Anderson Shelters - History

In November 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain placed Sir John Anderson in charge of Air Raid Precautions. He immediately commissioned the engineer, William Patterson, to design a small and cheap shelter that could be erected in people's gardens. The first 'Anderson' shelter was erected in a garden in Islington, London on 25 February 1939 and, between then and the outbreak of the war in September, around 1.5 million shelters were distributed to people living in areas expected to be bombed by the Luftwaffe. During the war a further 2.1 million were erected.

Anderson shelters were issued free to all householders who earned less than £250 a year, and those with a higher income were charged £7. Made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, and measuring 1.95m by 1.35m, the shelter could accommodate six people. The shelters were half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top.

The shelters were very strong - especially against a compressive force such as from a nearby bomb - because of their corrugation. Click here for further information about their strength and durability.

Anderson shelters were dark and damp and, although some families slept in them every night, most people were reluctant to use them except after the air raid sirens had sounded - and often not even then. People were recommended to take important documents with them, such as birth and marriage certificates and Post Office Savings books. But it was difficult to remember what to do when you had just woken from a deep sleep, it was totally dark and the sirens were wailing. In low-lying areas the shelters tended to flood, and sleeping was difficult as the shelters did not keep out the sound of the bombings. If there was a toilet at all, it took the form of a bucket in the corner. Another problem was that the majority of people living in industrial areas did not have gardens where they could erect their shelters. It is therefore not surprising that a November 1940 survey discovered that only 27% of Londoners used Anderson shelters, 9% slept in public shelters and 4% used underground railway stations. The rest of those interviewed were either on duty at night or slept in their own homes. The latter group felt that, if they were going to die, they would rather die in comfort.

Many families tried to brighten their shelters in various ways, and they often grew flowers and vegetables on the roof. One person wrote that "There is more danger of being hit by a vegetable marrow falling off the roof ... than of being hit by a bomb!'

There is now a strong body of opinion which believes that it was a mistake for the Government's to provide Anderson shelters rather than building deep bomb-proof public shelters of the sort promoted by Ramon Perera, who had overseen the building of a large number of such shelters in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). British engineer Cyril Helsby helped Perera escape to Britain as Barcelona fell to Franco's troops in 1939, but neither could persuade the British establishment to invest in more substantial shelters which would have saved many lives. It is possible that Ministers thought that factory, transport and other workers might opt to stay in truly safe shelters rather than return to work after bombs had stopped falling, even though there was no evidence that this had happened in Barcelona. The full story was told in a TV de Catalunya "30 Minuts" documentary, produced in collaboration with Justin Webster Productions and first shown on Spanish TV in 2006.

The corrugated iron roofs of most of the shelters were collected by the authorities at the end of the war. Others were sold to the householders for £1 each. These were often dug up and re-erected above ground, fitted with proper wooden doors and used as workshops or garden sheds. Click here for more information and some photos.

Notes

Those shelters which are still in their original position, and known to the author of this website, are listed in the sidebar on the right.

There are numerous wartime photos of Anderson shelters on the web, accessible, for instance, by using Google/Images.

German strategic bombing of the UK between 1939 and 1945 killed around 50,000 people. Similar attacks on German cities killed around 500,000 - ten times as many. Many of the later attacks were carried out by Britain's Bomber Command which itself lost 50,000 crew in the conflict. The single atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed between 90,000 and 140,000 Japanese.