Before it became crucial to winning the Second World War, Down Street tube station was a bit useless. A stop on the Piccadilly Line (back when the line was known as the Great Northern Piccadilly and Brompton Railway), it was in the heart of Mayfair, and opened in 1907.
But it lasted only 25 years. Down Street was between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner – two stops which are quite close together anyway, about a ten-minute walk. It was also set back quite far from the main thoroughfare, Piccadilly. There just weren’t enough people – either living locally, or who happened to walk past it – using Down Street.
So it was closed in 1932 and used as a ventilation point for the Piccadilly Line.
Down Street’s original exterior.
That was until it was covertly transformed into an underground, bomb-proof and gas-proof bunker by the Railway Executive Committee during the Second World War. It also housed a crucial telephone exchange, which coordinated activity on the railways that were vital to Britain winning the war.
And, for a period of around 40 days, from October to December 1940, it was Winston Churchill’s secret shelter from the Blitz.
“It had disappeared off the Underground map, and when people were looking for somewhere to build a deep, bomb-proof bunker, this was a very good choice,” says the London Transport Museum’s Chris Nix, who is giving tours of Down Street, as it opens to the public.
“Because it had just gone out of people’s thinking; it was no longer on the map, and it was hidden away on a back street in a relatively sparsely populated area of London. But, still very close to all of the seats of power that were going to run the war.”
Down Street as it is today.
Down a side street off Piccadilly, the nondescript grubby security door to the station is sandwiched between a small off licence (Mayfair Mini Mart) and a residential back entrance. It is blast-proof, has a spy-hole, and was policed by two security guards during the war. Behind it is an 82-step staircase and an old lift shaft that descend 22 metres below ground.
Grimy beige World War Two paint (not a London Underground colour) is still visible on the walls; so are some of the old station tiles, signs and the residue of wallpaper and wood panelling that was used on the walls of the some of the meeting rooms below ground. Instead of leading down to the platforms, painted signs with arrows point “To Offices”, and “To Enquiries and Committee Room”.
But when visiting Down Street, it is its current role in the tube system that’s immediately obvious. It works as a giant ventilation device – cold air comes through Down Street and replaces the hot air pushed to the surface by Piccadilly Line trains. It is very cold and windy beneath the surface, and the roar of Piccadilly Line trains on both sides is constant.
What’s left of the telephone exchange.
During the war, there were 40 staff living down here full time. You can see the toilet cubicles cut into what used to be the staircase down to the platform, as well as an old sink, and the “ladies’ bath” is still intact. Eight of the staff were women: they bunked three to a room, some with their heads right beside the platform wall, making sleeping a challenge.
One of the earliest examples of a modern air conditioning system (fully gas-filtered) was built into Down Street. Without this, the workers wouldn’t have survived below ground for longer than 20 minutes without dying of heatstroke.
Winston Churchill would stay in a camp bed in one of the Railway Executive Committee’s offices when he had to take refuge, until a whole section of tunnels was converted into quarters just for him. Transport for London had to build this section rapidly and with the utmost secrecy – it was only discovered in 1994, and still no written record has been found of who stayed here. It was simply referred to by workers as “Number 10”.
Churchill would use this bunker to entertain members of his War Cabinet, particularly when he had to use diplomacy to win them round to his way of thinking. They would have caviar, champagne, cigars, brandy and all sorts of other luxuries that were impossible to come by during the war. On one of the walls, there is even an old service bell they used to summon the waiters.
Such decadent service and food was provided by caterers and suppliers used by the railways, which is reportedly how Churchill – reluctant to take shelter – was persuaded to use Down Street in the first place.
This way, please.
Tickets for the tours go on sale on 20 April. If you fancy it, you have to book in advance, through the London Transport Museum’s website.
Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor of our sister title, the New Statesman.
Guided tour dates: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 4 August to 11 September 2016; 24 November to 18 December 2016; 11 January to 5 March 2017.
All images courtesy of the London Transport Museum Collection.