Epsom Deep Shelters

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 Created 08-06-2003     Last update 08-06-2003


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Epsom Deep Shelter(s).

            Situated at TQ,211/597 is a wired compound with a double steel and wire mesh leafed gate with a well cut sloping cutting with a tarmaced track in it leading to a heavy steel door at the base of a cliff-like brick lined sheer-faced chalk escarpment. This is the entrance into the Epsom (Ashley Road) Deep Shelter complex.

            Notice, My companions and I entered this site with full permission and knowledge of the site Estate Agents, and we wore appropriate clothing and safety equipment and had at least two torches each, therefore we were aware of the difficulties to be expected on site and could take our time to do a full survey and archaeological investigation. Please disregard any unauthorised material posted on the Internet, etc, by persons without such approval.

Thanks, to the Estate Agents for their co-operation, to Keith Ward, and Jane and Bob who made up the party with me, to Dr Robin Woolven (LatWSG) for advice and certain NA (Kew) references, and the staff of the Surrey History Centre, Woking. Any errors are mine and mine alone.

The Survey was undertaken on Saturday 17th May 2003.

            To begin the Site reports there are several intriguing features of this site, which will be discussed, latter under the conclusions section together with data extracted from the two Archives quoted above.

            The approach cutting is as stated above surrounded by a chain link fence supported on standard concrete posts with at the northern end, of the compound the only gateway, which adjoins a public footpath from Ashley Road, Epsom to Chalk Road. The compound is about 330 ft long by 40ft wide. The actual cutting is in effect a “Slope Shaft” with the tree lined track of 10ft wide, having a slope of 1 in 15 thus over its length the ground falls to a depth of 22 ft at the base of a brick-arched portal with ivy hanging down from a sheer chalk face. However the ground above rises gradually from this point in the general direction of Epsom Race Course. Once beyond the series of doors (one steel door of a type common in the 1960,s and the other newer from the 1990’s added by the recent tenants and the remains of the “original” door from circa 1939/40) a brick barrel vaulted tunnel extends due southwards for about 50ft until the tunnel turns in a steady turn to the east and then twists again to the south and after a further 40ft the tunnel/passage turns once more to the east and thence again to the south. As far as can be ascertained the total length of this entry tunnel passage is 200ft long, and, the width internally is 10ft wide by the same in height to the top of the arch.     

            Off of the Passage tunnel there are, both on the west side, two, again barrel vaulted brick chambers each 25ft long by 7ft wide and 8ft high internally. These chambers had a timber door each at the entry point, and both once had timber framed racks one to each side (north and south) though these racks were removed when the site, overall, was converted into a storage facility. One of the chambers has the roof vault encased in a 1” thick stucco skim of cement.

            The entrance tunnel terminates at a “X” Junction with a lateral passage tunnel as well as an extension further south, However at this junction there is a large, 30ft x 30ft room, once more, brick-vaulted, but modified due to the (comparatively thin [15ft] amount of chalk above) with 15”square pillars of brick supporting RSJs (Rolled Steel Joists) with at either side, east and west, a single room with the usual brick barrel vaulted roof converted into an office with a wall and plain timber jambed doorway (the doors are both missing) and southwards in both instances, a steel framed window of standard type found in factories and council houses of the period. The functions of these offices, which are both 15ft long x 11ft high inside, were for the use of the Shelter Warden and his or her staff and the Shelter Marshal and his/her cleaning staff. Directly below each window are the remains of a small shelf for the issuing of the location tickets and the printed copies of the Regulations. From time to time this shelf was also used to sign for supplies delivered to the Shelter complex.

            As stated above, here the tunnel extends to left and right, but it is narrower and lower in height yet it continues to be brick lined through out its entire length. To the left (east) the tunnel continues for over 250ft, likewise to the right (west). The east tunnel arrives at a right hand junction whereat at another tunnel proceeds south, this south-going tunnel is just 8ft wide and is 10ft high and for the first segment of its length it is also brick vaulted. The same description applied to the tunnel going off to the west this though at its left hand turn to the south has a slightly wider chamber at the beginning of the tunnel. This chamber is brick lined and vaulted but it is painted white throughout and it has 2 single thickness of brick dividing wall forming 3 rooms, from the north, the first room has a smashed remains of a butler sink supported on two brick piers on its east side wall and nearby the shadow markings on the wall for a utensil cupboard, The next two rooms are identical with the fragmentary remains of benches on one side and “cots” on the other. The basic plan of the complex confirms these rooms as the “Medical Treatment Area”.  The west tunnel continues further south.

          Off of both north-south tunnels are 6 cross (lateral) tunnels, likewise the central tunnel bisects these same laterals so that safe movement around the complex could take place and a free movement of air could be provided.

            Just beyond, (south) of the central tunnel another wider chamber, also 30ft square in this case x 11 ft high was encountered. In the northeast quadrant is a Kitchen area with a white painted enclosing wall with just the a single (formerly) double door into the working area, standing free from the wall are 2 sets of 2” diameter iron rails the queuing and meal serving areas respectively. The serving hatch forms the only other hole in the wall. The serving hatch had been removed sometime in the past and the position of the timber-frame for the shutter etc, is evident by the mark left on the brickwork. The remaining 3/4s of the area once was a seated dining room. A very few of the required period electrical fitting survive however most have been plundered by looters who have got in, in recent weeks.  

            Going into the next lateral there are either side the Ladies (west) and Gents (east) lavatories plus a small side chamber, again to the east, which hosed the bathroom. A lone bath survives though tipped on its side by persons who did not succeed in taking it away, the other 3 have been removed. Strangely the cold water pipes and the master valve have not yet been stolen.

             From here onwards there are various styles of both wall and ceiling construction to be seen. But before describing the remainder of the complex a note on the lavatory areas needs to be given.
            In both sets of toilets, even though vandals have smashed the pans and attempted to steal the 1941 pattern cisterns and pipework etc, more than enough remains to determine the layout which is fairly standard for the age, however, the strange feature in both WC areas are the massive and elaborate brick column pillars that divide up each “stall” and thus make the actual entry into each alcove so narrow. There are stalls on both the south and north sides in each area.

            To save too much repetition, I should remark that in general most of the eastern section and a about half the central passage is concerned with the “services” with the west side passages and laterals and the southern-most lateral had the facilities for sitting shelterers and those sleeping overnight. The only “services” on the west were the Medical Treatment Area, the ablutions (a row along the southern wall of 10 wash basins/sinks) and the Ladies Lavatories noted above in page 3.

Other service areas.

            Along the Central passage/tunnel and just east of the junction with the 4th southward lateral was found the water-tank shaft and the (in dire extremitas only) escape ladder. In this rough hewn rectangular vertical shaft are at least 2 x 1000 gallon capacity riveted galvanised steel water tanks supported on 2 each 6” x 4” RSJs, that in their turn reside in slot cut for that purpose in the chalk. Each tank is about 4ft high and is spaced a further 6ft above the one below. We believed that we could see a 3rd such tank about 28ft above us but vandal damage to the access/escape ladder prevented any investigation to verify this belief.  These water tanks must have been lowered in from above, as their sheer bulk would have prevented them from being transported through the tunnels and then hoisted into position.

            At the junction with the 3rd lateral with the eastern passage and running along the 3rd lateral for 30ft are 2 concrete “rails” for want of a better descriptive term each 6inches high x 4inches in width. Between these rails there are an inspection/access pit/manhole for the sewage pipes and a smaller 8inch square hole with a 6” dia earthenware pipe therein. The manhole cover casting had been shattered by the vandals. The cast iron cover had been supplied by “Ham Baker & Co of Westminster”. I must point out that there were around the complex 3 other holes of the same dimensions. Given the amount of theft from this site and past experience we considered that the covers had been of the slotted cast iron type and that the purposes of these drain pipe-holes was to assist with cleaning the shelter.

            The reason for the double line of rails may have been twofold, a) to protect the manhole from damage, and b) onto which could be emplaced machinery such as electrical transformers, dynamos, or modular boilers, or semi-portable pumps.

            We continued south along the eastern tunnel and noted that very soon the brick vaulting ceased and the walls and roof were rough hewn chalk the ceiling was made from inverted “V” shaped 1½“ pipes to which had been tack-welded wide mesh galvanised steel wire netting. Next between the 4th and 5th lateral tunnel junctions was a collapsed structure. On examination it transpired that the structure was composed of 8ft x 4ft x 12guage sheet steel plates butt jointed to each other and extending the entire length of the space betwixt the junctions (35ft) there are two such series of sheeting containing 3inch thick wads of kapok. The plates had been affixed by screwing to small blocks of wood notched into slots cut out of the chalk. Over the years since World War Two the screws have rusted and the weight of the plates have caused them to slip over and fall away from the tunnel lining.   The sandwich of steel and kapok was repeated on the other side. Above and screwed to 2” x 1” battens were insulation boards composed of a carbon-black cellular material 1¼ thick. Within the collapsed sub-structure were noted four (at least) condenser/heat exchanger pipes.

            The function of this chamber was evidently to, when functioning, to absorb the dampness that abounded in the shelters during wartime and convert the moisture into water and recirculated. The “waste” heat could then have been used to help dry any wet clothing of the shelter users.

Shelter Accommodation Areas.

            The remainder of the complex contained (originally) either in the brick lined sections double or triple bunks, and in the chalk lined sections wooden benches for seating. Both had been removed about 12 years ago when the shelter complex was converted into use for storage. The bunks were, when not in use, folded up and secured by chains or wires to 15” long x ½“ dia rods or small bore pipes that in many instances survive 6ft 6” in height up the walls into which they had been embedded.

            As stated earlier, beyond the brick lined zones, the chalk tunnels have been either left rock-cut and the form of ceiling built up from wire mesh on V frames described as in the case of the collapsed condenser/heat exchanger plant, another form of lining in the lateral passages is steel “colliery hoops” behind and above which CGI (Corrugated Iron) sheets have been inserted. It is worth noting that each panel is still shiny. This fact is interesting; it shows that the CGI sheets were manufactured either pre-war or no later than April 1941 when to save on scarce metals and material, the quality and thickness of zinc was reduced. These “colliery hoop” liners differ from those often seen in military sites in that here the CGI sheeting only extend down to just 4ft above the floor and the chalk is visible all along the tunnels. Occasionally where the lateral passages link into the central brick tunnel in the floor a 2inch wide x full width (of passage) x 2” deep slot was seen, we believe this to have been the remains of a frame for either an anti-gas curtain or a door to give a modicum of privacy to the sleeping areas.  

            The final section of note was in the far southern lateral tunnel which here is partly brick lined, with instead of a barrel vault, the ceiling is made from reinforced concrete panels that is to say either side of its “T” junction, beyond to both east and west the ceiling is formed by the “V” and mesh method. Close by we noted a smashed, formerly bricked, up small chamber, in the southern wall, inside here we found two small (10 gallon) galvanised steel riveted tanks and the remains of a small shaft, again very rough-hewn. Vandals having entered this small chamber have attempted to remove the lower of the two tanks by sawing off the pipework and the supporting angle irons, the tank then fell and is now resting in a heap of chalk, flint and brick rubble. Some 6ft further west there is another bricked up chamber door. As our purpose within the shelter complex was study and not looting we did not attempt to remove any of the bricks from this alcove.

            During the 1990s when the Deep Shelters had been used for storage purposes two concrete block walls were built to divide the rented zones from the unused sections. One of these walls has been smashed through but the second remains intact.

            The Estate Agent was made aware of a pile of wartime electrical conduits and other light fittings that had been placed in the second lateral to await collection by the looters. 


Excavation and construction dating ? … and other oddities.

            The four different types of construction used within the shelter system gave us a conundrum regarding dating and then required an investigation into the former, or intended use, of the site prior to either approval by the Home Office/Ministry of Home Security and purchase by the then London County Council (LCC), likewise during the investigation the symbolism of significant parts of the brick vaulted segments of the site gave peculiar answers.

            The quality of the brick vaulting and the types of bricks used as well as the stucco indicated a pre-war dating, in this context prior to the Munich Crisis of 1938,  the fact that the entry  passage tunnel had NOT been  fitted out for blast chambers at the bends. Also, the bends were so gradual and maintained a constant width around the bends and as indicated earlier they always deviated to the east whilst still going south. The shape and size of the two side chambers, later modified for provisions and essential stores for the shelters use also required investigation and further the massive and elaborate brick pillars in the toilet areas, and the two wide and high chambers, latterly modified as the Wardens and Marshals Offices and the Canteen respectively al provided clues to the first, intended duty of the complex.

            After study it became obvious that this labyrinth had originally been intended for use as a Necropolis (I.e., a “City of the Dead”), the entry cutting was built to take the byre coffin trolleys which were not fitted with brakes down a gentle slope, then through the (symbolic) gates to Hades and along the River of Styx thence via the (now) central passage/tunnel to the far (symbolic) caverns of Tartarus (the deepest part of Hades). Coincidentally this area has the most ground cover above it. The two brick chambers to the west equated to Elysium and would have been purchased by wealthy families to use as their mausoleums. The Brick Pillared section of the 3rd lateral in what later during WWII were converted into lavatories were for the use of upper middle class families to inter their deceased relatives, etc, etc.

            The use of the Colliery Hoop sections date from 1939-late 1941 at the latest, as by then ( say October 1941) the availably of the high quality CGI ceased. A date closer to mid 1941 is more probable as to save on scarce materials the builders saved on CGI by not inserting two sheets either side of these passages. Once the Royal Engineers requisitioned all the remaining Colliery Hoops for the large number of “Underground Headquarters” and “Dressing Stations” dug through out southern Britain May/June 1941 to end 1942 the supply of this equipment ceased. Then the austerity style of ceiling with the inverted V fitted with wide wire-mesh would have been installed from July/August 1941 onwards or even latter during 1942. The wire mesh would have just caught the larger scabs of chalk rock spalled off during bombardment leaving the powdered chalk residue to fall through onto the population below.

            Another oddity that shows that this was a conversion rather than a new build was the absence of alternative entrances/exits. The few Home Office authorised Deep Shelters begun 1938-39/40, at Dover, Rochester, Portsdown (Portsmouth), Plymouth, and Woolwich, etc, all had at least two well separated (at least 100ft apart) entrances, two emergency exits, in the form of staircases enclosed in vertical shafts with protected (against bombing) structures on the surface.

            There were a few, we only counted three, instances of  brick walls with reinforced concrete panels inserted above them, could these have been unfinished sections of the necropolis modified soon after take over by the authorities when such  panels were still obtainable by the contractors ?

            The final oddity was the apparent absence of any anti-gas filtration equipment, unless, of course, this equipment had been removed during the early 1990’s conversion into a storage facility, or had been stolen in more recent years.

 The Garrison ?

            I know that is not the correct word, as of yet I have not found the terminology for the collective noun for the personnel concerned with control, etc, of a large public shelter such as this one.

            Officers :- Shelter Marshal –1

                             Shelter Warden –1

                             Medical Officer –1  == 3

            Staff :-     Duty Electrician –1, Medical Orderly –1, Cook—1,

                            Plumber –1, Storekeeper-1, Cleaners –3    == 8  Total 11.

            Volunteers required would have been 2 for the canteen,  1 or 2 for entertainments, and volunteer wardens for each gallery (passage) dormitory, possibly up to a further 12. Thus a maximum of 16.


            Capacity. This data is very hard to extract circumstances varied day by day, but the likelihood was in excess of 1,500 persons up to about 3,000.

            The local authority, Epsom in this case, had during the cold war years (1948- 91), placed a statutory “Planning and Development Embargo” on the site and the land above and near by to prevent encroachment  by housing or industry so that in the event of  the Cold War becoming “Hot” the shelters could be used by the local population. It should be noted in this context that there is a school within a ¼ mile and houses as well as a the (original) cemetery on the opposite side of the Ashley Road (B290).

            At the PRO (now National Archives), at Kew, the document HO207/402, though short was full of useful data in that it concerned its self with proposals by the Ministry of Home Security to requisition 9 modified London Passenger Transport Board converted Stations and unfinished Tube tunnels and the Chislehurst Caves and 2 “Surrey Tunnels”, the Ashley Road tunnels and another tunnel shelter group at Epsom Downs, plus Brighton Road, Coulsdon and the Godstone Road, Kenley shelters with the appended note “taken with agreement with the City of London Corporation”. Common sense soon prevailed as one (anonymous) Civil Servant pointed out that all the 1940-41 shelter tunnels in the London Civil Defence Region (No 5) had been lawfully acquired by using clauses 50 and 51 of the Defence Acts 1939 and 1940. Later on the document termed the Ashley Road, Tunnels as being “Newly dug”. Using their definition that meant where both conversion and new excavations were required to bring the site into service. Hence our finding, on site, the two ages of chalk cut tunnels, the Colliery Hoop and Inverted V type passages. 

            Likewise the document cited as  4239/1/13, extracts from the Durdans Estate, EPSOM, 1937-1943 held at the Surrey History Centre, Woking, shed further light on the dating of the tunnel shelters and the intention as  distinct from what eventually came to be constructed underground.  A letter to the Trustees of the Durdans Estate and to Lt General Sir Charles Grant KCB, KCVO, DSO, who (in 1941) was stationed in Shrewsbury to where he had been posted after serving as Commanding General Scottish Command, from Messers Driver Jones & Co St James Square London SW 1, dated 3rd March 1941 stated “…work in hand for the past ten days.” “Surrey County Council informed by our agent….” [*]  “.. that on the footpath side of the ground taken must be fenced by a 6ft high fence with barbed wire on top.” Later, “contractors occupying the south side of the side by Estate Land on which rent has not been paid.” [$] then … “felling trees at the proposed (my italics etc) 4 exits and entrances as shown on plan.” [That plan was NOT with these documents.]  “Timber must not be taken from the site as this with further increase the claim.”                                               

* = Surrey were acting as agents for the LCC. $ = given that the site had been lawfully acquired using the Defence Acts, someone was trying to extract rent from a site that no longer belonged to them.  

            The proposed 4 exits etc quoted, in the event did not ever get dug, just the North entrance ramp (original) and the vertical emergency shaft/ladder exit were completed. So we now know that work begun either on or just before February 20th 1941.

Considered replies to this study/survey are invited.       

P. D. Cobb May/June 2003.


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