Books, bombs and an incredible wartime story

During the darkest days of the Second World War, a tiny underground library at an East London tube station provided blissful escapism for children sheltering from the air raids above, as Kate Thompson discovers

June 13th 1944, and Bethnal Green is under fire. The streets are bathed in a choking, acrid smoke as a German V-1 flying bomb dives out of the sky, explodes on a railway bridge and destroys a dozen nearby houses. Screams pierce the air. Six people are pulled dead from the scorched wreckage destroyed by Hitler’s first ‘vengeance weapon’.

Deep below the ground, a 15-year-old girl is oblivious to the horror above. Pat Spicer wanders up the long, gloomy tunnel with her nose in a book, having just visited Britain’s first and only tube station library, built in October 1941 over the boarded-up tracks of the westbound tunnel at Bethnal Green Underground station in East London. Milly-Molly-Mandy has Pat so enthralled, she scarcely notices the distant crump of the rocket’s impact.

The story of this remarkable little library, which transformed the lives of wartime Londoners, starts in December 1940, three months after the Blitz began. At the time Bethnal Green Underground was a partly 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 it from the Transport Board and over several months it was transformed into a fully functioning subterranean community with an astonishing array of facilities.

wartime library
The Bethnal Green tube station library in 1941

Metal bunks (less hospitable to lice), sleeping up to 5,000 people, stretched three-quarters of a mile up the eastbound tunnel. There was also a 300-seat theatre built in the westbound tunnel with a stage, spotlights and grand piano, which hosted opera, ballet and wartime weddings, a café serving hot pies and bacon sandwiches, doctor’s quarters and a Women’s Voluntary Service-staffed nursery, which enabled newly enfranchised women to go out to work. And, 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, the orderly interior 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,’ librarian Stanley wrote in an article in Library Review. ‘It is, perhaps, the least pretentious branch library yet built. Fifteen feet square, it is a 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 5.30pm to 8pm every evening and loaned out 4,000 volumes that survived from the bombed-out library. Romances sat alongside literary classics, children’s books, poetry and plays. Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and many other classics, including those by Enid Blyton, nourished young minds and helped children to escape the nightmares above.

wartime library
Patsy Crawley (front) played in the underground tunnels while her mother Ginnie (back) worked in the shelter café

Patsy Crawley, now 84, from Essex, spent much of the first six years of her life in the Bethnal Green tube shelter, where order was kept by a stout, no-nonsense Air Raid Precautions warden by the name of Mrs Chumbley. ‘It sounds funny now, but back then it was just normal. I knew no other life,’ she laughs. ‘My mum Ginnie volunteered at the tube shelter café. 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 shaft. It was strictly forbidden but, being adventurous kids, we climbed up. All of us used our imaginations, playing hopscotch 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 the 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 me, it was my home.’

READ MORE: Beatrix Potter and the tale of the tragic fiance

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 calamity 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.

wartime library
The entrance to the station’s air raid shelter where 173 people were crushed to death on the stairs

The underground library staff felt 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… 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, which in the darkest of times gave them access to books, entertainment and culture, are embedded in their hearts. ‘It was a sanctuary to me,’ Pat Spicer, 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 lifelong love of reading.’

This October, Bethnal Green Library– now firmly reinstated above ground – will celebrate its centenary and its astonishing history as a symbol of resistance. Today Bethnal Green station 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 that echoed up the tunnels.

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £19.99*

TO ORDER A COPY FOR  £17.99  UNTIL 4 MARCH, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £20. PATSY CRAWLE Y, LONDON BOROUGH OF TOWER HAMLETS, WALLACE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK