Saturday 25 August 2012

Snakes n Ladders Air Raid Shelter

 ......continued from Hidden Plymouth Living History - The 15 Minute Discovery

During the early hours of the morning following our discovery - bruised, bloodied & covered in bites from the army of ants whose nest we had clearly disturbed - a plan started coming together....

.....Project Snakes n Ladders was about to take our exploration to the next level.

Why the name Snakes n Ladders? Well the original entry into was snake-like slither into the passageways, & all of the emergency escape ladders were intact plus it would have made a great game for kids in the '40's after the shelter was made redundant. Shelters had never been given a nickname until now, & also seemed a good way to keep the exact location a secret in order to avoid any vandalism. Following on from this, a few more shelters have been documented in this way, & we have given each their own codename to protect their true identity.

The original plan was postponed after requiring a few changes & it wasn't until 6 weeks later that we finally got our second more in-depth look at this important time capsule. Invitations were sent to gather a small & dedicated team to join us on this most exciting discovery & on the day our original team of 3 was complimented by my Son, fellow Plymouth explorer & blogger Georgie Kirrin, her husband Simon, who kindly supplied much needed backup equipment (including pasties & chocolate!), & Steve Johnson AKA Cyberheritage. This was Steve's only chance of seeing the shelter that eluded him during his years of uncovering relics & we simply had to make it happen as a thankyou for all his help in our own research. Luckily, all went well with access & a simple photo message was sent to interrupt Steve's lunch. That was all the persuasion he needed to turn up 20 minutes later armed with his video camera & upon greeting him, his response was one of awe - the genius plan had worked & it was such an honour for Plymouth's legendary historian to be joining us for this amazing underground excursion!

Welcome to the underground
One of the longer sections of shelter looking toward the toilet cubicles
First left passageway led to seating area, second left to the original entrance
Further on from last photo looking at the infilled entrance

What we didn't realise is that the shelter had last been entered in 1960 & not the late 1940's, judging by graffiti we found below one of the escape hatches along with a ring-pull Coke can & a homemade torch in the form of cloth wrapped around a wooden stick. We can only imagine how exciting it must have been for kids of the era telling their friends of this top secret find & how many only dared venture a few feet into it's dark passageways. Let's not forget though, that this shelter had an original, almost sinister use. Whilst built to offer protection from the Luftwaffe bombing raids, some shelters took direct hits with many civilians killed, & the single largest loss in Plymouth was to be at the ill-fated Portland Square shelter where a memorial is sited today.

Graffiti from possibly the last person to see the shelter

Coke can found below the 1960 graffiti

Homemade torch with cloth wrapped a stick

The earliest piece of graffiti we found was 1939 & the sheer amount of drawings on the walls & artefacts to be found discarded around the passageways was quite phenomenal. Child's toy prams, enamel dishes, buttons, odd shoes, hankies, brass shovels & even a cast iron bedstead littered the floors. The graffiti was literally everywhere to be found, sadly the humidity in the shelter led to a haze like condition & condensation dripped from the walls making most hard to photograph.

1939 - The earliest piece of graffiti found on the walls

Tipperary No.1 Hannons Cottages, Henery Street

Pencil sums with condensation on the walls

Any takers on guessing this one? Mrs.....

One of two child's toy prams slowly decayed through time

Cast iron bedstead under a pile of rubble

Kia-Ora juice bottle

Brass shovel

Laceless boot - one of many found discarded but no pairs to be found

Original Air Raid Precaution posters were to be found morphed into the walls after years of condensation have taken their toll but some of the wording & pictures could still be read to our amazement. Smoking Prohibited, No Dogs Permitted, No Spitting posters, Public Shelter Rules along with tips for long stays in shelters are some of the photos featured below.

Original WWII ARP posters found on a wall facing one of the original blocked entrances

Smoking Strictly Prohibited & Dogs Not Permitted ARP poster

WWII health & safety tips poster

Clean your teeth

ARP poster

Tips to keep warm during shelter visits
After over 5 hours documenting as much as we could, the shelter was resealed but one couldn't get away from the thought that much more was to be found amongst the dank tunnels beneath Plymouth. The sheer size was evident with six original entrances, ten escape hatches complete with original ladders & 10 twin toilet cubicles found amongst a few hundred feet of passageways. Around 1200 civilians would have sheltered here during the air raids, not a nice thought, with so many families cramped together in fear of the ferocious bombing that just about decimated Plymouth's buildings.

One of the original emergency escape ladders at the end of  one passage

Bricked up original entrance, behind which would have been a stairwell 

Corner section with toilet cubicles in the distance

Infill below one of the escape hatches

There we have it, Plymouth's biggest public air raid shelter to be uncovered in years & we can confirm that this is not under threat of demolition for the foreseeable future. At this point we think a few of you may be asking just how we did it - well you will have to ask our offspring in a few years time to get the full story!


  1. Enjoy seeing the artifacts and graffiti of the time, makes it feel real

    1. Indeed, there was so much down there. The child's toys stood out the most, once cherished items left behind for an unknown reason.

  2. OK, how can I join your group?

    1. We don't have a group as such William but thank you for the interest. Keep an eye out for future events though!

  3. I believe the graffiti you asked us to decipher says "Mrs Johns."

  4. Well spotted Emily, we have a few more to decipher from other shelters too.

  5. Thanks for the link Dude! Great report (as always!) Georgie

    1. Thanks Georgie. Hope you are both keeping well :)

  6. The boot in the air raid shelter looks like a Type 2 GI boot.

    1. It's quite possibly the case as there was a detachment of US troops manning light anti-aircraft guns nearby.

  7. Great report, however did you map the place out accurately so the history is fully preserved? I think it would be great for each of the places that you explore that your able to show the layout to the public.

    1. Thanks Dave. We map out each shelter we find as accurate as can be given the amount of time we had in there. This also includes marking where graffiti was found in parts of the shelter & any artefacts found. These will feature as part of a forthcoming blog post to compare the size & layout of underground shelters.

  8. firstly, may i say, keep up the good work! While reading though i did notice that the coke can looked a little more modern than 1960. after a quick google search (link at the bottom) i would imagine that the coke can is more like 1970 than 1960 going merely off the design. I am not faulting your research in the slightest, what you do is brilliant, but it might mean that this shelter was perhaps open an extra decade on your original thoughts? just some food for thought. Thank you,r:2,s:0,i:88

  9. The name written on one of the walls in the shelter reads Mrs Johns. This is the name of my grandmother who possibly used this shelter as my father was born in August 1937 and would have been 2 years old and sheltering with my grandmother in 1939. Looks like her writing too!

  10. Mrs Johns, the name on the wall. A family name and my maiden name. Good chance it was my grandmother as my father was born in 1937 and aged 2 at start of the war. They lived just of Albert Road at the time. Looks like her style of writing also.