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Life in the London shelters

by BBC Scotland

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
BBC Scotland
People in story: 
Miss Elenor Lee
Location of story: 
Leicester Square, London
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Allan Price on behalf of Mamie Bruce-Gardyne, from Alyth (Perth & Kinross), and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

My Aunt, Elenor Lee, wrote this story before she died in 1989 at the age of 92. She was a VAD nurse during the war, and spent every night in the shelters.


Many people think of the Air Raid Shelters of London as horrible, gloomy caverns, and imagine the most terrible scenes taking place there - even when no "blitz" is taking place. But this is far from the truth, whatever may have been the case in the autumn at the beginning of the Air Raids on London.

Of course, no one who has worked or slept in the Shelters, thinks of them as exactly a "Home from Home", but at least they are better than a home smashed over your head.

St Martin's-in-the-Fields, which for many years has given shelter at night to countless, now gives it to another kind of homeless - men, women and little children nightly crowd into St Martin's protective Crypt and sleep in peace.

The Tubes these days - or rather, nights - are a transformation and the scene that meets the eye at mid-night must be beyond the wildest imaginings of the designer of the original underground railway or tube. But then we live in wild and unimaginable days.

Go down the moving staircase after mid-night, and at the foot will you find the entire floor space, except for a small track left clear, covered with sleeping forms. Whole families in rows under blankets or eiderdowns. The same family in the same place every night. Fathers, Mothers, old Grannies, little children, the latter asleep like little cherubs - but perhaps not so cheruby in daytime. [The Recording Angel must look with more than ordinary distaste upon us all when he sees what we have brought the world to. That babies must sleep on a concrete floor in holes in the ground, so as to escape death from bombing.]

However, the babies don't seem to mind and are as merry as crickets and quite as tiresome, are here, there and everywhere until dragged off by harassed mammas to their hard and unyielding bed, where they sleep peacefully until 6.0 am.

Further down come the actual platforms with the luxury of bunks pressed against the walls. On the floor are more families, some very grand with Lilo's, some with Kapok mattresses and then again, others with newspaper and cardboard under a blanket.

At one end of the platform a little house has been built. The Medical Aid Post. Inside it is just like a cabin of a ship. Divided into two rooms, it is painted white and fitted with three-tiered bunks and two beds - cupboards for medicines and stores, tables, chairs and a small electric cooker. Staffed by two V.A.Ds and visited during the night by a Doctor and a Sister. The night works start by a thorough clean up, for it is terribly dirty with the dust from the trains. Then the patients begin to come. Generally only small ailments, coughs and sore throats and headaches. A gargling brigade of the afore-mentioned cherubs in a large glanding dish, and it is difficult to persuade some of the cherubs not to swallow the "nice pink stuff".

The sick parade comes to an end about mid-night and the staff sit down to supper - well earned as the last meal was robably "high tea" at 4.30 pm. Then if the Shelter is quiet and asleep, the nurses can sleep too until 5.30 am., when morning visitors start arriving for dressings to be re-newed or further doses of cough mixture and gargles for cherubs, if they can escape their mothers. Then follows the tidying-up, rolling up the blankets and mattresses, putting away everything that can be put away and finally locking of the door and the ascent to the world of fresh air.

This goes on night after night, and how thankful everyone is when it has been a "quiet night". Should Hitler, however decide to be a nuisance, the Shelters fill up and the Tube people sit all down the stairs and on every available spot on the platforms. Surprising though it may seem, most of them sleep. The feeling of security in a deep Tube is a wonderful soporific. It is almost unbelievable at present to think that time will come when all will be able to sleep without fear that death or horrible maiming may come to them before morning. But it will, and we have just got to stick it out until then.

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