Many new blocks of flats come with communal features to attract buyers, but an air raid shelter able to hold 48 people is rarely one of them. In 1938, the builders of a new residential block of flats in Mortlake, South West London, must have sensed which way world affairs were going, because they decided to build just such a shelter under the lawn of St Leonard’s Court. The architect, F.G. Fox, was prescient: the shelter was soon in active service as the Blitz saw London bombed nightly, with railway lines, one right next to the flats, a particular target.
What is even more remarkable is that this air raid shelter still survives, a time capsule of what it would have been like to live in London through World War II, and it can be visited on occasion (it is also opened to local schools). The outward sign of the shelter is a small cylindrical brick building with a conical roof, but the main interest (and step back in time) lies down narrow steps–a set of long rooms (men and women were separated), low-ceilinged and musty. The original air raid shelter fixtures remain, including benches, beds, coat hooks and reading light bulbs, even the original chemical toilets (a sign that this was a superior air raid shelter- most had buckets).
The shelter does not look like a nice place to spend the night, and indeed it is rumored that some residents of the flats chose to take their chances in their own beds rather than sleep there. The local area of Mortlake and Sheen endured multiple bombings through the war, with many houses hit and some completely destroyed, but this shelter survived intact, and then it was proposed to be converted into apartments to become a Grade II listed monument in 2010. It is now conserved by a number of local organizations and is opened to the public on occasions such as the London Open House festival.
Know Before You Go
The entrance to the air raid shelter is easily viewable at the entrance to St Leonard’s Court. It is not generally open to the public except on occasions such as London Open House week, or locally advertised events, which may require booking. It is close to Mortlake Railway Station which is on the line direct to Waterloo station in central London.