Sunday 26 May 2013

Give Me Shelter

I mentioned a wee while back, that one of the reasons I struggled with my Allotment last year was due to me having to look after a back garden. When we moved to our flat in Woodford part of the rental agreement was that we maintain the large garden. By now you know me, I obviously was more than happy to do this, delighted in fact, and after a hesitant start, I set to it with gusto. I have been gradually adding some flower borders and digging out some of the weeds (yep more digging!) and I will show you (bore you with) the progress of that soon, but today I wanted to share something interesting I found lurking under the long grass on my first days gardening!

Give Me Shelter - Anderson Shelter in Woodford - Garden
Our back garden April in 2012
Whilst mowing the lawn in April last year, I came across a chunk of corrugated concrete  hidden beneath the long grass. I didn't think much of it at first - this garden has been neglected for many, many years and there is quite a lot of bits of rubble and concrete lying about - but as I worked the mower around it I realised that this was a rectangular concrete structure, with corrugated heart skipped a beat.

1940's WWII Anderson Shelter base corner
Could this be the base of an Anderson shelter??

I spoke to Richard, my lovely next door neighbour, who confirmed that yes it is indeed the base of an old Anderson shelter. Richard's wife has lived in their now marital home since childhood and remembers the shelter standing there, its subsequent removal after the war and the filling in of the base by Ron the chap who lived in the house then. How interesting! I decided, seeing that I was now the current caretaker of this little piece of history, it was time I learnt a little more about these iconic wartime structures.

The Anderson Shelter was designed in 1938 and was named after Sir John Anderson who was the Home Secretary during the Battle of Britain. They were intended to provide families with quick access to emergency air-raid shelters during bombing raids as they could be installed in even the smallest of gardens.
A lady hangs her washing out in front of her new Anderson shelter [source]
They were designed to be easy to construct, just like a life-size Meccano kit and comprised of 14 Galvanized corrugated steel panels supported by a submerged base, then covered with a minimum of 15 in of soil above the roof. This would protect its occupants against blast, splinter and the fall of debris, but not from a direct hit.
There were Six curved panels which were bolted together at the top which created the main body of the shelter, three straight sheets on either side and two more straight panels which were fixed to each end, one containing the door. [Source]
The government supplied the shelters for free to low-income families and at a cost of £7 for the slightly more well off. Approximately 1.5 million Anderson shelters were distributed in the months leading up to the outbreak of war and by the time their production ended 3.6 million had been produced.

So back to our garden in Woodford. When looking at our shelter the first thing that struck me as odd was its placement. If you remove the slightly more modern Cordyline tree the shelter is slightly to one side but pretty much in the middle of the lawn, it actually looks like the path was put in later and works its way around the shelter.
It's hiding behind the Cordyline tree in the middle of the lawn
While doing my research, I found a wonderful account on the BBC's WW2 Peoples War site by Brian Brooks who was a child during the war. Brian paints a vivid and humorous account of his families own shelter in Acton, which could offer an insight to why our shelter is located where it is.
"My Mum was angry because she had wanted the shelter put behind our shed and the apple tree, “out of the way as it will never be used”. There wasn’t enough room there, so she wanted it against the back fence. But the workmen discovered some buried lengths of pipe...the workmen simply dug their hole in the easiest place — destroying my Mum’s precious rockery. To add insult to injury they even used her rocks in the shelter’s concrete base! That Adolf Hitler had a lot to answer for, I wondered if he knew just how much trouble he was in?" [Source]
So perhaps our shelter was put where it is because it was the easiest place - far enough away from the house, to avoid too much damage if the house was hit, and also away from any of the pipe work and water mains that reside under the back of the house.  I know from speaking to Richard, that Ron who lived with his family in our house at the time, was serving in the army during the war, so perhaps it was installed for free by the council, as I wonder how many of the people who were building their own would have gone to the extra trouble and expenses of adding a concrete base!?
"As my Dad was serving in the army our shelter was free...our shelter, installed by the council, was just a tin box with a hole in it, in a hole in the ground — no door, weather or blast protection, not even a means of climbing down inside. The floor was concrete with a round dip sunk in one corner to collect moisture (!) and the sides were concrete up to three feet, ground level. Concrete was a rather grand name for what was little more than sand and water, I broke a piece off just by prodding it and was told off for ‘damaging’ the Air Raid Shelter! If I could damage it what would those Jerries do to it? If they dropped four-year-olds it didn’t look good. [Source]
It looks likely to me that ours was also installed by the councils workmen, though I must say the concrete base on ours is much more sturdy than Brian's, it's lasted over 70 years and is showing no signs of decay, I've accidentally blunted many a mower blade on it so far!

Another thing I found interesting, was just how small this shelter was, it's partly what made me question myself when finding it - it seemed too small!
The concrete base should go down about 4 ft.
When constructed the shelter would have been 6 ft high by 4 ft 6 in wide by 6 ft 6 in long. Obviously, it would have seemed a little bigger when it was standing, especially as the floor would have dropped down to about 4ft lower than now. But standing inside the filled in base you realise just how little space there is, and they were designed to accommodate six people!
"I finally got inside our shelter that seemed huge to me. But for grown-ups it was a struggle, hitting their heads on the sharp edges of the small entrance, and the sticking-out nuts and bolts everywhere." [Source]
My own Dad remembers one particular night with his Mum in his uncles Anderson shelter (they had a Morrison at home). It was so cramped with all the family in there that his Uncle had to sleep on the floor while he and his Mum shared the top bunk. During the night my Dad fidgeted just that bit too much on the narrow bed and proceeded to fall from the bunk landing (luckily for him) on to his soundly sleeping Uncle. Who on discovering this intruder to his slumber, let out a horrified yell, he must have thought that "Aay'dolf" had finally got him!

The Mackenzie family sitting during a raid in their Anderson shelter 1940 [Source]
That's 5 Adults, 2 Children, 1 Baby & 2 Dogs, all squeezed into this little shelter, it's making me feel claustrophobic!
As well as being cramped, it would have also been cold, dark and damp, not the most reassuring place to spend an air raid. So it's not then surprising that people wanted to do something make them little more bearable inside and out. The inside could be made nicer by adding beds and a few more creature comforts this video from Pathe News shows you how to make your shelter just a bit more comfortable Your Anderson Shelter in Winter.

On the outside, well you could be a touch more creative
A well camouflaged Anderson shelter 1940 [Source
How wonderful it this shelter!
The earth banks that covered the shelter could easily be planted with vegetables and flowers, which must have made them look much more appealing sight, this lead to some neighbourhoods holding competitions to see who had the best-planted shelter in the area. Sounds wonderful!!  I have decided as an homage to the veg growing shelters of the past, I will dig out the grass and plant in some veggies (do I need more veggies, probably not, but that's not going to stop me!).

A lady tends to her rooftop crops [Source]
I know this is not exactly like finding a Roman hoard but to me it is just as interesting, if not perhaps quite as financially rewarding! Having lived in London all my life I've grown up seeing the evidence of the last war all around me, many streets show the signs of war damage by the various eras of houses built in them. My own street Carlton Road in Walthamstow, where I grew up and the same street where my Dad was born was hit by a doodlebug that killed 6 people, luckily my family were all safe, though my Nan recalled coming home to find the front door had been blown up onto the landing and looters in her home.

One thing I'm sure of, no matter how much I love this era in terms of its history and its fashion, there is no way I would want to have actually lived back then, I could never have handled a single night in an Anderson shelter, especially when knowing as many did, just how little protection they actually afforded, the people's courage back then has to be admired!
Wendy x


  1. wow. are you thinking of reclaiming and growing a few veggies on top?

    1. Yep I started digging out the grass this morning, so I am hoping that by tomorrow I will have cleared it, then it will be time for MORE vegies, I can't wait :) xx

  2. What a find. My son and his wife live in Bristol and they a concrete shelter in their garden, it is now the shed!
    Julie xxxxxxx

  3. Utterly amazing! What a bit of luck to discover a little historical gem in your own garden! I think it is a brilliant idea to plant vegetables in it and I am sure it will be brilliant when the weather finally turns sunny.....maybe even a veggie barbecue! I must admit I didn't know very much about the Anderson shelters...and a little horrified to learn it is only some metal sheets as covers. Thank you so much for stopping by recently my dear...I know how busy it gets with the work and blog you have two gardens to tend to! Glad to see you are doing what you enjoy....can't wait to see the garden in the summer! Have a fabulous bank holiday weekend my dear!
    May xx

    1. Thank you May, a veggie barbecue sounds delightful!! xxx

  4. Wonderful post...I really like your blog.^^
    Maybe follow each other on bloglovin?
    let me know follow you then back.
    Lovely greets Nessa

  5. Ooh what a super thing to find! You definitely have to make it a veggie garden, the space is already nicely marked out! :)

  6. That is an exciting find! Great to have neighbours who could verify your discovery too. Look forward to seeing more pics as your veggie patch grows!

    1. Thank you! Yes its lovely to have such a nice next door neighbor, especially as he has given me some tomato plants to put in!! xx

  7. This is very interesting, thank you for sharing.

  8. how cool...loved all your research aswell...great idea for a specific veggie patch....I was thinking a good place to put mint...all different it couldn't escape from its confines so to speak!!!
    NB...Loved the time warp wives....even spotted some Bonzo's on a dresser in the 1930/40's ladies house...How FAB!!!

    1. You read my mind I've just been given some mint and was going to pop it in there to stop it going wild! Oh I will have to watch it again, to see the Bonzo's!!!! xxx

  9. What a wonderful find and story!! This is so cool. I love your blog as well. I am a huge fan of the 30's, 40's, and 50's.

    1. Thank you Kim!! Glad to have you here :) xx

  10. What a wonderful find and story, you have a real piece of history in your back garden. I'm Looking forward to seeing the progression of the garden

  11. What a wonderful story. Thank you so much for the info.
    Have a great weekend.