More than 70ft below Piccadilly is a bunker once used by Winston Churchill
Thousands of people walk past every day without a flicker of recognition. Buses, taxis and cars rumble within yards of the entrance, oblivious to what lies beneath.
But, here, more than 70ft below London’s Piccadilly is where Sir Winston Churchill took refuge from the relentless German bombing of 1940, sleeping on a makeshift camp bed, deprived of natural light and fresh air — but, all the same and in typical Churchillian fashion, feasting on caviar, Perrier-Jouet champagne and 1865 brandy.ADVERTISEMENTi-amphtml-sizer">
Down Street is an abandoned London Underground station, formerly a stop on the Piccadilly Line between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park, which opened in 1907 and closed in 1931.template type="amp-mustache"">>/amp-minute-media-player">>
But it went on to play a crucial role during World War II in protecting Churchill at the height of the Blitz — because although Churchill’s War Rooms near Downing Street were underground and handy for the PM by virtue of their location, they were not bomb-proof. A direct hit would have been catastrophic.
Now, more than 80 years later, Churchill’s secret Down Street bunker will open to visitors next month, offering a rare chance to see the warren of corridors, bedrooms, offices, dormitories, toilets, bathrooms, a 50-line telephone exchange and even a three-person lift: all of which, at the time, few knew existed.
Come to think of it, hardly anyone knows of its existence today. Which is why the London Transport Museum, which is responsible for Down Street, clearly thinks it’s on to a good thing. Tickets, limited to 12 people at a time, cost a hefty £85 each plus a booking fee, or £80 for a concession. That’s more than double the cost of entry to the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace and twice the admission fee for the Tower of London.
Well worth it is my conclusion after being given a torch-light sneak preview by Chris Nix, assistant director of the Transport Museum and author of Hidden London.
‘Everything that made Down Street difficult as a Tube station — particularly deep, lengthy passageways to the platforms — made it great as a bunker,’ says Nix.ADVERTISEMENTi-amphtml-sizer">
In 1939, the station became the headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee (REC), the body set up as an intermediary between the War Office and Britain’s privately-owned rail companies as a means of coordinating the vital movement of troops, supplies and equipment.
But, first, it needed to be made bomb-proof — an attack on the REC could bring the country grinding to a halt.
Under great secrecy, new walls were built and doors fitted with gas locks; offices, kitchens and mess rooms were built in the corridors and on the platforms, with enough room to accommodate as many as 40 people who worked day and night, sometimes not coming back up to street level for up to two weeks — as if they were working and living in a submarine.
‘It was the safest place in London. Nothing here would have touched you,’ says Nix.
‘No bomb or gas attack could have penetrated into the bunker — but at the same time the REC knew “how to do themselves well”, as Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville put it in his diaries.’
None of this is evident from the outside, where part of the entrance is obscured by a grocery store, as it was in 1940 in an effort to keep it secret. But look closer and you clearly see the distinctive arched oxblood tiles designed by Leslie Green, which are evident in several other London Underground stations.
Nix unlocks a small steel door and we step inside. This is where Churchill, who called Down Street ‘The Burrow,’ would have been smuggled in and where a special lift was built in what was the ventilation shaft, around which a spiral staircase takes you down into the dark and dusty station. Some of the old signage and arrows are still there. ‘To Offices,’ says one. ‘Committee Room,’ says another.ADVERTISEMENTi-amphtml-sizer">
There is debate about who suggested Down Street as a safe-house for Churchill. Certainly, after the night of October 15, 1940, when a bomb fell on the Treasury, killing three officials, it became clear that he could no longer remain in Downing Street during intensive bombing raids.
Nix says he was persuaded to stay in Down Street — ‘I used to go there to transact my evening business and sleep undisturbed,’ wrote Churchill — by his Cabinet colleague Josiah Wedgwood, whose brother, Sir Ralph Wedgwood, was chairman of the REC.
But Andrew Roberts, author of Walking With Destiny, a biography of the war leader, says it was on the advice of the King that Churchill crossed St James’s Park and bedded down in the former tube station.
‘It did its job, but Churchill felt restless down there and out of touch with events,’ says Roberts. ‘He didn’t care for it much.’
Even so, because bunkers and air-raid shelters were exempt from rules on rationing, there was no holding back on some of the pleasures to which Churchill had become accustomed, with the railway companies, which owned grand railway station hotels, bringing in their own silver service and plentiful supplies of wine and spirits.
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Senior REC figures ate in style, attended to by liveried staff as if dining in a first-class railway carriage. Their executive dining room was decorated with wallpaper, much of which still survives and part of the old service bell is still intact on one wall.
Such was the security surrounding Churchill’s visits that even today no one quite knows how many nights he stayed in Down Street, but it was certainly several.
On the first two occasions, he slept in the office of the REC secretary, Gerald Cole Deacon, one level up from the platforms where the telephonists toiled.
‘Even those living and working in Down Street were not meant to know he was here,’ says Nix. ‘It was a secret within a secret.’
Churchill’s bathroom still has its bath, albeit covered in soot and dust, but his Royal Doulton sink has gone. Initially, access to where he performed his ablutions meant walking past other bathrooms and two chemical toilets — something he might not have relished.
This may explain why on January 20, 1941, Cole Deacon wrote to the REC chief engineer, H.J. Greene, saying: ‘A certain gentleman has requested us to arrange for the passage between the first and second landings to be converted for his use as speedily as possible.’
And, it was. Within five weeks and at a cost of £7,000 (compared with £21,000 for the whole Down Street bunker), the ‘certain gentleman’s’ two-bedroom suite was ready, complete with its own bathroom, dining room, conference room and kitchen. Some staff referred to it as ‘Number Ten.’
It was here that Churchill carried out some of his cocktail diplomacy, especially entertaining the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, whose help was needed in persuading the U.S. to enter the war.
Colville writes in his diary of one such dinner with Bevin, after which Churchill, well-plied with brandy ‘had great difficulty operating the lift’ as he showed his guest out and then, once outside, ‘the prime minister was nearly arrested in the street for arguing with a police officer about having car sidelights that were too bright.’
Keeping Churchill safe was crucial, but keeping the telephone lines working was perhaps even more important as they were linked to all the mainline railway company headquarters in the country.
This meant making sure that there was always an electricity supply. So, in addition to the mains, Down Street was connected to three separate power stations and had two diesel generators of its own, plus a whole room of batteries not dissimilar to a car battery.
Piccadilly Line trains still pass through Down Street, as they did during the war, but such was the thickness of the walls that the dormitories above were reasonably quiet. Churchill might have felt ‘cut off from events’, but the nights he spent at Down Street must have made him more empathetic to those who night after night slept in shelters and on the platforms of Tube stations during the Blitz.
Certainly, Churchill appreciated the role of Down Street. As a gift on December 21, 1940, he sent £10 to the REC as a contribution to its Christmas fund — that’s more than £500 in today’s money.ADVERTISEMENTi-amphtml-sizer">
And he would have rejoiced that a failed Underground station had its own ‘cometh the hour’ moment.
Source : https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10314729/amp/Churchills-bunker-Disused-Tube-station-near-Piccadilly-opening-public-month.html1849