Duck and cover

Yr. Humble Chronicler must confess a morbid fascination with the nuclear paranoia of the Cold War era. I have both Threads and The War Game on DVD and, in the event of an atomic strike on London, I know exactly where to place my fallout shelter for maximum safety (Antarctica).

So I was intrigued to learn that there’s a nuclear bunker directly under the streets of London. Of course, Kelvedon Hatch out in Essex is more well-known (and, if certain conspiracy theorists are to be believed, it was the main reason for the Ongar branch of the Central Line being kept open for as long as it was). But there was, and still is, one rather closer to the action – right beneath High Holborn.

I have spoken previously about the deep-level shelters constructed during World War II as a joint venture between the Home Office and London Transport. To briefly sum up, this was a series of air raid shelters built next to existing Underground stations with the intention, post-war, of turning them into the basis of an express line. These were mostly on the Northern Line, but one was built at Chancery Lane and turned into a bomb-proof communications centre. It briefly served as a billet for troops awaiting D-Day, but in 1949 was handed over to the Post Office and became known as the Kingsway Telephone Exchange.

Goods entrance, Furnival Street

Work was carried out to expand and improve the site with the intention of making it atomic blast-proof. The idea was that, in the event of nuclear war, it would be possible to maintain communications between London, Birmingham and Manchester even after a strike. I’m not sure what conversations would consist of. “How’s things over there?” “Oh, you know, same old, same old. My teeth fell out today.” “Oh, what a drag. It’s the vomiting I can’t stand.”

To this end, the tunnels were turned into, effectively, an underground village. They featured accommodation for staff, an artesian well, rations for up to five weeks, a cinema screen, a billiard room and even a bar. This latter was reputed to be the deepest bar in Britain, bringing a whole new meaning to the term “dive bar.” It’s fair to say that if I was a telephone engineer stuck down there while my family and friends burned up above, the first thing I’d want to do is get blind drunk, so that was most prescient of the builders.

The nearly-200 staff down there didn’t just sit around waiting patiently for the world to end, of course. The site saw plenty of other use, most of it to do with telecommunications and probably not of interest to you. Apologies to the three people reading this who actually are interested in telecommunications. However, one very notable cable that passed through was that of the famous “Red Phone,” the hotline between the Premier of the USSR and the President of the USA following the colossal foul-up that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is it ironic that a bomb shelter should help to prevent war?

Vents for the shelter. These were demolished in 2001.

During the Cold War, it goes without saying that the whole thing was top secret – legend has it that foreign labour was used to prevent anyone communicating its whereabouts, and even now its exact location is supposed to be top secret. Having said that, the Daily Express went and revealed the whole thing in 1951, and in 1979 a detailed plan was published and may be viewed online.

Shelter entrance at 32 High Holborn. Sadly blocked by scaffolding when I took this.

As you might imagine, the shelter lost its function with the end of the Cold War. Quite apart from anything else, the equipment therein was by now largely obsolete. Therefore, in 2008, the whole lot was put up for sale. There’s not a whole lot you can do with an old air raid shelter, described by its workers as being like “living in a submarine.” It’s unsuitable as living, working or leisure space, and its best bet would probably be as storage space.

These days, there’s even less to show that the Kingsway Telephone Exchange was ever there. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find entrances on High Holborn and Furnival Street. There are those who proclaim that this was part of an even vaster network of underground tunnels stretching as far as Whitehall, Waterloo and Bethnal Green, though I remain sceptical. What is true is that there was an entrance from the main Chancery Lane Underground Station.

So, you knew about the Tube shelters in the Second World War. Now you know about one for the Third. Sleep well.

Further Reading – A bit about the Aldwych branch of the Piccadilly Line, yet another weird abandoned thing under Holborn.


Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Buildings and architecture, History, London, London Underground, Politics, Psychogeography, The City, Transport, West End

2 responses to “Duck and cover

  1. Pingback: Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line | London Particulars

  2. Pingback: Going Deeper Underground | London Particulars

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