Surviving the Blitz in the garden

by Simon Fowler

During the war households were encouraged to provide their own shelters, although a survey in December 1940 suggested that most local people preferred to take their chances in raids hiding under the stairs or the dining table.

The most popular shelter was the Anderson Shelter – a seemingly rather flimsy structure which was erected in the garden. Named after Sir John Anderson, the government minister responsible for air-raid precautions, they were designed to accommodate up to six people. The design was based on the use of curved and straight galvanised corrugated steel panels, which could be put together simply. A small drainage sump was often incorporated in the floor to collect rainwater seeping into the shelter – they were often very damp and cold.

The shelters were buried four-foot deep in the soil and then covered with more soil over the roof. The earth banks were often planted with vegetables and flowers.

The internal fitting out of the shelter was left to the owner. In Richmond, Marie Lawrence’s father was a handyman and took considerable trouble to make the shelter in their garden as homely as possible. In her diary on 12 October 1940, she wrote: “Dad has put a door on our shelter and we have the curtains on rings now and it is very good.” A few days later she noted that he had wallpapered the whole shelter. Jack Tuckwell remembers that the family Anderson shelter was quite safe, snug and with bunk-beds. He used to spend evenings there with his mother and sister.

Across the river in Twickenham Patricia Pennington, who was little more than a toddler, later wrote that she “couldn’t wait to sleep in the shelter in the garden although I gather my father didn’t take too kindly to me peeing in his ear! I was on the top bunk above him. My mother confirmed that this really happened!” Living near Twickenham station a slightly older David Greenaway recalled that he “had a one-piece garment called a ‘siren suit’ that I was put into if we had to go out there at night if there was an air raid. It was a very dry shelter as it was built inside one of the nearby railway out-buildings that had an earth floor.”

After the war the shelters were dismantled, although some were used as potting sheds. And some found them ideal places to grow mushrooms. Amazingly one or two survive. I know of one shelter in Kew and I have been told that there is another can be found in a garden in St Margarets.

This piece originally appeared in the Twickenham & Richmond Tribune, 16 October 2020, p.7