The Experience of Sheltering in the Tube during WWII

What was it like to shelter in the tubes? Using original archival material and first hand accounts from the Transport for London collections, we bring you the story of the shelterers, both known and unknown....

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. This prompted the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) to take control.

Graph showing number of people sheltering in the Tube between Autumn 1940 and April 1941 (1940-1941)TfL Corporate Archives

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 just at King's Cross 

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

Shelter Safety Code, 1943, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
,
Shelter Safety Code, 1943, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
Show lessRead more

Rules included: have your shelter ticket ready to show on entry; 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    

Leaflet given to Tube shelterers explaining the rules for sheltering (1943)TfL Corporate Archives

2017-07-20 Les Gaskin Safety
00:00

Shelterer Les Gaskin describes a child's accident

"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..."  

Another concern was the shelterers well-being. One unpleasant experience of sheltering underground was the presence of mosquitoes.

Article describing ways to combat mosquitoes in air raid shelters (1941-02)TfL Corporate Archives

Particular attention given to the elimination of mosquitoes

By February 1941, "good progress" was being made on the delivery of sprays and compressors for aerial disinfection. One report noted that "spraying may be discontinued while the shelterers are sleeping but should recommence during the coughing period in the morning"

'Elsan' potable toilets were provided at shelters as well as more rudimentary buckets. But the ratio was never good - at Holborn there were just 4 elsans and 4 buckets for a station that could hold 4600 people.

24,000 bunks were installed at various stations, particularly in newly built deep level shelters and sidings. If placed end to end they would have stretched for 27 miles.
Cigarette machines were installed at stations such as Clapham South, South Wimbledon, and Colliers Wood.

Where possible, entertainments were provided or encouraged for shelterers.

Article asking for people to bring gramophone records to play in air raid shelters (1941-02)TfL Corporate Archives

06 - Knees Up Mother Brown
00:00

People could bring gramophone records to play music

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

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)TfL Corporate Archives

2018-01-16 Teresa Griffin Entertainment
00:00

Theresa Griffin, Tottenham Court Road shelterer

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

Even Christmas remained as a celebration.

A note showing the cost of Christmas entertainment for Tube station shelterers, 1941, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
,
Children's presents being packed before a party, 1944, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
,
Staff decorating the Christmas tree on an Underground station during the Second World War, Fox Photos, 1941, From the collection of: London Transport Museum
Show lessRead more

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

Air-raid damage at street level to Trafalgar Square above Trafalgar Square (now Charing Cross) Underground station (1940-10-15) by Topical PressLondon Transport Museum

On 12 October 1940 Trafalgar Square station was hit resulting in 7 fatalities to shelterers. This image of the street view is from the London Transport Museum collections

The following night 19 people lost their lives as Bounds Green station was hit.

BBC feature with Les Gaskin, a member of the public and father of a TfL employee, who answered TfL Corporate Archives campaign to capture World War Two memories of sheltering on the Tube. (2mins 15s)

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.

Sadly, 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. Other accidents included an individual falling against a train. Minor injuries were also a risk.

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

Announcement of Two Babies Born in Air Raid Shelters, 1941-04-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
,
A baby sleeping in a cardboard box, 1944, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
Show lessRead more

Nightly average and peak numbers of people sheltering in Tube stations and tunnels (1940-1945)TfL Corporate Archives

During the course of the war, an estimated 63,000,000 people took shelter in London's tube stations

How the Tube Shelters Were Set Up 

The last night of sheltering was on 6 May 1945. VE Day was about to be announced and only 344 people went below ground for the final time.

Credits: Story

Story compiled by TfL using information in records at the Transport for London Corporate Archives. The Corporate Archives seeks to preserve and make accessible records, not to interpret them. A wider range of material is available for physical consultation.

Permission is granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only.

This story has been enhanced using some images from the collections of the London Transport Museum. All enquiries regarding these images should be made directly to that institution.  

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
A Journey Through Time
Embark on a quirky commute through TfL's history
View theme
Google apps