Friday, 12 August 2016

A Little More from Lilliput

Reclining Figures sketched by Henry Moore at Liverpool Street (author's collection)

Regular readers will hopefully remember the March 2016 edition of this blog in which we looked at the wartime anthology of the pocket sized magazine, Lilliput and in particular a report on the work of 'Mickey the Midget', a shelter warden in East London. As there was an extremely positive reaction to this post and there are many more articles in the book to choose from, it seems a good idea to re-visit the magazine and the subject of life in wartime London.

Perhaps one of the most iconic images of life in the capital during the Blitz is that of shelterers in the London Underground, who at first endured conditions that were, to say the least, primative but who eventually, with the aid of some forceful individuals similar in outlook to Mickey Davis, managed to improve conditions out of all recognition and formed meaningful communities in their own right.

Despite the experiences of the First World War, when the public was permitted to use the London Underground as a means of sheltering from the Zeppelin and Gotha raids of 1915-18, by the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938, the British Government had decided not to allow the British public the use of the Tubes during any future conflict, for fear of encouraging a "Troglodyte" or "Deep Shelter Mentality." This was one of the many examples of pre-war Governments underestimating the common sense of the British people, who it was wrongly assumed, would take to the shelters at the first hint of an air raid and remain there, never to surface in order to perform their normal duties in wartime industry. In reality, the majority of people had no desire to remain underground indefinitely and merely wanted to do the sensible thing and take shelter until such time as the bombers had passed before getting with their lives as normally as possible.

This was still the official position when the bombing of London started on 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940, although the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had already begun to press the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson to open the Underground system to the public for sheltering purposes. At first Anderson resisted, supposedly fearful that large scale use of the Tubes would paralyse the system and he would only release the Aldwych-Holborn Branch for this use. For the remainder of the Underground system, posters with the following message were on prominent display across the network:


Despite this seemingly unequivocal message, the lack of deep shelters in London and indeed across the country was a contentious issue and elements from the political Left continued to push for the Tubes to be opened up, at the very least pending the construction of purpose built deep level shelters. In the event, it wasn't the Communist Party, Labour Party or any other political faction that caused the Government into a change of heart, it was the sheer force of numbers of normal civilians who invaded the network on 'Black Saturday' who used the simple expedient of buying a ticket and then choosing not to travel. There was nothing in London Transport's regulations that said that passengers buying a ticket had to travel, so when people began to simply remain on the platforms, there was little the authorities could do but to acquiesce. People Power had won the day and the Government, to it's credit, did the sensible thing and began to hastily make improvements to make the system more habitable.

Shelterer at Aldwych Station sketched by Tom Purvis (author's collection)

However, these improvements took time to implement and when the American author Negley Farson visited Aldwych Station in early September 1940, he recorded a picture of somewhat primitive conditions where people were trying to make the best of things:

"One night, about six o'clock, I stood in the Strand with the long line of shelterers waiting to go down the famous Aldwych Tube. It was very much in the newspapers at the time. Nearly everyone (except those who were occupying it) believed it had just been opened as a public shelter. The Press, unwittingly, was giving the impression that great things were being done. As a matter of fact, when the authorities were complacently accepting all the ballyhoo about opening it as a shelter, it had been packed almost to capacity for over three weeks.

The first person in line was a girl, twenty years old, holding an eighteen month old baby in her arms. She told me later that she was expecting again in January. She had been standing there for an hour and a half. The next seventy people in line had of course, been standing there for slightly shorter periods. And there were more people piling up behind them while I was waiting to go down with them. She bared her gums and laughed, saying 'Maybe I'll faint. I did yesterday. Then there was an air raid and they had to let us down.'

The collapsible steel gates of the Tube were locked. They were not supposed to be opened until 6:15 but this evening an Underground worker came along and let the crowd down shortly before six. We descended 132 steps. The people scampered about the platform below to find their favourite places. This girl carried her baby to the far end and spread out a blanket. Then, from somewhere, she produced two sheets of corrugated cardboard - the thick packing case stuff. She placed her baby of top of it, 'So that he won't get damp' she said simply.

I asked her where she lived and she said in Vauxhall. She had to wait half an hour to get a bus here tonight 'And this morning I had to wait two hours before I could get one home.' 

'Bleedin bus conductors' blew out a heavy woman who was planting a family down beside us. 'Know what they said to us this morning? Ya, 'We'll take you' he says 'but we won't take your ------- bundles!'

Well it was quite a scene for a dark, damp, smelly tube - with an open 'Gent's' latrine staring you straight in the face. Lest I be accused of painting the picture, this was the Aldwych Tube; the position of the bucket latrine, used by the men, was some ten feet from the stone steps of the platform - and I'll take a chance and swear on it that there will be plenty of witnesses to come forward and swear that the only veil that covered it from public view at that date was two torn strips of burlap - with a jagged, unclosable gap between them of at least eighteen inches from top to bottom. As the light-weight woman put it, 'We has a free public view - stalls. Ha ha.'

Shelterers on Aldwych Station in the early days (author's collection)

Things did improve gradually; by December 1940 the tracks had been boarded over and rows of bunk beds installed. Chemical toilets were added as was a better ventilation system. Arrangements were made with Charing Cross Hospital for nurses to visit the shelter and later a proper First Aid Post was installed. Other stations followed suit and shelter life began to become more bearable.

Another part of the network used as a shelter was the as yet unopened extension to the Central Line east of Liverpool Street. Again, at first conditions were appalling and when the artist Henry Moore visited the shelter soon after its opening, he found hundreds of what were to become his trademark 'reclining figures' seemingly stretching for miles ahead. To him, the inhabitants had been "sleeping and suffering for hundreds of years."

As well as Henry Moore, the Lilliput wartime anthology, as you would expect, contains several other articles written about shelters and the experiences of shelterers, written by authors such as Ritchie Calder, Julian Huxley, Quentin Reynolds and Margery Sharp. The latter piece tells of how the Tubes were also a good place for a young lady (or gentleman for that matter) to meet someone of the opposite sex!

The articles also tell of how the Tube shelterers, despite being drawn from a multitude of social, racial and political groups, in other words, London in microcosm, formed enduring communities and how the various Shelter Committees even produced news sheets, such as the Subway Companion, The Swiss Cottager, The Holborn Shelter News, The Belsize Park Tube Magazine, The Goodge Street Siren and The Station Searchlight, which was the journal of the Oval Station shelterers. The first edition of the Swiss Cottager welcomed readers thus:

"Greetings to our nightly companions, our temporary cave dwellers (surely a gentle dig at the Government's initial 'Troglodtyes' injunction), our sleeping companions, somnambulists, snorers, chatterers and all who inhabit the Swiss Cottage Station of the Bakerloo Line nightly from dusk until dawn."

Children can sleep anywhere! (author's collection)

The purpose of these newsletters, apart from engendering a community spirit, was to assist in the self-governing nature of these shelters, to share information, to provide hints and appeals for cleanliness and hygiene and to provide some relief from the nightly drudgery of sheltering by providing humorous articles and cartoons.

In spite of the lull in the bombing from May 1941 until late 1943, the Tubes remained available and the onset of the 'Little Blitz' and the V-Weapons campaigns ensured another upsurge in the numbers using them as well as the new, purpose built, deep-level shelters and the continuation of the V-2 Rocket campaign on London (the last one fell on 27th March 1945) meant that the Tube Stations were in use almost right until the end of the War in Europe. The highest number of shelterers using the Tube had been recorded on 27th September 1940, when some 177,000 were recorded as having taken refuge from the bombs but even on VE Night, there were still over 12,000 people using the Tubes, although the majority of these were homeless who had been bombed out and would be given temporary accommodation, ironically some in the Deep Level Shelters until such time as more permanent arrangements could be made.

The Tube Stations themselves quickly reverted to a more peacetime guise, with the first bunks being removed on 12th April 1945 and the last (at South Wimbledon Station) on 31st May 1945.

Printed Sources:

Bomber's Moon - Negley Farson, Victor Gollanz Ltd 1941
Lilliput Goes to War - Edited by Kay Webb, Hutchinson 1985
London Transport at War - Almark Publishing, 1974
The Shelter of the Tubes - Capital Transport, 2001