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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

School air raid shelters
in 1940s war-time Britain

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Experiences of school air raid shelters

I was born three months before the start of the Second World War, and I lived in north London. The war ended in 1945, so most of my recollections of air-raids are from before I went to school. However I do remember one air-raid while I was at my first school, Edgware Primary School.

WW2 Anderson shelter used at Edgware Primary School in 1944.

The WW2 school shelter used by my class at Edgware Primary School in 1944. This picture is a computerised composite of several original photographs, created to match my recollections.

When the siren went, we all had to troop out into a field at the back of the school and be led what seemed quite a long way to climb down into an underground shelter. As we went, we had to sing "Ten green bottles" presumably to help us move quickly in step with the beat. Nevertheless, if a bomb had dropped, we would never have reached the shelter in time.

The school air-raid shelters in Edgware, north London

There were a number of shelters, probably one for each class. Our shelter wasn't particularly crowded. What stuck in my mind was how wet, muddy and dark it was inside because it was some way below ground

There were probably two, maybe three, exits to the shelters at the back of Edgware Primary school. One was somewhere near the outside door at the headmaster's office and at least one more was further down in the direction of Burnt Oak. The shelter I remember consisted of a sloping shaft with concrete walls and steps, leading down to the shelter room. The room was pretty long, but my childish mind was too immature to think about length or to judge it. I think there was a WC down there.

We children sat in two parallel rows facing each other. With our backs to a wall, we all had our heads turned to one side, looking towards the dimly lit teacher.

I only ever remember going into the shelter during air-raids - never for practice.

Tony Woods whose memory
is better than mine as he was born two years before me

I was allocated Shelter number 6 at the far end of the school field, and was always being told off for going to the nearest shelter. At the time my instinct told me that the nearest shelter was the best to use.

Dick Green

There were a number of shelters, probably one for each class. Our shelter wasn't particularly crowded. What stuck in my mind was how wet, muddy and dark it was inside because it was some way below ground level. There were benches to sit on but they were not particularly inviting because the dampness and mud seemed to have got to them too. Fortunately the air-raid wasn't a long one and we were let out quickly.


School air-raid shelters in various parts of England

Older friends have sent me recollections of school shelters at my grammar school. I of course was not yet there.

On several occasions we school children were ordered to leave the dinner tables because the air raid siren was sounding. We filed down to the basement where we occupied the time singing songs. Then, when the 'all clear' sounded, we returned to our dinner tables where we sat down again to the same plates of dinner, now cold. We had to eat it! No potato crisps or chocolate bars as alternatives!

Michael Sullivan

At Silver Street School in Edmonton in the Second World War, I can't remember any air-raid shelters. There were, though, very thick brick blast walls specially built in front of every entrance. During one air-raid, I hid under my desk and when the bomb went off all the pictures on the wall fell off and came crashing down.

Peter Johnson

I started at Dalston County Girls Grammar School in Hackney in 1943 where my class was designated the ground floor cloakroom as an air raid shelter. This was because it had been reinforced with concrete block walls within the inner walls and over the windows. The ceiling too was reinforced.

This makeshift shelter was not at all suitable as a classroom. Being a cloakroom there were several two or three double sided rows of racks for hanging coats, underneath which were wire boxes for shoes and Wellingtons. On top of these wire boxes were hard and narrow wooden benches which were only intended for brief use such as for sitting changing shoes, etc. So sitting on them for hours at a time was extremely uncomfortable. Also it was pretty crowded in there when three classes of 30 girls crowded in and seated themselves, not to mention the discomfort of coats, jackets, bags and gas masks dangling over our heads while we were trying to juggle exercise books etc. The lighting was also very poor. I recall a science lesson on magnetism utilising iron filings on a sheet of paper and a magnet; most of my iron filings ended up on the floor. So classes were not all that successful although some of the older girls studied for their finals in similar shelters in the gym changing room.

A number of lessons took place in these shelters while we waited for the All Clear to sound, and if it hadn't sounded by home time we had to wait until it did, which was not popular.

I particularly remember shortly after lunch on the afternoon of Monday 3 July 1944. The siren sounded and we all trooped out to the shelters where classes continued for a while. Work stopped when we heard the sound of a V1 approaching. It was flying very low and as it drew nearer the noise increased until it sounded as loud as if one were standing up close to a huge engine running at full speed. The noise was deafening and I am sure many of the girls in the shelter thought, like me, that their last moment had come. I had never heard one quite so loud before, with the noise completely surrounding us, growling and then, even worse, hiccupping as if it was about to stall. We all knew what that meant. If the engines stopped the bomb would drop straight down and explode and we were underneath! Everyone tensed not knowing how close it would be when it fell and probably willing it to keep on spluttering.

Suddenly the engine cut out and we all held our breath. Two seconds and then came a tremendous explosion which caused the whole building to shake. We all jumped at the sound knowing how close it had been and how close we had been to death. It must have just skimmed the tops of the nearby houses and passed directly overhead. We all sighed with relief and with wildly beating hearts got on with our school work. No panic. No hysteria. No fuss.

Those sheltering with me in the cloakroom that day were, like me, 12 years old. We were a school of over 300 girls and women teachers and although we were all terrified no one panicked. We were all sent home early once the All Clear sounded but some of us had to detour as our usual route had been cordoned off due to the explosion which had demolished several houses.

Jean Noble (formerly Jean Barnes)
extracted with permission from her forthcoming book
'Golden Girls and Dalston Days'

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Archaeological findings of school air raid shelters

In the summer of 2005 the edge of what turned out to be the buried remains of a wartime air-raid shelter was found on a raised area of turf in the playing field of what was Edgware Primary School. Archaeological excavation revealed a staircase down, cast from a single piece of concrete leading to a shelter almost 15m long. Two of the visible walls were built from preformed panels of reinforced concrete approximately 0.45 m wide and 2 m high; the partition to the right of the entrance was a half-brick wall. At the far end there was a metal ladder leading up to an emergency exit, sealed with a concrete plug. There was a toilet cubicle at each end of the shelter, but the chemical toilets and the benches had been removed. Fragments of electrical wiring remained, including the brackets for the distribution panel and several Bakelite covers.

After the war, the wood, glass and electrical fittings were stripped out and sold for scrap. According to records dated September 1946, thirteen air-raid shelters at the school were sealed up with reinforced concrete. These thirteen were shared between what were Edgware Primary School and the adjacent Edgware Secondary Modern School.

based on: Moshenska, Gabriel, Unearthing an air-raid shelter at Edgware Junior School, Historical Archaeology, Summer 2007, pp 237-240.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster