Inside a World War II Air Raid Shelter

By 1938, to many thinking people, the triumphant rise of Fascism in both Italy and Germany was an ominous portent of another war. To others, yes, the situation in Europe was worrying and Fascism was certainly on the rise but another war? Surely not.  Wasn’t the Great War supposed to be ‘The War that ended Wars?’


St Leonard’s Court, East Sheen

Nevertheless, in 1938, a private air-raid shelter was built for the residents of the Art Deco St Leonard’s Court in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, and during London’s Open House weekend in September, the air raid shelter is open to the public. My niece and I went to see it. A round, brick turret with a conical tiled roof and a metal weather-vane disguises the entrance; from the air it would look like a charming dove-cot and what could be more innocent than that? At the time, though, the air-raid shelter may well have seemed something of an expensive white elephant to those who lived in the classy flats and who, one way or another, had to foot the bill.

The brick and red-tiled ‘dovecote’ entrance to the access stairs – plus small boy

The prettiness stops here. The air raid shelter itself is strictly utilitarian and without frills of any sort.

The access stairs

The stairs are steep, not to say precipitous, though there is a banister, and going down must have been a nightmare on an icy night, especially if you were carrying a basket with a thermos and maybe some sandwiches or other necessities.

The long central corridor with a stove at the far end

The shelter was built to hold 48 people, 24 men and 24 women, (that is, about 50% of the total number living in St Leonard’s Court). As we can see, it is pretty primitive.

Map of the air-raid shelter’s accommodation

The map shows the shelter’s specifications: a steep staircase led to a long corridor with two rectangular rooms on each side, and a cast iron stove at the end.

A row of hooks on the corridor walls allowed the residents to hang up a coat or mackintosh

Let’s look at the day rooms which are immediately to the left (male) and right (female) on reaching the bottom of the access stairs.

Male day room.

The male day room has a long wooden plank bench on each side, and there are two curtained off chemical toilets either side of an escape shaft at the end of the room. You can still see the GENTS signs.

The female day room’s single light fitting is still there

The similar female day room was to the right of the corridor and it. too, must have been grim. At least the toilets’ recesses said LADIES rather than ‘Women’ which perhaps represented a nod towards refinement.

The corner of the male night room shows the remains of the numbered bunks.

Further along the corridor were the sleeping quarters: the male night room on the left and the female night room to the right. They, too, had escape hatches at the end. Each of the night rooms were subdivided into four cubicles with triple-tiered bunk beds, each of which had its own number and electric light.

The remains of an original, probably hand-made, lampshade hangs down in the female night room

It must also have been very cold in winter – I can’t believe that the heat from the stove would have percolated far, even though the two night rooms opened directly onto the corridor – there were no doors.

One of the escape hatches

There are escape hatches in each room, as well as in the recesses on each side in the middle of the corridor. The photo above shows the metal rungs you would have had to climb to get out. It struck me that you would have to be fit to get out via the escape hatch.

The shelter protected the St Leonard’s Court residents through the Blitz in 1940-41, flying bombs (doodle bugs) in 1944 and the V2 rockets in 1944-5. The guide who showed us round told us that one elderly ex-resident she met told her that the experience of being in the shelter was so horrible that he decided to take his chance and sleep in comfort in his own flat.

St Leonard’s Court, another view.

Fortunately, St Leonard’s Court was never bombed.

It’s interesting that the accommodation provided by the St Leonard’s Court air raid shelter was actually built to a higher standard than the government standard recommendations, in that it provided for individual accommodation – everyone had his or her own designated and numbered space. To us, in the 21st century, it looks unbelievably primitive – there isn’t even a water tap.

The cast iron stove

The St Leonard’s Court air-raid shelter was granted Grade II listing in 2009 but its future is still in doubt. It is now on English Heritage’s ‘At Risk’ register as the building is slowly decaying, with no agreed solution. It is hoped that the building will be properly preserved as an education resource for schools and the local community.

Elizabeth Hawksley

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8 thoughts on “Inside a World War II Air Raid Shelter”

  1. Wow, primitive indeed. You’d need your fur coat and 3 pairs of woollen socks If you wanted to get any sleep. But I guess it was better than the alternative. Can’t help but wonder what one created now with all mod cons would be like.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I’ve been wondering whether mattresses were provided – I suspect not, so people would have had to manage with sleeping bags on bare boards. I’ve seen the huge underground bunkers built into the hillside at Gjirokastra in Albania under the 1944-92 Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, who was convinced that the decadent West was poised to invade. Hoxha created a complete civil defence system with kitchens, dormitories, offices, decontamination showers, a generator room and so on. The tunnels went on for a kilometre. It was much more sophisticated than the St Leonard’s Court shelter, of course, but the creepy ‘feel’ of the stark white-washed comfortless rooms was very similar.

    1. Thank you, Deborah, and welcome to my blog. It was good to meet you at the Green Man! I went to Albania with the archaeological travel company Andante – we were mainly looking at things Roman, but, of course, the Hoxha bunkers were too interesting – and chilling – to miss. While we were there, I was briefly interviewed by Albanian TV who were anxious to know what tourists thought of their country. I said that Albania was beautiful – which it is – and that it was important be open about its difficult past and that I admired their courage in doing so. Our guide was also interviewed and he, of course, spoke in Albanian and said much the same thing only more fluently. I expect my contribution ended up on the cutting room floor but it was fun.

  2. That was extremely interesting, Elizabeth. Thank you for posting it. I’ve seen much about Anderson shelters, but that’s the first time I’ve had a glimpse into a private purpose-built air-raid shelter, and I thought it fascinating. Since every bunk was numbered, and there was room only for half of the residents of St. Leonard’s Court, I wonder how the choice was made as to which residents could have a bunk, and which would have to stay outside. Possibly, it was down to who helped to pay for the structure. Despite the lack of comfort, I would have rather been in there than not.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Liz. St Leonard’s Court is a privately-built block of flats, and, as you can tell from the outside, it’s the top of the range. I don’t know the answer to your question but I suspect that you paid for your place in the shelter. Maybe its very construction was paid for by the residents and that, of course, would entitle you to a space.

  3. Interesting. I wonder how thick they cast the concrete ceiling and whether it would have protected the residents from a direct hit. It doesn’t look like it was more than a few feet under ground.
    It does look rather spartan however I am certain that it was built that way to reduce the cost and to make the space more functional.

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