Note: Please be aware that this shelter and its fenced site are private property and are not accessible to the public without authority from the owner.
Entrance to the Shelter Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
This article should strictly be called 'What Lies Beneath', but that title has already been used for a supernatural horror film. The above photo looks as if it could be the entrance to a hobbit's house, so you may be surprised at what is inside.
Most of us have seen deep-level air raid shelters in old newsreels and films, with those in London being constructed beneath stations on the Underground. Many of them still exist (the cost of filling them in is considerable) and have been/are used for various purposes. The 'hobbit's door' in the photo conceals such a shelter beneath Ashley Road, Epsom.
We have a number of documents and reports on the shelter, which tell us a great deal about the construction materials and layout, plus, as an incentive to keep you reading, a highly interesting theory near the end of this article which suggests that the complex may have been intended originally for an entirely different purpose - not too far away from a 'what lies beneath' purpose.
Location and construction
The shelter is situated under a wooded and triangular plot of land, between 4-5 acres in size, on the west side of Ashley Road. Past researchers have been unable to find out for certain who the original owner was, but it was believed to be 'a lady at Durdans', which implies Lady Sybil Grant, the daughter of Lord Rosebery. We will return to that later, since it is relevant to the mystery surrounding the shelter's beginnings.
The official version says that the land was requisitioned by Surrey County Council on 8 February 1941 for the purpose of building a shelter costing £26,658 (about £1.3 million in today's money). Please note for future reference that there is nothing in the reports to suggest that construction had already begun, although this cannot be ruled out. However, it seems unlikely that the Council would have commenced such works before they had purchased the land.
To quote from a report prepared in 1992 by Building Management South East for Property Holdings Thames South, 'The shelter is formed of a grid of tunnels bored and cut into the chalk and flint sub-strata and variously lined with brickwork or metalwork. There are two main ventilation/access shafts, one at the north-east and another at the north-west corner of the shelter (these have been capped in concrete for safety reasons), and a further shaft rises centrally from the north end (no visible surface opening).' There was also a metal-capped shaft at the south end.
'The entrance tunnel and all tunnel intersections are brick lined and the remaining tunnels are lined with either open mesh or galvanised corrugated iron sheeting, supported on various types of steel-sectioned portal frames.'
Corridor with roof lined with galvanised corrugated iron sheeting. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
The complex was built on a gradient, so that the depth of the tunnels ranges from 10 metres to 20 metres. It was finished in January 1942, with the cost being reimbursed to the Council by the Home Office.
We have a couple of comments from people who used the shelter during the War, with the most succinct being from Mr Ken Harries, who stayed there for two nights whilst on leave from the army and then decided that his barracks provided better accommodation: he described it as 'damp, chill and dismal'. And it did turn out to be something of a white elephant anyway, as the Blitz was over by the time the shelter opened and, whilst there was another period of sustained bombing in 1944 from V-1 rockets ('doodlebugs'), by October of that year the Allies had captured the last V-1 site capable of launching attacks on Britain. The actual statistics on local bombing casualties are shown in World War 2 Composite Bomb Map.
In 1997 David Brooks and Geoff Howell, representing Bourne Hall Museum, toured this subterranean curiosity and here are some extracts from Geoff's report on the visit.
'The internal tunnels are approximately 2.5 metres wide. The press-cutting of 1942 refers to the tunnels being lined by three-tier bunks to accommodate 1500 persons (or more, according to a later report) and there being enough room for two persons to pass side-by-side beside the bunks. This must have been an exaggeration as three-tier bunks must have been located on both sides of the tunnels in order to accommodate 1500 people. The passageway could have allowed only one person to pass between the bunks.'
'At the southern end of the shelter was an ingress air shaft with electric fan motors which were served by an auxiliary petrol driven 'stand-by' if the electric power was to fail. There was also a boiler (oil fired?) to control the incoming air temperatures and domestic hot water (54 degrees Fahrenheit/12.2 Celsius was the stated maximum air temperature to be achieved, but damp must have made it seem much colder).'
'At the northern end of the shelter there were three egress air shafts. These were in the area of the lavatories etc. At least one of these shafts must have included a low level sump which pumped the soil and waste water to a sewer in Ashley Road.' Note: We know that there was a cesspit in the shelter.
Sketch Plan of the Ashley Road Shelter. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
Interior view of one of the shelter rooms. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
'In 1942 entrants were advised to "bring wraps or thick overcoats". All lighting was by 12V bulkhead filament fittings served by metal conduited electric cables. The Epsom and Ewell Borough was required to provide 40 stand-by paraffin hurricane lamps and also fresh drinking water.'
Mr Cobb and Colleagues
The late Peter Cobb was chairman of the UK Fortifications Club. In May 2003 he and some colleagues/fellow experts went on an authorised fact-finding mission in the depths of Ashley Road. Not only does his written report tell us more about the interior, which included offices for the staff, a medical treatment area, kitchen and small bathroom, but it also puts forward the highly interesting theory that I referred to at the start.
There were three key features (plus other items of supporting evidence) cited by Mr Cobb which were inconsistent with the notion that the complex was built from scratch in 1941/2 as a shelter. I had been a bit puzzled about this ever since I read the building cost, which did not seem sufficient to start from scratch. Furthermore, was it likely that the whole thing, from excavation to opening, could have been completed in just under a year? Might the answer be that something was already there?
Firstly, Mr Cobb concluded that some of the construction was of a style that was clearly pre-war. Secondly, there were no blast chambers at the bends of the entrance tunnel, which he thought there would have been if the complex had originally been designed as an air-raid shelter. Thirdly, there were massive and elaborate brick pillars in the toilet areas, which tended to impede access to the stalls.
English Heritage claims on its website that Surrey County Council began construction of the shelter in 1937, which does not tie up with the official version that the site was requisitioned in 1941. Ken Harries, whom I mentioned earlier as a short-term 'inmate' of the facilities, was asked the direct question, 'Was the shelter purpose-built for the War?'; he replied, 'We heard that it was built to extend the Underground from Morden, because of the extra traffic for the racing, but whether that's a fact I don't know, but it adds up, doesn't it. I can't remember it being built, but it must have been there before the War.'
I've kept you waiting long enough for the highly interesting theory. This was Peter Cobb's conclusion.
'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 trollies, 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 to the far (symbolic) caverns of Tartarus (the deepest part of Hades). 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 World War II was converted into lavatories was for the use of upper middle class families to inter their deceased relatives.'
Whether or not we think Mr Cobb was right, it does seem that the shelter was not purpose-built from scratch in 1941/2. But, if it was intended as a Necropolis, who built it and why there? Might it all have been something to do with Lady Sybil Grant, who, if you read the linked article, was clearly eccentric and became increasingly so as she got older? She had been involved in fund-raising during the First World War, so did she originally have this whacky idea for a Necropolis and then, once the second conflict began, decide to turn over the site for a more useful purpose? Frankly, it doesn't seem likely, so maybe it was going to be a Tube extension … or was that story spread about so as not to discourage the population from using an erstwhile Necropolis for shelter? But, where was the rest of this extension? It's hardly feasible that they built just one section, which ended neither at Morden nor the racecourse. And would the extension not have been big news locally rather than just a rumour? Perhaps a more likely answer could be that the rumour was circulated so as not to alert the populace that in 1937 the country was anticipating air raids.
Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice as to when the complex was really built and what its original purpose was - but it is curious, is it not, that in all the 70-odd years since then no documentary evidence has surfaced to tell us the answer. No one even knows the name of the contractors involved. I should mention, by the way, that there was another large deep-level shelter beneath Epsom Downs Golf Course, which has now been completely sealed off. I have virtually no information at all about this, so cannot enlighten you as to whether it might once have been another disembodied section of Northern line extension or a Necropolis overflow annexe. The BBC's WW2 People's War website contains a reminiscence from a Mr Tony Brewis, who was a pupil at Epsom College and who tells briefly of visiting the other shelter shortly after VE Day.
After the War
This complex has been a headache over the years. At one time there was talk of using it as a shelter in the event of nuclear attack; there have been break-ins, looting of fittings and fixtures and vandalism. Recently it has been used, with proper permission and suitable safety precautions, by an airsoft war games company. According to the Epsom Guardian of 17 January 2013, it is now a habitat for bats, including the tiny species known as Natterer's bats, and the owner was at that point hoping to let it out as a bullion storage facility.
View of the curved entrance tunnel. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum