Martin Stanley’s Anderson shelter rests at the foot of his back garden. Partially submerged and covered with thick tufts of grass and flowers as well as other foliage, it stands as a monument to a time when life in this terrace house in Oval, south London, was very different.
Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson, the lord privy seal in charge of air raid precautions in 1938, and were made from corrugated steel or iron panels that formed a semi-circular shape. They were designed to be dug into people’s gardens to protect families from air raids. More than 2m shelters were issued to families during the second world war. All these years later, some houses still have them in their gardens, while many more could still be submerged, awaiting discovery.
“It’s very difficult to get rid of it,” says Stanley, surveying the mound in his garden. “When we moved in 30 years ago, I think we assumed that we’d get rid of it and then we thought: it’s just too much effort really.” Stanley has found use for it over the years, for storage – and jokes that it has been used for discipline. “We threaten the kid with it: ‘If you misbehave you can sleep in the air raid shelter’.” Stanley also opens his house to school parties and has had TV companies visit over the years. “We’re very fond of it now. It’s quite a feature,” he says.
Just down the road from Stanley, Robert McConnell, 87, also has an Anderson shelter in his garden. McConnell bought his Grade II listed house in 1968 from the daughters of the notable British craftsman and sculptor Nathaniel Hitch. His shelter is also partially buried and covered with thickets. McConnell says the shelter is exactly as it was when constructed, save for the ends, which he replaced due to rust. He uses it to store his gardening tools. “I did offer younger members of the family to sleep in there, but it’s very damp.” The shelter in McConnell’s garden survived the war, despite a bomb falling on the house. “The area opposite the houses was completely devastated at the very end of the war,” he says. “The Germans had put up these awful rockets and the whole of that area; every house was destroyed – 17 people were killed.” McConnell keeps the shelter, he says, because he believes in preserving history.
This is precisely what motivated Liz Johnson, a museum professional who works with the National Trust, to keep her Anderson shelter in Leicester. “I talked to some of my friends and colleagues and they said: ‘You can’t get rid of it; it’s a piece of history,’” Johnson says. An air museum in Lincolnshire had acquired an Anderson shelter so children could experience what it was like during an air raid. “They asked me if I could tell them about mine and I ended up helping people find out what a shelter looked like.”
Johnson bought her house in 2007 from a woman who had been living there since 1927. As well as the Anderson shelter, she discovered old cigarette cards and ARP relics in the attic (ARP or Air Raid Precautions was an organisation set up in 1937 to protect civilians from air raids). Many would consider Anderson shelters, with their corrugated iron panels and bland colours to be an eyesore, but not Johnson’s. “This shelter is quite attractive,” she says. “It has got wild flowers growing on it. A pair of foxes used to sleep on top of it in the mornings.”
Restoring air raid shelters has also become a niche hobby with people repurposing them as sheds or outdoor studies. Stanley started a website that features some of the gardens around the country that still have Anderson shelters. The site also offers advice on how to build your own shelter, according to official wartime step-by-step instructions.
Amos Burke, a coach driver from the West Midlands, used parts from a shelter he found in a farmer’s field close to his home to reconstruct his Anderson shelter. Burke is a member of the civilian re-enactment group Spirit of the Homefront and takes his shelter around the country to display at events. “It takes about two hours to set it up,” Burke says. “We have a good laugh, we talk to people and we get the kids to go in.” Once reassembled, the shelter is decorated with sandbags and red, white, and blue bunting. The interior appears just like it might have done 80 years ago, with pots, pans and blankets from that era as well as an old radio that only plays 1940s tunes. Out of all the things to celebrate, why Anderson shelters? “At the time, no one was doing it,” Burke says.
There is no way to replicate what it was like to have used an Anderson shelter during the war. Often the robust corrugated iron was the only protection people had from the Luftwaffe’s incendiaries and rockets, which were laying waste to their communities.
Joan Longley, 82, who lived in Charlton during the war, was only four when the blitz started. She is almost brought to tears when reading an extract from her memoir that recalls the first night she visited her shelter: “‘Nearly there,’ Edie said, as the dark shadow of the air raid shelter appeared like a huge black monster in front of us. I wanted to cry when I saw it, but I dared not because I knew I must be a big-brave four-year-old. I bit my bottom lip to keep back the tears as Billy helped me jump down into the shelter.”
Her father was killed by a German bomb while he was on Home Guard duty at Charlton station. She was evacuated when the blitz started, but her mother brought her back home after a near-fatal bout of diphtheria. Back in London, the bombing raged on, and Longley recalls using the shelter a lot. “It was pitch black. No lights or candles or torches – they were all banned during the war. Sometimes we slept with our clothes on because of one raid after another. Sometimes we slept in the Anderson shelter all night because it wasn’t worth getting out.” There was nothing comfortable about Longley’s shelter, either: “Ours wasn’t a very posh one. Some people made them comfortable. But there were nine of us. It was cramped, cold, dark and there were lots of creepy crawlies.” Longley’s mum did her best to make things more bearable for her and her siblings: “She would get a tin of broken biscuits from Woolworths to eat. And she would take a few bottles of milk.”
David Hesketh, 82, was also an infant when the war began and says he was oblivious to much of the terror going on around him. He grew up in Walton in Liverpool, beneath the German flight path to the Albert docks. While two of his siblings were evacuated to Shrewsbury, he and his older sister, Muriel, remained in the city. “We had an Anderson shelter in our back garden. Muriel told me that when we slept out there together, I just slept like a log throughout the whole thing; throughout all the raids. She stayed awake all the time, scared stiff by the noise.” Muriel was also jealous of his Mickey Mouse gas mask, as hers was plain. After the war, Hesketh said that the shelter was kept for a short while and may have been used to store garden tools or even as a shelter for the hens his parents kept.
Margaret Elliott, 92, who lived in Canning Town, east London, says she saw the whole thing as an adventure at the time. She was 13 when the war started and her father installed their shelter quite early on – she recalls playing in it prior to the air raids. “I remember my father grew tomatoes on top of it. And we had one or two false alarms and we’d go down – it was very cold and damp. My father made little steps inside for us to get down and a little seat for us to sit on.” Elliott says she could have slept in her shelter, but her mum was so nervous that she wouldn’t allow it.
Elliott eventually moved out of the city as the bombing intensified. “One day, the raids were so bad that we were down in the shelter for most of the day. I remember by this time my mother was quite hysterical and my father decided to take us to her sisters in Hertfordshire. So, we got on the top deck of a bus and drove all the way up to London through where the docks were, where there were flames to either side of us.” Elliott wasn’t fazed by the bombing, as she still visited London to see friends: “I used to go to dances, we still went up there regardless of the doodlebugs (V-1 flying bomb) and all the rest of it,” Elliott says. “We just carried on. I still have that attitude now, I just carry on.”
The survival of Anderson shelters is not only due to their sturdy structure. Millions of families took refuge in them during the war and told their stories to succeeding generations, preserving them in our cultural imagination, too. “I think the Anderson shelter is an icon because so many people had them,” Johnson says. “They figure in many wartime novels and films. I think they do appeal to our den-building fascination.” The shelters are also one of the few relics of the period that can still be utilised. They are an effective and fun way of educating young children about the realities of the home front, and many people are still putting them to good use in their gardens. Johnson says she intends to keep her shelter for as long as she owns her house and has plans to develop the inside as a sleep-out space for her children.
“When we landscaped the garden, we even had a powerline put down to the end of the garden, right by the shelter.”