Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

Southwark’s deep level tube shelter

‘The Deep’ apparently was the nickname for the Southwark deep level bomb shelter sited within the City and South London Railway’s former tunnels between Borough and London Bridge. The other end of this section at King William Street too was a bomb shelter however it was totally unconnected to Southwark’s thus the section of the railway under the Thames itself remained unused because, well it wasn’t very habitable. It was wet to begin with. Not only that it was on a considerable slope (one tunnel ascending whilst the other descended) so it was a no-no, and to prevent any possible water ingress from the Thames (should anyone bomb that) both ends of this section were protected with substantial bulkheads.

The City and South London Railway was officially opened by King Edward VII on the 4th November 1890 and the company’s new terminus at King William Street made itself a disgrace. The inaugural train carrying the Royal party suffered problems when it failed to ascend the steep climb and curve into King William Street, and despite the train rolling back towards a more level section and then tackling that section once again it just couldn’t do it. An engine on a train behind had to be uncoupled from its stock and assist the Royal train into King William Street station.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

The troublesome King William Street station -closed after only ten years of use. The view looks from the platform ends to the signal box and tunnel portals. Source: Twitter.

The mishap the King encountered wasn’t a one off. It was just the first of many more to come. Yes it was poor design but that was also a result of every possibility the new tube line would be cable hauled – by decree of which the tunnels design on the approach to King William station would have not been a problem. In fact it was around five months earlier the City & South London made a decision to switch to was then largely untried electric traction.

The problem here was the tunnels and stations had already been built with cable traction largely in mind – thus it was a case of grin and bear it. The steeply graded approaches to King William Street were most unsuitable for the small locomotives the company employed. Many trains were stricken on this steeply graded and sharply curved section of line between the Thames and the new City terminus. Some needed rear assistance to make it up into the station itself whilst some of the locomotives burnt out their armatures trying to tackle the severe gradients and had to be towed to Stockwell depot for major repairs.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

The City and South London as it was originally to be – cable hauled from the Elephant to King William Street. Source: Twitter.

It wasn’t just that particular problem that faced the new tube railway company. King William Street station was far too small to alter its layout or expand in any way that could help the company’s woes. The station couldn’t be made bigger because the foundations for The Monument were in the way.

No matter how the company looked at it, the only answer open to them was the construction of a new alignment and new stations to boot. As a result the line was quite soon diverted from the London Bridge side through new tunnels to Bank and Moorgate, this being the first stage of a series of extensions to Old Street, City Road, Angel, King’s Cross and Euston.

Its because of all this that a substantial length of tube railway was abandoned and that alone made a deep level tube shelter underneath the roads in the vicinity of London Bridge and Borough a possibility. It wasn’t the biggest deep level tube shelter however it was the longest public tube shelter to be utilised on any existing part of the London Underground infrastructure.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

The last proper use of King William Street station – as an air raid shelter during the 1940s! Source: Pinterest

Very early on in the game the CSLR had recognised its section of line from Borough to King William Street would need to be disposed of. Its why plans were drawn up and work commenced just a few short years after the line’s opening. The new alignment would take the CSLR’s trains to rather more purposeful destinations – although the Railway Magazine of the time scoffed at the company’s aspirations as it headed for Moorgate, Angel and ultimately Euston – largely following the alignment of the New (or City) Road. The Railway Magazine thought it was all in the wrong direction & suggested a continuation northward would benefit the company much better than one heading into central London.

As has just been mentioned the CSLR put its plans for a new alignment into hand almost straightaway – 1891 in fact – not withstanding the need to acquire the necessary legislation including Acts of Parliament. That was achieved in 1893 and the work to design and build their line to a new terminus at Moorgate (including new stations at Bank and London Bridge) soon began. Finally on 25th February 1900, that’s less than ten years after the Royal opening, King William station met its ‘twisted end’ and the City and South London’s trains now served a brand new section of railway which split off from the original route just north of Borough station at a deeper level towards Bank and Moorgate.

Having got rid of its problematic section the CSLR company were at pains what to do with their now useless section of tube railway tunnel. In the early days there was talk of reusing it as a station for the City and Brixton Railway which would leave the station at a more favourable angle as well as have better approach gradients. Those plans never came to fruition. There was also talk of converting the former section of railway into a public footway but after some debate it was thought that people wouldn’t want to walk such a long route deep underground hence that idea was scrapped too.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

Railway Magazine 1901 – criticism of the CSLR’s unrenumerative section of line to King William Street. Source: Google Books

In 1901 the Railway Magazine further criticised the CSLR for having devised such a useless bit of railway and suggested the company should convert it to a mushroom farm or something of the sort… On the same page the magazine also criticises the CLSR’s extensions as a ‘costly white elephant.’

The CSLR were approached by a mushroom growing compnay during 1910 who sought use of those disused tunnels for their product. Its not known why the CSLR didnt take this up, but it appears the railway comnpany had thought the tunnels might be better used for something like electricity cables.

The fact no bidders were found for the disused tunnels soon led to the CSLR’s eventual parent company – Underground Electric Railways Limited – to organise press visits in 1930 to the derelict station in the hope any generated publicity would soon procure potential users for the tunnels.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

After several attempts to find a use for the disused section of railway belonging to the Morden-Edgware Line (the name the line was known by during those years), it all became public knowledge following this substantial picture feature in the Daily Mirror for 1930. Source: Londontopia

The exercise was repeated several years later with pictures this time appearing in The Star on 17th March 1936. It was stated in that report the tunnels were inspected four times a year and in quite good condition. Among the suggestions the paper offered for use of the tunnels, these included a shooting gallery, a dance hall, a pedestrian thoroughfare in the Thames, and even a ‘bomb-proof anti-aircraft tunnel.’ Clearly The Star was four years ahead of its time when they made that suggestion!

After nearly 35 years it seems the company wasn’t very successful in finding a user for its surplus tunnels and station. However that would soon change for World War Two was on its way. The tube was seen as a popular choice for those wanting to take refuge from the German bombs.

To that end, several new deep level sections of the tube system destined for expansion of the network were instead put into use as deep level shelters including those at Goodge Street, The Oval, Clapham South, Clapham North, Belsize Park, Chancery Lane and Bethnal Green. That at Wanstead and Gants Hill became a munitions factory rather than a shelter for people.

This is where Southwark’s deep level tube shelter comes in. It wasn’t some new unfinished tube tunnel that would immediately be put to use as a war time bunker but rather those tunnels the CSLR had closed back in 1900! The only problem with these tunnels was there was no longer any proper access to these, the only routes being by way of the running tunnels or via rather inaccessible stairwells (such as at London Bridge.) The plan therefore was to build a number of new diagonal access shafts that would incorporate stairwells leading down to the former CSLR tunnels.

Those plans were made for the first time to The Star who had first suggested the idea back in 1936. The paper reported in November 1939 the tunnels would be converted to a bomb shelter, the cost of the work being around £40,000 to £50,000 with the task being undertaken by the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark and some of the money being in the form of a Government grant. The tunnels themselves would be rented from London Transport for just £100 a year – something some viewed as being wrong especially because it was wartime.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

The City & South London Railway tunnels to be turned into a deep level bomb shelter. Report from The Star in November 1939. Source: Southwark Council Archives

The architects for the scheme were Mott, May & Anderson and the actual work began in January 1940 with Kinnear Moodie as the contractors – they were already an experienced company building underground tunnels – much of their work was undertaken for the Metropolitan Water Board in upgrading London’s sewer system and they were later to construct a substantial part of the Victoria Line. Kinnear Moodie were to construct new access shafts and stairwells down to the old CSLR tunnels and convert the tunnels for use as a shelter. Vigers (a London company established in 1842) were the surveyors who undertook the task of finding the best possible locations for these entry points from various points along Borough High Street from London Bridge station to a point just north of Borough tube station. Whilst some locations were stand alone other locations happened to be within a shop or some other premises.

The work included an early use of concrete segments for the new tunnels. Despite these sloping shafts and access tunnels being dug by hand it was still quicker than having to procure and build a number of tunnelling shields for the purpose. The total cost of the shelters ultimately came to around £110,000 in three years – just over twice of the original upper estimates. This includes additional buildings and equipment including those for extra compressor plants. The Bethnal Green disaster of 1943 saw to it that Southwark’s deep tube shelter was furnished with additional safety measures.

Those incidents such as that at Bethnal Green and elsewhere generated concerns these specialist air raid shelters were rather unhealthy and the fact people were quite packed into these places (as Southwark council itself noticed, people from outside the borough itself were taking advantage of those facilities too and causing impressionable crowding problems…) the Government of the day soon launched an inquiry whether air raid shelters were healthy places or not – the Hansard debate on this during November 1940 can be read here.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

Despite being of poor quality this is in fact the Mayor of Southwark at the opening the new deep level tube shelter in June 1940. The location is at the side of the Marlborough Sports Garden/Children’s Playground and this entrance was one of several that could be accessed from the south side of Borough High Street as well as the nearby Stanhope and Mowbray council estates.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

The Star announces the deep level tube shelter which extends northwards from Borough station is now open. Report in The Star 21 June 1940. Source: Southwark Council Archives

Its reported that there were no toilets at Southwark and other locations and as a result people had to defecate in the tunnels, and the tunnels were full of mosquitoes. This was later changed upon the concerns of the Government and toilet facilities provided after findings by am inquiry committee led by Lord Horder (see Hansard November 1940). Should one in any way or form happen to be concerned about the quality of the air in the City and South London railway during those considerably far off days… here’s a report from 1905!

It is said ‘The Deep’ could hold around 20,000 people! That is a lot. The CSLR tunnels were not even normal sized tube tunnels but somewhat smaller in fact – when the line was upgraded to accommodate standard tube stock in readiness for the line’s future as the Morden-Edgware Line (or as it later became, the Northern Line) the tunnels had to be enlarged, they were clearly not large enough for that number of figures some were touting, and it seems the generally accepted number is 14,000. That is cited in records and on a plaque just outside Borough Station. The number of people that could be accommodated in the tunnels is discussed below. The source is here.

There is a disused tube railway in a certain district which accommodates about 20,000 people, and it is naturally one of the most popular shelters in London, and I suggest, therefore, that the Department might very well turn their attention in the direction suggested by my hon. Friend. I am reinforced in bringing that to the attention of the House when I say that this scheme has had the blessing of one of the largest engineering contractors in the country, who have been engaged in this work. They say that it is practicable and that if this work was started, this immense scheme could be brought to fruition within 12 or 18 months. If, as I gathered with some alarm, the Prime Minister thinks that the war may go on for another 10 years, then 18 months will not be wasted.

Indeed. If an undertaking of this size were to be started from scratch it could be built in around a year and a half. As it was the work was substantially completed in just a few months because the tunnels were already provided for – in fact according to the Government it was a deep level bomb shelter built for around half the cost of a brand new one. Like all the other deep level tube shelters, their location or the names of the different stations were not ever mentioned because of security reasons. Let it not be forgot the Germans were always listening, monitoring, watching, what the British were up to in order that more precise and intensive bombing campaigns could be conducted. (It must be said that MPs did at times mention places directly though not the exact locations such as Southwark’s in this long Parliamentary debate on air raid shelters…) If anyone thought the tube was in fact totally safe from those bombs, well that wasn’t always the case. None of the deep level shelters ever received a direct hit however other parts of the deep level tube system did – such as Balham, Bank and Bounds Green stations.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

The plaque outside Borough station commemorating the deep level tube shelter – and the number it catered for which was 14,000.

How could this deep level shelter accommodate 20,000 – if those figures are to be believed? That figure may have been a exaggeration (it was in fact 14,000) however there’s definitely evidence huge numbers of people used it. It is recognised Southwark’s was the largest of all the deep level tube shelters. Bethnal Green’s could hold only half that which was 7,000.

There’s one simple factor for the possibility that Southwark could hold the largest number of refugees – and that because it was unlike the others. The very answer lies in the nature of its construction – there wasn’t just one entrance at was the case at other deep level tube shelters, – there were at least NINE different entrances down from street level which meant people were quite equally spread out along the entire length of around a mile of tunnels! The stairs were built large and wide to permit 300 persons per minute to enter the tunnels below and the tunnels could be filled much faster than the new and more modern shelters that had been built elsewhere.

The only downside of having such a convenient facility with at least nine different entrances and renowned for its speed with which people could descend into the tunnels as well as its capacity meant many people from outside the area also headed for the deep level tube shelter even though they were not meant to. At times it was complained that people outside of the borough were in fact preventing those inside the borough with first rights from even using the facility built specially for them and their families. Managing such a huge shelter was no doubt difficult for the ARP wardens and no doubt with such huge numbers it was difficult to spot anyone who shouldn’t be using the air raid shelter.

Hyde Park Now-Southwark's deep level tube shelter

Southwark residents complained people from other parts of London were taking up their allocated spaces in the deep level tube shelter. Source: Southwark Council Archives

The original CSLR had no connecting tunnels or crossover tunnels of any sort between Borough and King William Street stations and part of the 1940 construction programme included the use of interconnecting tunnels which would also help to ensure there were alternative exits that could be used and people moved about the tunnels if necessary. In all it was a very useful undertaking and undoubtedly the most popular of all London’s deep level tube shelters.

Southwark deep level tube shelter – including its Royal connections – is further investigated in the second and third parts of this feature.

Updated June 2022.

3 responses to “Southwark’s deep level tube shelter”

  1. A fascinating read. I was fortunate early in my career with London Transport to be able to walk from London Bridge Station through the abandoned tunnels to the location where the current Northern line diverges. It was quite eerie, with many wartime posters still in place. Sadly the section under the Thames to King William Street was too wet to attempt and the key to access it was very difficult to obtain, even by the official I was with. History is not only all around us, but under as well.