Londoners get glimpse of Tube shelters from the Blitz

SMELLY, dirty - but a haven from the Blitz - disused Tube station offers glimpse of life for 1940s Londoners

This weekend visitors will get a taste of life in the shelters as they have a rare chance to visit the disused Aldwych station which provided sanctuary from the bombing for 2,000 people a night.

Actors play the parts of Air Raid Precaution wardens, civilians taking shelter complete with gas masks and wartime spivs, who made money offering hard to obtain goods on the unofficial ‘black market’ and the station is decked out with wartime propaganda posters.

Visitors can meet cleaning woman Else as on the platform beside a 1938 Tube train and learn what life was like for her as the deafening and heart-stopping sound of an air raid resounds.

The tours are already fully booked by people from all ages, including some who experienced the Blitz at first hand.

Thousands of people took shelter in the tube stations from the relentless bombing raids of the Blitz with an estimated 177,000 bedding down on platforms, Tube lines and escalators at 71 stations across London as 50,000 bombs and incendiaries rained down on the city between September 7 1940 and May 11 1941.

At first the government was unwilling to let them take shelter deep underground and concerns were raised about the lack of sanitation and the risk that people would stay all day preventing the transport of troops and civilians as they went about their day to day work.

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London Transport Museum’s head curator David Bownes said that ‘people power’ took over as Londoners bought platform tickets or cheap rail tickets to gain access to the platforms and they simply would not move during the raids.

So in October 1940, a month after the start of the Blitz on London people were officially allowed to use the Tube stations for shelter as above them the city took a pounding night after night. Chemical toilets were brought in and entertainment was on offer and George Formby was one of the stars who visited the stations to help keep morale up.

The stations which were used as shelters included Mile End, Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green.

Mr Bownes said: “The reason so many people put up with the conditions is because they were perceived as safe.”

But the shelters were not always a safe haven - Balham, Bank and Bounds Green stations were hit, killing several hundred people.

In 1943 Bethnal Green was the scene of a disaster when 173 died when a woman slipped as people rushed into the station and Wapping, which was not used as an official shelter was also bombed.

As London marks the 70th anniversary of the devastating Blitz mayor Boris Johnson paid tribute to those Londoners who were there.

He said: “We must never forget the bravery and dogged determination of the men and women who battled to keep London moving in the face of a terrifying and unremitting bombardment which sought to destroy our great city during the Blitz.

“This tremendous spirit and resilience remain at the very heart of the capital and we owe a huge debt of gratitude and respect to all those who helped secure London’s future.”

For those without tickets to Aldwych station the free London Blitz exhibition continues at City Hall, Queen’s Walk from 8.30am to 5.30pm tomorrow (Friday September 24) and from 8.30am to 6pm on Monday September 27.

Under Attack: London, Coventry and Dresden is also running at the London Transport Museum until March 31 2011.