Shelter From Above

Sheleter from Above: Recording Leicester’s air-raid shelters

Andrew Hyam

 Archaeological investigations are not solely devoted to the ancient past. ULAS has recently been involved in several World War II projects associated with civil defence. In late 1930 and 1940, a number of Leicester schools constructed their own air raid shelters. These could also double for civilian use during night time raids. Although not effective under a direct hit, they did offer useful blast protection for near misses. Such shelters were not dug deep under the ground but were fairly shallow. This helped in the speed of construction and, should the worst happen, would make rescue easier. Most were built from pre-cast concrete sections made to a standard design. The zig-zag layout of the shelter was intended to minimise the blast effect which would otherwise rip along a straight corridor, as happened in some early rectangular shelters in London.

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A typical sectional shelter being constructed at Newarke Girls School. The shelters at Regent and QE I Colleges were of the same cut and cover design and zig-zag layout. Very little machinery appears to have been used to build the shelters. (Photo credit: ROLLR).
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Wyggeston Girls during air raid practice in 1940. Note the earth filled timber blast boxes protecting the entrances.

Two recent ULAS projects examined shelters at Regent College (formerly Wyggeston Girls) and at Queen Elizabeth I College (Wyggeston Boys). Both projects were carried out in advance of redevelopment work. Each shelter was photographed and surveyed as demolition progressed.

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The Regent College (Wyggeston Girls) shelter during demolition (right). The top of the shelter was only centimetres below ground level. A thick layer of tar sealed the roof and joints. Ventilation shafts were placed at regular intervals with paddle-like fans in them (left). They were operated by pupils and teachers. Remains of ladders found near the ventilators suggest they were also intended to act as emergency escape routes.
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Plan of the layout of the Wyggeston Girls shelter, recorded during its demolition. An electric cable was found which provided power for a basic lighting system and records indicate that power came from the nearby Lancaster Road fire station.

Drainage appears to have been an issue and attempts to add a series of drains and pumps beneath the floor of each tunnel were seen at Regent College. Records show that in 1940 Messrs Wright and Co. of Wigston had been appointed to lay piping in a number of school shelters within Leicester.

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One of the tunnels in the Wyggeston Boys shelter (right). Graffiti seen on the walls was clearly drawn by the boys and included aircraft and cartoons. Other marks on the walls indicate where wooden benches were located. None of the benches survived but remains of the hand-cranked ventilation equipment was found in all three shelters (left).
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A Hitler caricature found in the Wyggeston Boy’s shelter (left) and a sketch of a German airplane (right).

Another project looked at a similar shelter at Braunstone Hall. Opinion varies whether this was for public use or for American troops stationed nearby and the surviving records are rather vague. The zig-zag layout and sectional design of this shelter would suggest a contemporary date to the two school shelters. This would then suggest that it was not built, at least initially, for American personnel. The Braunstone shelter contained a number of tunnels each labelled with the names of London streets. Other directional markings were also noted, along with some more adult-themed graffiti!

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