(To read the first part of this history on Crystal Palace Park, please click here.)
Although the vast Crystal Palace building was destroyed by fire in 1936, there is still plenty more to discover about the south London park in which it stood.
A Victorian Jurassic Park
Head to the lake in the park’s south-eastern corner and you’ll find the ‘Dinosaur Park’; the most direct link with the original Crystal Palace pleasure gardens.
When they were unveiled in 1854 the collection of dinosaur models were a ground breaking attraction. A contemporary guide book to the Crystal Palace informed visitors that:
“Long ages ago and probably before the birth of man, the earth was inhabited by living animals, differing in size and form from those now existing… whose bones, and sometimes even entire skeletons, are found buried in the earth, on the surface of which they once crawled; and it is from the study and comparison of these fossil remains that the vast bodies which the visitor sees before him have been constructed with a truthful certainty that admits of no dispute.”
Despite this assertion, today’s palaeontologists generally agree that the Victorian representations are rather inaccurate.
However, considering that their original creators- Benjamin Waterhouse and Richard Owen (founder of the Natural History Museum and the scientist who coined the word ‘dinosaur’ in the first place)- were the first to ever attempt such depictions of these long dead creatures, I think it’s fair to say that these faults can be forgiven.
The dinosaur models were very sturdily built; the main materials being brick and iron. They were pricey too, costing over £13,500 (approximately £800,000 in today’s money).
To celebrate their creation, a dinner party was famously hosted inside the Iguanodon model on New Year’s Eve, 1853. So ample was the beast that 20 diners were able to squeeze into his hollow innards.
As the twentieth century wore on the dinosaurs fell into a rather sorry state and by the 1950s they had become entangled with weeds.
Thankfully, following a £4 million sprucing up and the protection of a Grade 1 listing, they are now in excellent condition, proudly on show for new generations of dinosaur-mad youngsters to enjoy.
Another popular outdoor attraction dating from the original gardens is the Crystal Palace maze which first opened in 1870.
As with other areas of the park, the maze fell into shameful neglect during the twentieth century, becoming fiercely overgrown and off limits to budding adventurers.
In 2008, the maze was saved by the valiant effort of the girl guides, who put their gardening skills to practice, tidying up the leafy labyrinth and making it worthy of exploration once more- it is now one of the largest mazes in the UK.
The girl-guides themselves have an important link with Crystal Palace Park- in 1909, upon seeing a Scout rally at the park, a group of girls decided that they should have access to a similar organisation. Sir Robert Bayden Powell agreed to the request and, within one year, 6,000 girls had joined the new movement.
In the early 1960s the Crystal Palace Bowl was established in the park’s northern area; a popular, open-air music stage from which artists could perform to up to 22,000 spectators.
Classic music and opera were the venue’s staples and in 1971 the first Crystal Palace Garden Party was hosted; a summer festival featuring some of the era’s most celebrated pop acts.
The Garden Parties continued until the early 1980s and during their time acts including Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Procol Harum, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Deep Purple, Madness, Curtis Mayfield and many more graced the south London venue.
In June 1980, legendary reggae musician Bob Marley took to the stage. By this point, Bob was beginning to succumb to cancer and his Crystal Palace gig would be the last time he ever appeared in the capital. He died the following year, aged just 36.
Sport at Crystal Palace
Alongside the gardens, exhibitions, dinosaurs and concerts, Crystal Palace Park has also enjoyed a long association with sport.
In 1861, just a few years after the relocation of the glass exhibition hall, a football stadium was erected in the southern end of the park. This became home to Crystal Palace Football Club; an amateur side formed by groundkeepers who had originally worked at the Crystal Palace during its Hyde Park/Great Exhibition days.
In 1905, the stadium’s owners decided that the ground was worthy of a professional club, so an entirely new team was formed; although the original name was maintained. In 1915, the new Crystal Palace F.C had to vacate the stadium as it was taken over for war duties. They now of course play at nearby Selhurst Park.
As well as being home to the local side, Crystal Palace Park’s stadium also hosted the F.A cup final between 1895 and 1914. The ground was capable of holding large crowds- the biggest being in 1913 when Aston Villa’s clash with Sunderland pulled in over 120,000 fans.
Rugby matches took place at Crystal Palace’s stadium too- it was here, in December 1905, that the first ever international Rugby Union match between England and New Zealand was held (New Zealand won 15-0 it pains me to say!)
For a time, cricket could also be enjoyed here with Crystal Palace forming its own team in 1898- masterminded by none other than W.G Grace.
Unfortunately, the team struggled to take off and the sound of willow on wood at Crystal Palace Park ceased after just ten years.
Far more successful was the introduction of Speedway which took over the stadium in 1928. This remained a popular fixture until 1940, when WWII brought the proceedings to an abrupt halt.
Today, the site is occupied by the modern Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium which opened in 1964 and is capable of seating up to 24,000 people.
The stadium is accompanied by another 1960s building; the National Sports Centre which provides facilities for both indoor and outdoor sport.
The Crystal Palace sports complex was first envisioned in the 1950s by Sir Gerald Barry; the man responsible for directing the Festival of Britain. As such, the indoor centre shares a number of architectural similarities with the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall.
Together, the Athletics Stadium and National Sports Centre have proved popular with locals and professional athletes alike and many a British Olympian has trained at Crystal Palace over the decades.
Although it may not seem apparent now, Crystal Palace Park was for many years home to a major motor-race track.
When it first opened in May 1927 the track was designed for motor bikes. Being one of the earliest examples of such a venue, the circuit was at first fairly basic; made from tightly-packed gravel with tarmac appearing only on the bends.
In 1928, whilst flying from Gravesend to Hanworth, a certain Mr R.H Henderson was most grateful for the Crystal Palace track when the craft he was piloting began to experience difficulties. He carried out an emergency landing on the circuit and skidding to a halt less than two yards before a set of iron railings. After carrying out repairs, Mr Henderson was then able to use the racetrack to get his plane back into the sky!
In July 1936, the first London Grand Prix was staged at the Crystal Palace Circuit. The event was broadcast by the BBC, making the race the first ever example of televised motor racing. In the same year, the track was extended to two miles and made all-tarmac.
Over the years, legends such as Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham demonstrated their breakneck skills at Crystal Palace. A short film depicting cars roaring around the track in 1964 can be viewed below:
As the power of racing cars increased however it soon became apparent that the Crystal Palace racetrack was no longer suitable for the sport. The last meeting was held in September 1972.
Although closed for many years, parts of the track are still clearly visible; much of it having been converted to service roads and footpaths.
In 1969, the Crystal Palace racetrack featured in the classic, British comedy, The Italian Job with the audacious crooks testing out their mini-driving skills on the circuit. It was also in the park that the infamous “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” scene was shot! (Click below to view).
Apparently, the film crew over-estimated the amount of explosives required… leading to a spate of windows being shattered nearby!
Broadcasting to London
Today, the park’s most prominent feature is the Crystal Palace Transmitter which soars over the western perimeter and has been a well-known London landmark since 1956.
The mast stands on the site of the old Crystal Palace’s aquarium with the main control centre sunk underground.
Construction of the tower was a major engineering feat with workers on the project labouring under some pretty precarious conditions.
Much of this work was captured in a documentary (shot in experimental colour) called The Phoenix Tower (a reference to the tower rising from the site of the old Crystal Palace which had been consumed by flames).
A short clip from the film (which was later used on the fledgling BBC2 as a test sequence when main programming was off air), can be viewed below:
Even today, workers on the Crystal Palace Transmitter have to have a real head for heights…
Unsurprisingly, when it was first opened the mast was dubbed ‘London’s Eiffel Tower‘.
Despite its elegant appearance, the tower was designed to be rock-solid- its strength being tested in the 1950s by the firing of five rockets which were launched from the tower’s top and exerted a thrust of two and a half tons… the mast didn’t budge an inch.
Standing at an impressive 718 ft., the transmitter is visible from many parts of London and is currently responsible for broadcasting television and radio across the capital and surrounding counties; an audience which comprises of approximately 12 million people.
Crystal Palace Museum
If you’re keen to find out more about the history of Crystal Palace, a small museum dedicated to the original exhibition hall can be found on Anerley Hill, a short walk from Crystal Palace station.
Housed in a late Victorian building, the museum contains a number of original documents and artefacts. For more information, please click here.
Toiling away above Frith Street, with financial help from his family and a £200 donation from a private benefactor, John Logie Baird struggled with his invention for many months.
For his experiments, he used an old ventriloquist’s dummy’s head; a character whom he nicknamed ‘Stooky Bill’.
However, try as he might, the Scottish inventor just could not get the image of his plaster prop to appear on the televisor’s wee screen.
As autumn set in, Logie Baird had been at Frith Street for almost a year, yet his invention seemed to be going nowhere.
But then, on Friday 2nd October 1925, the breakthrough moment came:
“Funds were going down, the situation was becoming desperate and we were down to our last £30 when at last, one Friday… everything functioned properly.
The image of Stooky Bill formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement.”
Almost immediately, Logie Baird wanted to test his televisor on a living, breathing human being.
In a sudden burst of energy, he dashed downstairs which, at that time, was home to an office belonging to a Mr Cross. Logie Baird asked if he could quickly borrow the office boy; William Taynton.
William was quickly hauled upstairs and plonked in front of the camera. Wasting no time, John Logie Baird dashed over to the viewing screen… only to find it blank.
What the inventor had failed to realise in his haste was that young William, being rather scared by the bright lights and rapidly whirring discs, had shied away from the camera!
Persuasion was on hand though- in the form of half a crown. Taking this handsome payment in hand, William Taynton diligently sat where required… as the flickering image appeared on the screen, the young lad on the other side of the camera probably didn’t realise that he was going down in history as the first ever real-life T.V star!
Shortly after this euphoric success, there was a knock at Logie Baird’s door… it was a group of Soho prostitutes who, having glimpsed the strange machine through a window, has mistaken it for a telescope- and demanded to know why the Scotsman was spying on them!
Within a few months, John Logie Baird was ready to demonstrate his televisor to the public.
On the 26th January 1926, at Frith Street, he gave the first showing to a group of guests from the Royal Institution. The demo, also beamed to guests at Olympia and at premises on Savoy Hill (behind the Savoy Hotel), included transmitted images of Stooky Bill and also of a real person.
Today, a blue plaque at Frith Street commemorates this event:
Although the showing was a success, one critic from the Royal Institution, clearly not grasping the ground-breaking nature of the event he’d just witnessed, felt compelled to ask; “well… what’s the good of it? What useful purpose will it serve?”
Following the first public demonstration, ‘Baird Television Limited’ was established, its headquarters moving a short distance from Frith Street to 133 Long Acre in Covent Garden.
Further experiments were carried out at the new studio, each more ambitious than the last.
In 1927 John Logie Baird successfully broadcast test images to his native Scotland; the receiving end being a televisor set based at Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel.
The following year, he also succeeded in beaming grainy images (of a man and woman sitting in his studio) across the Atlantic to New York.
Experiments with colour and even 3D were also conducted.
With these advancements, John Logie Baird knew that the time was ready to begin broadcasting to the public.
In those days, the only broadcaster in the UK was the British Broadcasting Corporation; itself in its infancy (and, in those days of course, a radio station).
Logie Baird approached the BBC’s director, John Reith and, after some persuasion, managed to get the corporation to give the new technology a try.
Logie Baird had built a transmitter on the roof of his Long Acre premises, but he soon realised it would be too weak for his ambitions. He therefore needed to borrow one of the BBC’s aerials- known as ‘2LO’ which was located on the roof of Selfridges.
However, 2LO’s primary use was for radio broadcasts, so the BBC only granted Baird Broadcasting access to the transmitter between 11pm and mid-morning next day, when wireless broadcasting was off-air.
Selfridges continued to play an important role in the dawn of television when the first Baird ‘Televisor’ sets went on sale at the department store.
With prices for the new equipment ranging from £20 to £150 (equivalent at the time to the price of a motor-car), only a handful of wealthy people in the London area were able to receive the new-fangled programmes.
In fact, for the very first broadcast, Logie Baird himself estimated that only 30 people were tuned in! One of this select group was the Prime Minister himself; Ramsay McDonald, who watched the historical moment from 10 Downing Street on a Televisor which had been presented as a gift from the Scottish inventor.
The very first programme was broadcast from Covent Garden’s Long Acre on the morning of 30th September 1929.
Due to transmitter limitations, the sound and vision had to be broadcast separately in two minute bursts; so the viewer would first see a silent, flickering image with the crackling sound following shortly afterwards. This split process would continue for the first six months of programming.
The very first televisual broadcast opened with a speech by Sydney Moseley; Logie Baird’s business manager and one of his most supportive friends.
The tiny audience would have seen Sydney, silent but mouthing words… followed two minutes later by the vocal segment:
“Ladies and Gentlemen: you are about to witness the first official test of television in this country from the studio of the Baird Television Development Company and transmitted from 2LO; the London Station of the British Broadcasting Corporation.”
A few more short speeches followed, and then the morning’s entertainment began. The schedule ran as follows:
11.16am. Sydney Howard: televised for two minutes.
11.18am. Sydney Howard: Comedy monologue.
11.20am. Miss Lulu Stanley: televised for two minutes.
11.22am. Miss Lulu Stanley: sang ‘He’s tall, and dark, and handsome’ followed by ‘Grandma’s proverbs.’
11.24am. Miss C King: televised for two minutes
11.26am. Miss C King sang ‘Mighty like a rose.’
Morning television in those days was clearly far more sophisticated than the dross on offer today!
On the 14th July 1930, Baird Television were finally able to broadcast the sound and vision together for the first time. The vehicle used for this demonstration was a short play called ‘The Man With the Flower in His Mouth’, which was written in 1922 by Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello.
Chosen for its simplicity and small cast (considerations which were driven by the tiny televisor screen), the short play is essentially a philosophical conversation in a café between a businessman who has just missed his train and another fellow who is suffering from a cancerous throat.
A preview in the Times described the drama as being “a forbidding study of emotion in the shadow of death.”
The actors, who performed the play live at Long Acre, had to have their faces painted yellow, with navy blue shading around the eyes and nose. This bizarre makeup was intended to enhance their image on the shimmering receiving screens, which glowed a characteristic reddish-orange colour.
In 1967, The Man with the Flower in His Mouth was painstakingly remade in an attempt to emulate what audiences back in 1930 would have seen. The recreation was supervised by the play’s original producer, and also includes the original artwork and gramophone music.
If you’re wondering what the box had to offer in those days, the whole play can be viewed below:
By late 1930, Baird Television’s Covent Garden studio was beaming 30 minutes of programmes in the morning; Monday to Friday and 30 minutes at midnight on Tuesdays and Fridays.
South of the River
In July 1933, Baird Television left Covent Garden and moved to Sydenham in deepest South London.
Here, at the Crystal Palace complex, a new studio was established, with the antenna attached to one of the glass palace’s towers.
John Logie Baird also made his own personal home in the area, on Crescent Wood Road, a short walk from the Crystal Palace studio.
However, the hard luck which had plagued John in his previous business ventures was about to come back and haunt him…
On 30th November 1936, the Crystal Palace burnt down, taking Baird Television studios with it.
Two weeks later, before the ashes had even cooled, the BBC- who were now really starting to get into the T.V thing- announced that they were scrapping Baird’s system in favour of more modern equipment which had been developed by Marconi-EMI.
The BBC moved their T.V wing to Alexandra Palace; the North London twin of the now vanished Crystal Palace.
Television continued to remain an ultra-expensive luxury and, on the 1st September 1939, following a Mickey Mouse cartoon, test card and a preview of up and coming programmes, the service suddenly went off air; closed down by the government in anticipation of the World War which was about to erupt; the fear being that enemy aircraft would use the television signals to hone in on their targets.
The first few years of television had come to an end, and the medium would not be seen again until 1946.
Despite the cruel setbacks, John Logie Baird’s appetite for invention remained as strong as ever.
The ingenious Scotsman went onto experiment with high definition colour, large-screen televisions, video recording devices and even made early ventures into infra-red. It is believed that, during WWII, Logie Baird carried out important work on the new radar network.
John Logie Baird died at the age of 57 on June 14th 1946.
This final clip, from 1937, shows the great innovator with the machine he forged in his Frith Street attic. Today, a working model of his revolutionary device can be still be viewed at the Science Museum in South Kensington.
The spying that went on in London and other cities was all part of a vast, complex game; an exercise in which the two mighty superpowers strived to gain the upperhand over one another.
Thankfully (and amazingly) the conflict they anticpiated for some 40 years never came to fruition.
But what if the Cold War had suddenly become hot?
Authorities in both the East and West made preparations for a predicted Third World War; a conflict which would have almost certainly led to the use of nuclear weapons and slain civilization as we know it.
The British government were under no illusion- in a global nuclear war, London would have been a primary target.
As such, covert preperations were made; plans which sought to protect the upper echelons of government and maintain command over whatever ruins were left.
Most of these plans were, of course, carried out in utter secrecy. However, if you know where to look, evidence of these candlestine preperations can still be seen in London today.
First, let’s begin this tour with something a little out of the ordinary.
During the Cold War, East and West were locked in an arms race, both sides amassing vast stockpiles of the ultimate boys toys; everything from nuclear submarines to inter-continental ballistic missiles.
Thousands of tanks were also accumalated on each side of the divide; guns bristling and catterpillar tracks ready to rumble out in a head-to-head across the plains of Europe should war ever break out.
One such tank; a Soviet model, can be seen in London. Not in a museum as you might expect, but in a rather more unlikely setting…
The tank in question is a Russian ‘T34’, and it can be found on the junction of Mandela Way and Pages Walk; backstreets off of the Old Kent Road.
The tank has quite a chequered history. It saw active service during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when it was rolled out to suppress peaceful protests against the leadership of the USSR.
Some 27 years later, the tank was put to more creative use when it was brought to London and employed as an extra on a film version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ (starring Ian Mckellen and featuring scenes filmed at Battersea Power Station).
After its thespian role, the tank was purchased by Russell Gray; a property developer. The story goes that Southwark Council had refused Gray permission to build upon the land he owned, so, as a sort of spiteful protest, Gray took the tank and plonked it down on the empty plot, where it remains to this day.
Over the past few years, the tank has provided a canvas for various street-artists; each one creating their own fetching design for the old Cold War relic. The tank is also nicknamed ‘Stompie’, in honour of Stompie Seipei, the 14 year old South African youth who was brutally murdered in Soweto in 1989.
‘The Kingsway Exchange’
Had the Cold War ever become hot, the reprucusions for the UK would have been grim to say the least.
As a small island, densely packed with cities and military instillations, sandwiched between the USA and the USSR, Britain would have been devastated in a nuclear war, the death toll running into tens of millions, with the less fortunate survivors suffering from horrendous burns, injuries and radiation sickness.
The authorities realised this of course, and many bunkers were constructed across the UK in preparation for a Third World War. The sole purpose of these deep-level shelters was to protect the machinery of government, both at a national and local level, and space in such strongholds was strictly reserved for a limited number of politicians and civil servants.
Having said that, the bureaucrats did have our interests at heart to some extent.
In 1980, they released a short booklet to the public, entitled ‘Protect and Survive’. Priced at 50p, the pamphlet suggested ways in which to safeguard oneself against nuclear blast and radioactive fallout; mainly by utilizing doors, tea-chests and cushions- rather like a child building an indoor den on a wet weekend!
A series of videos were also produced. However, unlike the Protect and Survive booklet, these were never released to the public and were only intended to be shown during a period of international crisis in which war appeared inevitable.
If such an occasion arose, normal TV programing would have been suspended, replaced by the BBC’s ‘Wartime Broadcasting Service’ in which the 20 videos would have been played on a constant loop. As you can see from the example below, they were grim, eerie and their unsettling electronic jingle, created by the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop (then based on Delaware Road, Maida Vale) would’ve done little to boost confidence.
Please click below to view:
Whilst we above ground struggled with makeshift protection and dinky, ‘Playschool’ esque advice, the privileged few would have been tucked up in their deep shelters, ready to bear witness to the end of civilisation as we knew it.
Although the majority of fortifications (such as the vast ‘Burlington’ complex in Wiltshire) were built in the countryside, evidence of bunker building can be spotted in London today; perhaps the most well-known amongst bunker-buffs being the ‘Kingsway Exchange.’
The Kingsway dates back to that other rapid period of shelter building; World War Two. It is formed by a series of long tunnels, stretching beneath Holborn, roughly in sync, and running below the London Underground’s Central line (apparently, the bunker is actually connected to Chancery Lane tube station via a private stair-case).
Evidence of the bunker is revealed in these ventilation shafts, which quietly stand guard as commuters rush by.
The Kingsway exchange was originally constructed towards the end of WWII in order to house government staff- civil servants from the Ministry of Works and London Civil Defence controllers. Experts from the ‘Special Operations Executive’ (a branch of M16, set up to help Resistance fighters battling the Nazis), were also granted office space here.
The squirriling away of these workers beside a busy tube station was not unique; General Eisenhower had his protected head-quarters located in a shelter beside Goodge Street station (just off of Tottenham Court Road).
After WWII, and with the emerging Cold War threat of atomic attack, the Kingsway was expanded and beefed up. Ownership of the bunker was transferred to the General Post Office (GPO) who, at that time, were also responsible for telecommunications.
A large telephone exchange was set-up deep within the complex and a large percentage of civilian calls made from London passed through here.
More covertly, the London terminal of ‘TAT 1’; a transatlantic telephone cable, linked to the United States was established in the secure tunnel. This came online in 1956.
Because of this important communication link, the Kingsway Exchange played a key part in providing the infamous ‘hotline’ which connected the White House to the Kremlin.
At its height, some 200 people worked in the Kingsway Exchange and in order to cater for this large workforce, the bunker contained a canteen and a bar- which claimed to be the deepest in the UK.
The fortification below Holborn also boasted its own artesian well, and fuel tanks capable of holding 22,000 gallons which meant, in the event of a nuclear strike, it could be locked down and run for up to six weeks.
The GPO Tower
Back above ground, the GPO were also responsible for building a far more well-known London landmark- the ‘GPO Tower’ …. Otherwise known as the ‘Post Office Tower’ or, as it’s called today… the ‘B.T Tower’.
For some 15 years, the GPO Tower was the tallest building in London (superseded by the NatWest Tower) and remains a famous site today, visible from many parts of the city.
The GPO Tower was celebrated for its revolving restaurant (run by holiday-camp giant ‘Butlins’ no less!), which made one complete revolution every 22 minutes.
A film depicting the restaurant as it appeared in 1966 can be viewed below:
Sadly, due to security concerns, the restaurant was closed in 1980 and the public have been refused access to the landmark ever since (with the exception of the annual ‘Open House Weekend‘, when those wishing to visit must provide security details before entering a lottery-draw to win one of the coveted tickets).
Despite being firmly embedded as a household name and major London landmark towering over the city, there is something rather surprising about the GPO Tower….
Until 1993, it was classed as an official state secret!
This covert status meant that it was not allowed to appear on any map. Taking photographs was also a no-no, and its address on Maple Street in Fitzrovia, was classified.
Why was this?
Well, the GPO Tower was in fact a key link in a system known as the ‘microwave network’ (nothing to do with the type of microwave you use at home to serve up a ready-made curry of course!)
Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data- some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretched across the UK from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).
Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, ‘Backbone’ and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.
Quite how this would have worked, I’m not so sure- considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing…
The route of London Underground’s Victoria Line (also constructed in the 1960s), runs considerably close beneath the BT Tower, and urban legends abound suggesting that it is secretly connected in some way. As is Buckingham Palace… but I suppose that’s another story altogether….
Going back below ground, there is inevitabely a myriad of tunnels beneath Whitehall, the seat of government.
However, although the exsistence of such a complex is taken as red, the exact details on what exsists are a little shadier.
The most documented facility below Westminster is a series of tunnels known as ‘Q Whitehall.’
Like the Kingsway exchange, Q Whitehall began life in WW2, and was extended during the 1950s. Documents related to the Cold War extension are still classed as secret, and will not be made public until 2026.
Essentially though, the tunnels which make up the Q Whitehall network are service tunnels, carrying secure communication cables and connecting various government departments. It stretches all along Whitehall, right up to Trafalgar Square– in fact, one of the entry points to the system is rumoured to be via Craig’s Court; a tiny alleyway less than 200 feet away from the Square.
As the development of nuclear weapons progressed from atom bombs to hydrogen bombs, it began to dawn upon politicians that a major city centre would perhaps not be the safest place to be during a nuclear war. The main government war HQ was therefore established outside of London; moving to Corsham near Bath, where a truly vast bunker; a small, underground town, was established and was only declassified in 2004.
Pear Tree House
Although central government would have fled the capital in the event of a nuclear war, local authorities were expected to stay behind and take care of their boroughs. Each council was required to provide their own shelter; most of which would have been rather makeshift affairs, hastily set up in the basements of town halls and civic centres.
If a Third World War ever did break out, plans were drawn up which would have involved the UK being divided into regional sectors; each forming a mini-kingdom of sorts, where the controller would have wielded total power.
London was designated as ‘Region 5’ and, due to its size, was sub-divided into four different sectors, each with its own purpose built bunker- one in Wanstead (North-East group), one in Southall (North-West group; the bunker being built beneath a school no less), one in Cheam (South-West group) and one at Crystal Palace (South-East group).
If you know where to look, the Crystal Palace bunker is still clearly visible and is one of the most unusual buildings in London…
Built in 1966, the bunker sits right in the middle of the large, Central Hill Estate… and right beneath a block of flats! The land upon which it sits was reclaimed from an old, WW2 bomb crater, created by one of Hitler’s ‘V2’ rockets; the prelude to the more advanced intercontinental missiles, which both the USA and USSR had poised at each other during the Cold War.
The flat-block is called ‘Pear Tree House’, and can be found tucked away on the corner of Hawke Road and Lunham Road. Eight, two-bedroom flats sit above the nuclear shelter- although, of course, none of the residents living in them would have been allowed access had the four-minute warning ever sounded.
Due to its blatant location, Pear Tree House attracted much attention from anti-nuclear groups, and was picketed by CND during the early 1980s; their protest posters plastered over the heavy blast doors.
The bunker remained active right up until 1993 and, by all accounts, little has changed inside, with paperwork strewn everwhere, and large, ominous bomb-plotting maps still tacked to the walls. The bunker’s communication aerials are also still in place, clearly visible on the block’s roof.
Pear Tree House, along with the three other shelters located within the London region, would have been answerable to a much larger bunker, which lay some 20 miles outside the city, deep within an Essex wood.
This bunker was known as ‘Kelvedon Hatch’, and was built to accommodate some 600 people. Constructed in the early 1950s, the bunker eventually became known as the ‘Sub-Regional Headquarters’ for London.
Essentially, this meant that if a nuclear war had ever struck the UK, Kelvedon Hatch would have been in charge of governing whatever was left of the Capital.
The fortified shelter (like other regional centres built around the UK), contained a fully kitted out BBC studio, from which the regional controller would have been able to broadcast instructions and information to survivors (although whether or not anyone above ground would have been alive to hear his words is debatable).
In the immediate hours following an attack, the broadcasts relayed from this subterranean BBC studio would have been pre-recorded and, in 2008, the National Archives declassified one such script. Taped in the 1970s, its words are chilling to say the least:
“This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible…
We shall repeat this broadcast in two hours’ time. Stay tuned to this wavelength, but switch your radios off now to save your batteries until we come on the air again. That is the end of this broadcast.”
A full audio recording recreated by the late Peter Donaldson– the trusted ‘Voice of Doom‘ who would’ve read the transcript for real- can be heard by clicking below:
Safely stowed away in Kelvedon Hatch, the ‘Sub-Regional Commander’ (in peacetime, a high-ranking, local government councillor) would have been granted absolute power following a nuclear strike.
Emergency powers would have granted them the power to control food stockpiles (i.e withholding it from those who were ill or badly injured and therefore unable to work), rationing other commodities such as fuel, and organising survivors into conscripted work gangs. These workers would have been ordered to carry out all manner of tasks amongst the radioactive ruins; no doubt one of the jobs being the disposal of the countless dead.
Due to the high number of fatalities expected, sites for the largest mass-burial sites in London since the 1666 plague were earmarked; one of them being identified in this leaflet from 1982 (which can be viewed in the Imperial War Museum):
The Commander would also have been granted full control over law and order and, if any unlucky survivors happened to be caught looting amongst the rubble of London, emergency powers would have permitted their execution by firing squad.
Kelvedon Hatch, along with the rest of the UK bunker infrastructure, remained active right up until the early 1990s, and regular exercises were held in the Essex stronghold, in which the chosen few would spend the odd weekend acting out dress-rehersals for WW3.
Today, Kelvedon Hatch (which is just outside the Essex commuter town of Brentwood) is open to the public as a museum. If you fancy a visit though, be warned… it is an exceptionally creepy place, not helped by the fact that many of its rooms and displays are peopled by rather disturbing mannequins!
Thankfully of course, none of these sites were ever used for their intended purpose, and they now sit quietly in the background, oblivious to most people.
I’ll end this piece though with a chilling montage of how things could have turned out…
The brief clip below is taken from a BBC documentary entitled ‘A Guide to Armageddon.’
Broadcast in 1982 as part of the scientific programme, ‘QED’, the terrifying episode examined what would happen to London if a 1-megaton nuclear warhead was exploded above St Paul’s Cathedral.
Taken from the end credits and using WW2 photos and primitive (although convincing) special effects, the clip provides a chilling, imagined view of a nuclear-destroyed London.
Please click to view.
The full episode can be watched here.
Don’t have nightmares!