Earlier this year, the London Transport Museum announced that the disused Aldwych Underground Station would be open to the public during the summer. Visitors would be able to experience the location where some notable films and television programmes such as Atonement and Sherlock were shot, but more importantly, the site of the most important underground shelter during the Blitz. Tickets quickly sold out as people showed a desire to connect with the station’s past.
During the Second World War, hundreds of Londoners sought refuge from the air raids in stations across the London Underground network. This was initially against the wishes of the government, reluctant to sanction its use partly because of fears that a large group of people underground in trying circumstances would develop anti-war sentiments and a refusal to resurface to continue their war work.
However, in September 1940, Churchill agreed to close Aldwych station and authorise its development into an air-raid shelter as a model for other stations, should it be successful. During the next few years, it was widely regarded as the best Underground shelter. Its facilities, such as the provision of sleeping bunks, and the activities ranging from religious services to concerts, were vastly superior to those of other shelters.
But why should this be of interest to anyone apart from railway fanatics and history enthusiasts? Why should the history of air-raid sheltering in the London Underground matter to historians and more broadly to the world in which we live now?
First, the events of the Second World War are inescapable. Documentaries and items in magazine programmes are regularly dedicated to the Home Front because of the vast quantity of evidence and the apparent national fascination with the subject. This has helped to cultivate the mythologies surrounding the Second World War.
Topics such as evacuation and rationing feature in this narrative but amongst the enduring images of the topic of the Blitz are the pictures and accounts of those sheltering in the Underground. It has become part of the ‘British heritage’ and therefore matters not just in the history of the war but in the history of the nation.
Secondly, a recurring question in the historiography of this period is whether the Second World War really triggered the spirit of community and consensus amongst the public that the notion of the ‘people’s war’ suggests. Historians have argued fiercely for both sides of this debate but my research suggests that, in the case of London Underground sheltering, the presence of a community and community spirit was unmistakable. If we take oral history accounts from Underground shelterers made after the war for example, we find such comments as ‘Everybody looked after everyone else’ or ‘the more people you had round you, you seemed to take courage being with them’.
An example of the physical embodiment of this community spirit is the way in which shelter committees of shelterers from a particular station were appointed by all the station’s shelterers. These committees ensured that everyone was looked after, that the facilities were clean and that there were collections for the porters who cleaned and tidied the stations or for Christmas parties for the children. Here, the London Underground was a place where the wartime community thrived.
This community spirit is one of the ways in which Britain defines itself today; in contemporary debates about society, people often refer to lack of engagement with the community and contrast this development with the ‘Blitz spirit’ exhibited in the war years. Sheltering in the London Underground is an example of this abstract concept in action and a lens through which the historian can view the wider wartime community.
Clearly, this analogy can only go so far. The facilities of the London Underground could not be replicated in any other British city, let alone in the suburbs or the countryside. The sheltering experience was not indicative of a utopian and universally contented existence. There were reports, for example, of hostility towards men using the shelters rather than assisting above ground. Not all the shelters had the comparative opulence of Aldwych.
Nevertheless, the general feeling was one of a community of people sheltering from the horror of the bombings and taking comfort from the presence of others. Today, in an era where for many the London Underground is associated with strikes, commuter angst and terrorist attacks, it is important to remember not only its more positive vital role in the war effort but also the legacy it has had through our understanding of community and our national story.
Kathryn Robinson graduated in BA History from the University of Sheffield in July and is now studying at the University of Birmingham. She wrote about the social experiences of London Underground sheltering during the Second World War for her dissertation. You can follow her on Twitter @ke_robinson14 and more of her work can be accessed here. Tours of Aldwych station will be running later this month.