2018-01-16 Theresa Griffin Entertainment

Air raid shelter joke. November 1940. LT000030/078 Pennyfare_014_00005

While sheltering during an air raid, London Passenger Transport Board driver W.T. Prebble entertained his fellow shelterers with his life story. His tales proved so popular he was encouraged to contact the B.B.C who recorded and broadcast his reminiscences.

Article describing how a driver's reminiscences were broadcast on the B.B.C. April 1944. LT000030/078 Pennyfare_055_00002

Even Christmas remained a celebration.

A note showing the cost of Christmas entertainment for Tube station shelterers. 1941. LT000074/006

"There used to be a lot of 'Knees up Mother Brown' going on ... and drinking.... and Christmas time there's carol's and laughing and talking.... by the time we'd finished we didn't hear what was going on upstairs."

Extract from oral history with Theresa Griffin, child shelterer on the Underground in WWII. 2018-01-16 Theresa Griffin Christmas crop 1

Children's presents being packed before a party. 1944. LT000503/036

Staff decorating Christmas Tree at Underground Station. 1944. LT000503/036

But a war was still raging above and tragically some stations took hits from bombs, both indirect and direct.

Extract from oral history interview with Les Gaskin, a child shelterer on the Underground in WWII. In this extract describes his first air raid. 20 Jul 2017. 2017-07-20 Les Gaskin First Air Raid 1

On 12 October 1940, Trafalgar Square station was hit resulting in 7 fatalities to shelterers.

Street view showing damage to Trafalgar Square. 1940. Image courtesy of London Transport Museum 1998/35407

The following night 19 people lost their lives as Bounds Green station was hit. Les Gaskin, a member of the public and the father of a TfL employee, answered TfL Corporate Archives campaign to capture World War Two memories of sheltering. He was at Bounds Green station the night it was hit.

Extract from oral history interview with Les Gaskin, child shelter on the Underground in WWII. In this extract he remembers the events of 13 October 1940. 20 Jul 2017. 2017-07-20 Les Gaskin Interview - Bounds Green Bomb

On 14th October, Balham station was flooded after a bomb fell above, 64 died. At Bank station on 11 January 1941, 53 people were killed when a bomb hit the booking hall. Not all deaths were as a result of bombing - on 3rd March 1943, 173 people seeking shelter lost their lives at Bethnal Green after a woman tripping led to mass crushing.

First-hand account of an air raid shelter rescue by Inspector Hamlin. August 1946. LT000030/078 Pennyfare_083_00004

But in the midst of chaos and tragedy there was also life.

Announcement of babies born in air raid shelters. April 1941. LT000030/078 Pennyfare_019_00004

A baby sleeping in a cardboard box in a Tube station. 1944. LT000503/036

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