When Caribbean migrants disembarked from the SS Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948, many of them had nowhere to live. Due to the shortage of housing in London following World War Two, temporary housing was scarce.
As a result, 236 migrants from the merchant vessel were transported by bus from Tilbury docks in Essex to Clapham, where they received food and a bed in a shelter beneath Clapham South Tube station for six shillings and sixpence a week.
The underground passages were used as shelters during the war, so they were already equipped with bunk beds and washing facilities.
There was no light in the windowless underworld. It was noisy and cramped with just the bare necessities. Trains rattled above them as they tried to sleep. One Windrush resident described the living conditions as “primitive and unwelcoming, like a sparsely furnished rabbit’s warren”.
John Richards was one of the underground residents. The first three weeks he spent in London after he docked at Tilbury after the Windrush arrived were spent underground.
“The trains that ran above in the morning woke me up. There were beds all around with crisp white sheets.
“They had a tea cart at the station. We had pie in the evenings,” said Mr Richards, who eventually moved into a hostel and landed a job with British Rail.
“I survived because friends know friends. It was hard, but in the long run, you find a way.”
Clapham South’s tunnels are the deepest of the deep-level shelters and lie beneath the Northern line. There are 180 steps to reach it. A total of 8,000 beds were provided.
The shelter was never filled to capacity. It was opened in 1944 after the worst of the Blitz.
The walls still bear original 1940s signage, including directions to toilets, canteens, and sleeping areas.
Those seeking shelter were assigned to specific sections of Clapham South. Each section was named after a British admiral, such as Collingwood, Drake and Jellicoe.
Within four weeks of their arrival, all Windrush migrants had obtained employment and had moved out of the site. London Transport was one of the largest employers.
Many workers later settled in nearby Brixton, where the nearest labour exchange was. This was the beginning of the area’s association with Caribbean culture.
If you can’t imagine what life was like for the weeks that the Windrush arrivals lived so deep underground, the London Transport Museum has opened up the deep-level site for people to explore on guided tours.
The arrival of the Windrush Generation is celebrated on 22 June each year as Windrush Day.