The reluctant air raid shelter

Demolishing the shelter
Demolishing the shelter

In Hastings, there are few examples of Second World War installations to be seen but there was one that remained for decades after the war.

It was situated in Caves Road and was described by the Hastings Observer as the ‘Reluctant Shelter’. For weeks the 18-inch thick, brick and reinforced concrete walls of the shelter defied spasmodic attempts to destroy it.

Local contractor Reginald Dicker said: “It would be uneconomical to keep men occupied there continuously. When we are able get mechanical compressors and drills on the site it won’t take long to demolish.”

The surface shelters were designed chiefly as protection from a bomb blast, but they also presented a danger to the public - a nearby explosion could lift the roof, usually a concrete slab, which might then collapse in on the occupants.

These defects were later overcome by adding outer blast walls, improving the mortaring of the cement joints and by edging the roof, so that it could shift a few inches without falling off the supporting walls.

A shelter more successful in giving protection was the underground Anderson. It was designed in 1938 and named after Sir John Anderson, the man responsible for preparing Britain to withstand enemy air raids.

In 1939, Hastings property agents Fryer and Sons were offering house buyers a free Anderson shelter to be installed in the gardens of newly built houses in Harold Road.

More than two million of the cheap-to-produce Anderson shelters were supplied to the nation. Once in situ they made uncomfortable and damp dwellings that were prone to flooding, but they saved many lives. There were also public underground shelters - one, its entrance bricked off, still exists beneath the lower slopes of Torfield Allotments.

Hastings businesses and local authority offices also improvised staff and public shelters in the basements of strong buildings.

In March 1941, the Morrison shelter, named after the Home Secretary, was introduced. It was a double bed-sized, steel-framed self-assembly cage with a sheet steel top. The base and side panels of the shelter material were metal mesh. Two-tier shelters were supplied for larger families or where it was inappropriate for house occupants to share a bed.

More than 500,000 Morrison shelters were delivered to British households by November 1941, and an additional 100,000 were ordered in late 1943. They were certainly effective: a survey of the performance of 44 heavily damaged houses with these shelters installed showed that without them the occupants probably would have been killed.

After the war anyone wishing to keep their air raid shelter could buy it from the local authority. In the face of the post-war shortages of construction materials thousands took up this offer. The Anderson shelter, after being unearthed and set on a brick base, served as a bicycle or tool shed. On farms and workshops the steel roofs of the Morrison shelters were used for flooring and the uprights as supports for work benches, some of which are still in use today.

The Caves Road shelter was finally demolished in February 1971.

Further reading: Victory’s Children by Victoria Seymour priced £9.99 from Waterstones, Hastings Tourist Information Centre, Breed’s Place and direct from Victoria at or by phoning 01424 424981.

By Victoria Seymour