Kate Thompson explains how working-class East Enders had access to books, entertainment and culture in an underground library during the Second World War, the background story to her new novel, The Little Wartime Library.
June 13, 1944, and Bethnal Green is under fire. The streets are bathed in a choking, acrid smoke as a German V1 flying bomb explodes out of the sky, hitting a railway bridge and nearby houses. Six people are pulled dead from the scorched wreckage, eviscerated by Hitler’s first ‘revenge weapon’.
Deep below the ground and protected from the latest chapter in the unfolding horror, one 15-year-old girl is oblivious. Pat Spicer wanders up the long gloomy tunnel with her nose in a book, scarcely noticing the ripe stench of so many unwashed bodies, or the distant crump of the rocket’s meteoric impact, for Milly-Molly-Mandy has her enthralled.
Pat has just visited Britain’s only underground tube shelter library, built over the boarded-up tracks of the westbound tunnel of the Central Line at Bethnal Green in East London.
Contrary to popular belief, during the Second World War, not all shelterers slept in an amorphous huddle on a dirty Underground platform. The history of World War Two is full of surprises, mostly tales of unspeakable deprivation, sacrifice and bloodshed, but just occasionally, magic.
Bethnal Green’s secret underground wartime library offers up a remarkable story that reveals how, even in the darkest of times, working-class East Enders had access to books, entertainment and culture.
The story of this library starts in December 1940, three months after the Blitz began. At the time Bethnal Green Underground was a half-completed station which had been locked up and left to the rats when war broke out in 1939. Being 78 feet below ground, the station and its tunnels were one of the few safe places to shelter in the area, so the local council leased the station from the London Passenger Transport Board and over several months it was transformed into a fully-functioning subterranean community with an astonishing array of facilities.
Metal triple bunks (less hospitable to lice), sleeping up to 5,000 people, stretched three-quarters of a mile up the eastbound tunnel. A shelter ticket reserved you a bunk and you needed it. On one fiery Blitz night, a record 7,000 people slept down there.
Order was kept by a stout, no-nonsense ARP warden by the name of Mrs Chumbley, who reputedly ruled with a rod of iron. Her booming voice could be heard echoing up the tunnels.
Shelterers weren’t short of entertainment. There was a 300-seat theatre built over the boarded up tracks of the westbound tunnel with a stage, spotlights and a grand piano, which hosted opera, ballet and wartime weddings, a cafe serving hot pies and bacon sandwiches, a doctor’s quarters and a Women’s Voluntary Services staffed wartime nursery, which enabled newly-enfranchised women to go out to work. And best of all, from October 1941 – a little library.
The previous year, on 7 September, 1940, a bomb had crashed through the roof of Bethnal Green Central Library. In a split second, what had been an orderly and well-equipped library became a scene of destruction.
For borough librarian George F Vale and his deputy, Stanley Snaith, the underground village that had developed at Bethnal Green station was the perfect opportunity to set up a makeshift library and provide the local community with access to free books once more. “The opportunity of founding a tube shelter library was too good to miss,” Stanley wrote in an article in Library Review in the spring of 1942.
“It is, perhaps, the least pretentious branch library yet built. Fifteen feet square, it is mere sentry box of a place. We could have done with more room but the powers that be did not see eye-to-eye with us.”
The library, which had a captive audience during a raid when the doors to the shelter were locked, was open from 5.30–8pm every evening and loaned out 4,000 volumes that survived from the bombed-out library above.
Romance sat alongside literary classics, children’s books, poetry and plays. Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and many other classics, including Enid Blyton, nourished young minds and helped children to escape the nightmares above.
“Libraries in converted shops, in village halls, in mobile vans, are common enough. But libraries in Tube shelters are something new under the sun,” Stanley wrote with pride.
Can you imagine growing up in a tube station, your childhood unfolding next to the tracks, all your rites of passage taking place in the booking hall or along the tunnels?
Patsy Crawley, 84, from Essex doesn’t have to. The first six years of her life were spent mostly down Bethnal Green Tube shelter. “It sounds funny now, but back then it was just normal. I knew no other life,” she says. “My mum, Ginnie, volunteered at the tube shelter cafe. She was such a lovely, smiley lady, always bustling round a million miles an hour in her apron.
“When she was working, I’d knock about with my six male cousins. We had such fun running up and down the tunnels like little tube rats. We used to dare each other to go in the ‘room of horrors’, as we called the ventilation chute. It was strictly forbidden but, being adventurous kids, we climbed up. All the kids used their imaginations, playing hopscotch, skipping, It and kiss-chase up the tunnels.
“During the war, the facilities were amazing down the Tube; it had everything you needed. There was even a mobile hairdresser, who used to come down the tunnels doing people’s hair out in rags before bed so they woke up with nice curly hair. Terrific!
“When war was over, I missed life underground, and even now when I go to Bethnal Green and see the tube sign, I feel a warmth spread over my chest. To others, it’s a transport network; to me, it was my home.”
Heartbreakingly, that home was tinged with horror one night in March 1943 when 173 people died in a human crush on the uneven steps down to the shelter. ARP wardens worked alongside housewives and boy scouts to save the injured. Mrs Chumbley wrenched children free from the crush with such force their shoes were left behind. It was three hours before the last casualty was pulled out.
Authorities ordered those that witnessed the tragedy to say nothing. The fearful explosion that had sent people hurrying to the shelter hadn’t even been enemy bombs, but the government testing new anti-aircraft missiles in nearby Victoria Park. One of the Second World War’s biggest civilian disasters was quickly hushed up under the Official Secrets Act by a wartime government desperate to avoid news of the scandal falling into enemy hands.
The enforced silence just compounded the survivors’ feelings of guilt. Rescuers’ hair turned grey overnight, whole families were torn apart – Patsy lost five members of her family on her father’s side.
Little wonder the underground library staff felt such a fierce loyalty towards their patrons, who had suffered so much. “Each dusk sees the first contingent making its way down to the bowels of the earth,” wrote Stanley.
“The well and the ill, the old and the young, they come trooping down. Here a chokered docker, there an undersized lad with an Atlas load improbably poised on his head, playing prieux chevalier to a crippled mother. In the library, the youngsters are vocally busy with their book-selection, but why should they not chatter to their hearts’ content?”
These ‘youngsters’ are now in their 90s, and memories of the little library are embedded in their hearts. “It was a sanctuary to me,” Pat, now 92 and living in Berkshire, told me. “By 1943, I was 14 and there had been so much horror: the Blitz, the Tube disaster. You can’t imagine what that library represented to me as a place of safety. It sparked a life-long love of reading.”
This October  Bethnal Green Library – now firmly reinstated above ground – celebrates its centenary and its astonishing history as a symbol of resistance. Never have we needed or valued our libraries more. Because, as little Pat discovered, you can escape life’s vicissitudes when your nose is buried in a good book.
As for Bethnal Green station? Today it reverberates with the drone of Central Line tube trains but 80 years ago it was the magical sound of children’s laughter and the satisfying thunk-thunk of a librarian’s stamp which echoed up the tunnels.
There’s more about the lives of people in the East End during this period in:
“Put those Christmas lights out!” The Home Front during World War Two by Jean Fullerton
Some reasons why history gets lost by VB Grey
Images (all supplied by the author):
- Bethnal Green underground shelter library entrance: ©Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives
- Bunk beds in the tunnels at Bethnal Green underground station: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives
- Mrs Chumbley, shelter ARP warden
- The librarian stamping books at Bethnal Green underground shelter library: ©Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives
- Patsy Thompson, front row, black top, grew up with siblings playing down in Bethnal Green underground station
- Wartime children who used the library and Bethnal Green tube shelter: ©Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives