In December 2015, Wessex Archaeology undertook building recording (Historic England Level 2 record) of a WWII air raid shelter situated beneath the playground of Eltham Church of England Primary School, Roper Street, Eltham, Royal Borough of Greenwich.
The Historic Building Record was commissioned by Kier Construction prior to the redevelopment of the existing Primary School, due to concerns raised over the shelter’s ability to withstand any heavy structures being placed on the existing playground surface during development works.
The Historic Building Recording exercise was carried out by Bob Davis and Vijaya Pieterson (Wessex Archaeology), through a programme of measured survey and digital photography, and ably assisted by Nigel Cunningham, Project Manager for Kier Construction.
The shelter beneath the Eltham C of E Primary School follows the established early wartime Government pattern of public air raid shelters that were constructed across London from 1939–1940. Made possible by the passing of the Civil Defence Act on the 15 July 1939, they were built to afford some protection against the threat of mass bombing. Several types of shelters were used during WWII and this particular one remains a relatively good example of the ‘covered trench’ type, purpose-built by a cut and cover technique whereby the spoil from digging the trench was later used to provide overhead protection.
The plan of the air raid shelter consists of an irregular form of narrow connecting passages and covers an area of approximately 906 m2. It is constructed from pre-cast concrete sectional frames and panels and contains three main stepped entrances (now blocked) and seven emergency exists. Little survives in the way of graffiti or original fixtures and fittings except for light conduits and evidence for telephones.
Although benches had been fitted to some of the passage frames, there was no evidence to suggest that this particular shelter had been intended for long term use. It is assumed that after the War any fittings were removed and the shelter entrances sealed. The soil covering the shelter was also removed and the playground reinstated.
The WWII Air Raid Shelter at Eltham provides an excellent example of a particular pattern of Government guided construction in the history of communal air raid shelters in pre-war and wartime Britain. It attests to the strength of engineering during a time when labour was scarce and materials, especially steel and concrete, were limited.