It’s a sweltering July day, and a team of amateur archaeologists are digging in London’s Greenwich Park. On the surface there is little to suggest that historical treasures might be lurking below the ground. But as they wipe the sweat from their brows, they strike gold – a preserved World War II air raid shelter complete with eerie relics.
Today this part of the city is green and tranquil, if a little forgotten and overgrown. But eight decades ago, in the middle of the Blitz, things were very different indeed. As the bombers of the German Luftwaffe flew overhead, the sirens sounded – and people flocked to find safety in the shelters of Greenwich Park.
Meanwhile, in the moments of calm between bombings, the park was still full of action, transformed into fruitful allotments as part of the Dig for Victory campaign. And even after Germany surrendered, Londoners continued to work the allotments. Eventually, however, the seeds were no longer planted, and the land became quiet and sleepy once more.
Fast forward to 2019 and plans are afoot to give Greenwich Park an overhaul. And on the site of the old air raid shelters, volunteer archaeologists are ready to uncover the past. But none of them could have predicted the remarkable relic that they would discover, nor the fascinating artifacts hiding within.
For the people living in London during World War II, air raid shelters such as the one unearthed in Greenwich Park would have been a literal lifeline. On September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to the United Kingdom that it was at war. And within months, the first bombs had begun to fall.
But the people of Great Britain were not completely unprepared. As it turned out, the government had been planning the roll out of air raid shelters long before the declaration of war. And this had started to happen a year before Chamberlain’s famous speech. So all round good organization it appears!
Although air raid shelters were constructed throughout the United Kingdom, it was London that would bear the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s bombs. On September 7, 1940, a fleet of German planes appeared in the skies over the city, raining down destruction as the population scrambled to take shelter. After just several hours, more than 400 people had lost their lives.
That was the first day of the Blitz, and for the next eight months the Germans continued their relentless attack on London. In total, more than 100 tons of explosives were dropped over Britain, with many landing on the capital itself. And in the ensuing chaos, 40,000 people were killed – with hundreds of thousands more left homeless by the blasts.
As the bombs of the Blitz fell, Londoners took shelter in a variety of places across the city. In some tube stations, for example, makeshift facilities were set up to enable civilians to wait out the raids deep underground. And in private homes and gardens, “Anderson” air raid shelters offered families protection from the devastation raining down from above.
Elsewhere, in some houses, caged Morrison shelters built from kits promised to provide protection within the home. But in a city of some nine million people, it was inevitable that some would be on the streets when the bombs hit, necessitating the construction of public shelters. So beginning in 1940 a series of shared community facilities were rolled out on streets and in parks across the city.
Yet shelter wasn’t the only role that London’s green spaces would come to play in the war effort. The year before the Blitz set the city aflame, the government had launched the Dig for Victory campaign, converting the royal parks into allotments. There, civilians were encouraged to grow their own food to sustain them throughout the difficult times ahead.
In Greenwich Park, southeast London’s 183-acre stretch of trees and rolling hills, allotments were accompanied by anti-aircraft weapons. Why not take out a plane in between planting potatoes or carrots, for example? Meanwhile, three separate shelters offered the promise of safety when the bombs began to fall. In each one, some 500 people could wait out the raids that pummelled the city for months on end.
By the time that the Blitz was over, more than a million London houses had been destroyed. But because of their sturdy construction, many of the city’s air raid shelters had survived the devastation. Four years later, the war itself came to an end, and the structures which had protected the population fell out of use.
Over the years since, the city of London has grown and changed beyond all recognition. But many of the air raid shelters first constructed during World War II are still standing today. And while some are empty shells scattered across backyards and buried in parks, others have remained eerily well-preserved.
Beneath the London district of Clapham, for example, a cavernous shelter once played host to up to 8,000 people during the war. Eighty years later, visitors can still descend the 120 steps from street level into the rooms and hallways below. And there, they can catch a glimpse of what life was like for the Londoners who were forced to spend entire evenings huddled underground.
In fact, the Clapham South shelter is so well-preserved that even the beds remain: row upon row of rickety, metal structures. Back when the facility was in use, Londoners were allocated their own bunks where they could leave bedding to use when the sirens kept them away from their homes. And sometimes there was even music and dancing to keep people’s spirits up through the long nights.
Today, Clapham South shelter is open to tourists courtesy of the London Transport Museum. And in one disused tunnel of the complex, the organization Growing Underground has even established a farm. But in most cases the old air raid shelters have been forgotten, swallowed up by the city over time.
Still, decades after the shelters were in use, these abandoned structures have become a gold mine for archaeologists wishing to learn more about the past. In July 2010, for example, a team of experts led by the University College London Institute of Archaeology’s Gabriel Moshenka uncovered two bunkers in the northwest of the city.
Now buried beneath a park, the air raid shelters were likely built during the early years of World War II. And over the course of the two-week excavation, the team recovered a number of historic artifacts from the site. Among them were buckets, bicycle parts, electrical equipment and even chemical toilets – all believed to date back to the time when the bunkers were in use.
Years before, Moshenka had helped to excavate another air raid shelter, this time beneath the playing field of a north London school. And like the later dig, this project had also revealed a cache of fascinating artifacts frozen in time. Designed to accommodate 50 people, this bunker was still equipped with a heater, lamp and fire bucket, as well as maths problems written on the toilet wall.
Over in Greenwich Park, however, the echoes of its wartime past have proven a little more difficult to detect. As time went by, the Dig for Victory allotments fell out of use, and the space became a leisure ground once more. Plus the shelters which once housed hundreds of Londoners slowly faded from view.
Up until recently it was believed that little remained of the three shelters which once stood in Greenwich Park. Sometimes, during particularly dry spells of weather, traces of the structures could be seen. And their location could also be spotted in aerial photographs. Mostly, however, people assumed that the bunkers themselves were long gone.
But not everyone was convinced that Greenwich Park’s air raid shelters had simply disappeared. In a statement released in August 2019 a spokesperson for The Royal Parks explained, “Something didn’t quite ring true with this, so we decided to organize a community archaeology dig to see what we could find.”
At the time, preparations were underway for Greenwich Park Revealed, a restoration project scheduled to take place in 2021. Using funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Royal Parks hope to give the green space in southeast London a new lease of life. And as well as working to preserve the site for future generations, authorities plan to explore its fascinating past.
To support The Royal Parks’ bid for funding, Greenwich Park archaeologist Graham Keevill led a group of volunteers on a community dig. Could they uncover the story of the lost air raid shelters? Beginning on July 22, 2019, the team spent five days excavating a location in front of the Queen’s House building.
In the statement, a spokesperson claimed that the volunteers “jumped at the chance to work with professional archaeologists.” And in the end, a total of 26 people turned out to help reveal the secrets buried beneath Greenwich Park. According to reports, the hot weather created difficult conditions, but the team rose to the challenge admirably.
“The dedication and determination of our great team of local volunteers was brilliant,” Keevill explained in an earlier statement, also released in August 2019, “and all credit to them for learning the skills needed to be an archaeologist so quickly.” So what exactly did the group uncover during the dig?
The team discovered that the air raid shelters hadn’t, as had previously been suspected, been demolished and backfilled at the end of the war. In fact, at least one of them – the structure revealed by the community dig – had remained intact. For the volunteers involved in the excavation, it was a rewarding find.
“They had the amazing experience of actually finding the main air raid shelter in front of the Queen’s House,” the later statement explained. “It hadn’t been demolished at all – the prefabricated concrete walls, posts and ceiling beams all survived intact, both in the shelter and at the entrance to it.”
“All that was missing was the roof,” the statement continued, “which must have been broken out so that the long concrete-lined trenches could be backfilled. It was amazing to see how well-preserved everything was – and be the first people to see inside it for 70 years!” But that wasn’t the only thing that the team discovered beneath Greenwich Park.
The group’s favorite discovery came just as the week-long dig was coming to a close. You see, the amateur archaeologists unearthed a small toy soldier inside the air raid shelter. Forged from lead, it was likely used as a toy by children caught up in the very real horrors of war.
Elsewhere, the team discovered a belt buckle also believed to date from the 1940s. And they even found some artifacts that are far older than World War II. Among them were a number of flint tools from the prehistoric era and some shards of pottery likely left behind by the area’s Roman inhabitants.Wow!
And during the dig the volunteers also uncovered a significant amount of medieval pottery, believed to be older than the park itself. But for archaeologists such as Keevill, it was the war-time relics that really stood out. In the statement, he explained, “The discovery is extremely important, not only locally but also nationally, as so many relics of the war have been lost since 1945. It has been exciting and a privilege for us all to reveal the shelter.”
Just six months after the excavation, The Royal Parks received the funding needed to push ahead with the Greenwich Park Revealed project. Initially scheduled to begin in 2020, the program will now be launched in 2021 and will see preservation work conducted throughout the heritage site. As things progress, it’s hoped that more of the area’s fascinating past will come to light.
That’s right, but the air raid shelter is far from the only historical artifact to be discovered in Greenwich Park. Back in 2010 archaeologists discovered tiles close to the spot where the vintage Old Keeper’s Cottage once stood. And three years later, another team of volunteers conducted an extensive program of excavations at the site.
And the volunteers unearthed a number of Victorian and medieval artifacts as well as a brooch almost 2,000 years old. Plus they were able to assist archaeologists in developing a better understanding of the original building, which was knocked down in 1853. As you can well appreciate, the 1800s was still a curious age for a care-taker to live in.
According to The Royal Parks’ head of education and community engagement, Toni Assirati, Greenwich Park is one of the most historic out of all their green spaces. But archaeological discoveries have not just been limited to this corner of southeast London over the years. Some 15 miles to the west, for example, the 2,500-acre Richmond Park has been hiding its own secrets.
Because in May 2020 a governmental body declared that a landmark known as King Henry VIII’s Mound would be preserved under law. According to legend, the spot in Richmond Park is where the eponymous king once waited to hear the news of Anne Boleyn’s execution. But now research has revealed that the site may actually be a barrow dating back to prehistoric times.
Meanwhile, plans have been forming to restore a historic ice house discovered on the edge of London’s Regent’s Park. Uncovered by archaeologists in 2019, the 18th-century structure would once have supplied wealthy Londoners with the means to serve fashionable frozen delicacies. And the ice itself would have been shipped all the way from the North Sea.
So it seems London’s royal parks are brimming with historic discoveries just waiting to be uncovered. And with the Greenwich Park Revealed project moving forwards, it looks likely that there could be even more revelations to come. Will another relic from the horrors of the Blitz be unearthed, or perhaps something from the more distant past?