Today (3rd September 2019) is 80 years since the outbreak of the Second World War. How did the war affect a London suburb such as Richmond?

One physical remnant of the war is the Grade II listed St Leonards Air Raid Shelter. It was built to serve residents of St Leonards Court, a four-storey block of 83 flats in Palmers Road, East Sheen. The shelter protected them during the blitz in 1940-41, flying bombs in 1944 and then V2 rockets in 1944-5.

Residents entered the shelter via a brick turret with a tile roof and a metal weather vane. This led to a narrow flight of stairs. If a siren went off to warn of a raid, residents would have about 15 to 30 minutes to get into the shelter. The worst time was probably during the period September to November 1940, when four bombs landed in the area near the flats.

Fire duty was shared by the male residents, who included a vacuum cleaner salesman, a chartered standard engineer, a tax inspector, and two civil service higher clerical officers! An incendiary bomb apparently caused a fire on a corner of the roof, but this was successfully extinguished.

In comparison to many other private shelters, such as the typical Anderson shelter made from corrugated steel, the one at St Leonards was carefully designed. It was formed from bricks and concrete and was waterproofed. Four escape hatches allowed people to leave in an emergency. Inside, the individual bunks, 48 in total, arranged in three tiers, each had an electric light and small shelf, and there was even a small post box for sending internal mail!

In an interview filmed towards the end of his life, a long-term resident of the flats explained how he had rented a bunk for his daughter for a one-off payment of £7.00 per bunk (about £390 by today’s prices). (£7.00 was also the cost that householders with an income of over £5.00 a week were expected to pay for an Anderson shelter.) However, he added that the shelter was so noisy that it was difficult to sleep. As a result, he and his family normally bedded down on mattresses laid down in the corridor of their flat.

The shelter will be open during the Open House London, on 22 September, along with other buildings with which Environment Trust has an involvement: the nearby Burton Mausoleum, the Grove Gardens Chapel, and the Kilmorey Mausoleum.

We are also hosting a lecture on the impact of WW2 in Richmond with noted local historian, Simon Fowler, on 15th October. Tickets cost £12 (£10 member of Environment Trust) and include a glass of wine. Booking essential.

(with some help from Helen Sugiyama)

(Image: first aid kit found in the air raid shelter)