Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Air Raid Shelter

June asks:

I was born in Greenwich and grew up in Circus Street. I now live down on the coast near Dungeness. I remember my Dad telling me about a tunnel that went from somewhere near the swing park up to Blackheath. It was supposedly used during the war. I have searched on the net but can find nothing about it. Do you know of it at all?

Jack asks:

I have tried everywhere for info about the Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich Park     During the war it was used as an air raid shelter by the local residents my wife being one of those.    Can you help  me please?

I think it’s time to discuss the role of Greenwich Park in the war again… Happily I had a good chat with Dominic of the exemplary Subterranean Greenwich And Kent some time ago about this very subject, and, as luck would have it, Stephen of Blitzwalkers (next Greenwich at Warwalk Sat 18th September, btw) and I were going against Basil Fawlty’s advice and talking about the war just yesterday.

As we discussed a few months ago, Greenwich Park saw its fair share of action during WWII – and not all of it of the blast variety – the lower part near the Queen’s House was actually rather lovely, turned into allotments. But there were also several buildings in there – could they be used for air-raid shelters?

I guess we have to know a little about the underground geography around the west end of the Park, and even though Dominic has carefully explained it all, I’m still not sure I totally have it. The issue is that there are only so many words for ‘reservoir’ and ‘conduit’ and there appear to be several candidates for their use on the west side of the park (and not a few on the east…)

Dominic and his partner in cavery, Per, have inspected a highly detailed 1700-ish plan of the Standard Reservoir house,  and the underground reservoir immediately behind it. Now I think that that’s what I’ve always thought was the Conduit House, the dour little Hawksmoor building halfway up the hill. This one (as photographed by Stephen):


Dominic says “the building itself is empty and featureless, though under the floor is a reservoir fed by a lead pipe.

A few yards uphill from the building is a very large underground reservoir, which heads across towards the observatory for about 20 yards – it was opened during the war for assessment as a possible air raid shelter (I’ve seen a photo that proves that unequivocally).” I think Dominic means the big round reservoir, which, thinking about its underground nature probably would have been ideal. Apparently the Park’s a bit of a Swiss Cheese at that point, with plenty of tunnels and even another (now lost) conduit building.

It seems, though, that the wartime authorities actually decided on the Hawksmoor building, reinforcing it for use as Public Air Raid Shelter No. 4,  and though Stephens’s not sure where the other three were, (certainly from the Subterranean Greenwich guys’ account of visiting the “hobbit hole” near the children’s playground, that one would have been far too teeny – not to mention wet - to get panicky people inside) he tells me “There were also Trench Shelters over near the Park Vista entrance but given the reputation of these – one in Kennington Park collapsed after a near miss early in the Blitz with over 50 being killed – I shouldn’t think these were used much. As far as I know these were daytime-only shelters – i.e. for use of the public when the park was open – local residents in Crooms Hill for example would all have had Anderson shelters in their gardens.”

So, I’m pretty convinced that the air raid shelter that Jack’s wife and June’s dad remember is the Hawksmoor building – it even has ‘Greenwich Hospital’ carved on the outside. Happily, it never got a direct hit, though it had a very near miss on the night of 21st October 1940 when a bomb fell 25 yards from the entrance…

The picture at the top, by the way, is a total cheat. It’s a Faded Greenwich photo sent to me by Frank, of a fabulous Air Raid Shelter signpost – but it’s nowhere near Greenwich Park, or even Greenwich, though I’m sure we had them all over the place at the time. This splendid example is actually in Deptford High Street.


the attachments to this post:

frank to air raid deptford high street
frank to air raid deptford high street

Stephen Greenwich Park Shelter Entrance
Stephen Greenwich Park Shelter Entrance


12 Comments to “Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Air Raid Shelter”

  1. OldChina says:

    Maybe we can set off an air-raid in order to gain entrance to the Hawksmoore building for “shelter”? i’d love a look inside there. And the resevoir at the top of the park. Maybe as a possible future “open house” event?

    Btw, I’m surprised to hear there were daytime raids. I thought they always happened at night time.

    GP – you seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of specific WWII air raids. Do you use a reference for these?

  2. Nick Martin says:

    When I was a kid in the 1950′s, there were lots of stories about underground tunnels in Greenwich. I was told that Henry VIII had tunnels built under the Royal Park, so he could escape if his enemies attacked from the Thames. There was also rumours of a tunnel that linked Greenwich Park with a hotel in Westcombe Park Road, and the Royal Standard pub in Blackheath. Strangely enough, my friend’s father ran the Royal Standard in the 1950′s, and in the cellar of that pub is a bricked-up arch. I think many of the rumours started because there was what looked like a tunnel entrance in the hill behind the college/museum (the one that leads up to the Greenwich Observatory). I’ve never fully understood what this arch was, but it was quite close to where the childrens’ playground was. Lots of large cities have rumours about underground tunnels, so I’m not that convinced about these rumours.

  3. Nick Martin says:

    Incidentally, my great-uncle’s son was an air-raid warden in Greenwich, and before he died he wrote an account of his life and times. I found it to be a fascinating read. You can find it on greenseniors.typepad.com/uploads/how_it_was.pdf

  4. marmoset says:

    The shelter sign shown is not actually in the High Street, it’s just off it on Frankham Street. However, there is one in Deptford High Street, tucked away behind a gate next to the Deptford Project café-train. A third is to be found in Speedwell Street, also off the High Street.

  5. scared of chives says:

    A schoolmate of mine lived on Eliot Hill just off the heath on the way to Lewisham – a neighbour of the spooky ‘The Knoll’ property I think it’s called (where Bob Hoskins carried Cathy Tyson across the lawn in the film ‘Mona Lisa’)…anyway… his basement had a sealed-off wall which was, we were told a long tunnel to the heath.

    Of course, his Dad may have made it all up – but you could see the brickwork. We did a Ouija down there and got mighty scared of a visiting ‘Captain Howdy’. Holy crap.

  6. Old China – at the start of The Blitz there were indeed many daylight raids. For example on Saturday September 7th 1940, known as ‘Black Saturday’ the sirens sounded at 4.30pm and the raids then continued right through until about 5.30am the following morning. It was only after September 15th when the Luftwaffe was routed by the RAF in a daylight raid over London that they tended to stick to nighttime only raids as the RAF’s night fighting capability at that time was fairly limited. As to TGP’s knowledge of the raids – it goes without saying that he is a genius!

    Also, the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich’s A.R.P. Incident Log is available for inspection at the Heritage Centre at Woolwich Arsenal. I have transcribed this and have a copy at home (along with many of the other London boroughs) and they are an invaluable tool as they do give a day by day and raid by raid breakdown of events.

  7. Tee hee – my ‘encyclopaedic knowledge comes from a very special reference – Stephen of blitzwalkers.co.uk….

  8. Dominic says:

    The reservoir used as an air raid shelter was just a few metres uphill from the Standard Conduit building. It was known as the “Admiralty Western Resevoir” [sic]. As far as I know the big round reservoir beyond the tumuli was never used as a shelter.

    See this post:

    http://subterraneangreeenwich.blogspot.com/2010/02/standard-reservoir-plumbing.html

    Kind regards,

    Dominic :)

  9. Kratch says:

    There’s a house in Woodlands Park Road (number 31?) that has ‘S’ And ‘W’ painted on it – apparently a reference to ‘sand’ and ‘water’ during the war.

  10. Kratch says:

    Nick – have just read your great uncle’s son’s memories of Greenwich – how fascinating! What a great record… Thanks for the link.

  11. [...] spent some time talking about air raid shelters in Greenwich Park a few weeks ago, but while things like the reservoirs aren’t going to be [...]

  12. Emeritus Professor Douglas Inman says:

    I will only make a short comment now, but may return later.
    My 9th birthday was on September 5th 1940 (I lived in Whitworth Street, East Greenwich). During the afternoon of September 7th 1940, my parents and I went to Greenwich Park so that I could fly my new model Spitfire!! We were there when the siren signalled the start of the major raid on London. We went down into a shelter which had been dug in the corner of the flat part of the park virtually in line with the east wing of the maritime museum. (I went there yesterday and it is still possible to see the outline of the shelter!).
    A temporary all-clear sounded sometime during the evening and we made our way home, observing the Dante’s inferno of the docks burning to the north.
    I have many memories of the Blitz. Inter alia a bomb landed outside our house, when my mother and I were sheltering under the kitchen table! We didn’t have a shelter at that stage.
    Later in the war my father (who had been in the First World War, he was 40 in 1940)had an allotment very close to the shelter mentioned above. I often worked there with him.