Hidden away under the top playground at Downs Junior School is an amazing original WW2 Air Raid Shelter. Constructed in 1939, the shelter is the largest of three at the school, and is the only one still accessible.
The Trenches, as they were known at the time, are a series of interconnecting tunnels made from pre-cast concrete panels approximately 3 metres below the playground. With bench seating along each corridor the shelter had a capacity for 300 pupils, and was used by the local community at night. After the two main staircase entrances were removed and sealed after the war, the Shelter remained undiscovered for over 30 years.
In 1985, a workman clearing drains lifted what was thought to be an inspection cover in the top playground, to find instead that it was an emergency exit from the trenches. The then history teacher was quickly summoned and sent down a ladder with a torch. The shelters were opened up a few times to children at the school, but lay largely used and hidden away.
In preparation for the 2012 school summer fair some refurbishment work was carried out. Then after a few years of inactivity major restoration work by a team of volunteers began in 2015 preparing to open the shelter as a local Museum under the name of Take Shelter.
The museum features entries from the original school log books, which are now safely stored at The Keep, as well as extracts from Sheltered Lives, a book originally published in 1994 by the history teacher Diane Knapp. It’s a wonderful collection of anecdotes and stories from ex-pupils who used the shelter during bombing raids in the war. As the original printing plates are now long gone, we recently re-digitised and updated the book so visitors can purchase a copy to take home.
The original structure of the air raid shelter remains largely unchanged, although since the two original entrances were removed to make way for new school buildings, visitors now have to use our fixed ladder to explore underground.
Before our first Brighton Fringe in May 2016, the Take Shelter team set about bringing the war years to life by filling the shelter with stories of people who attended the school during the war. These stories are presented along side rare local photos from the war years as well as a some 1940 themed rooms including our very own underground Anderson Shelter. We have included some short immersive audio and video clips as in 2017 introduced our very own bombing simulation experience.
The exhibits and stories displayed underground are suitable for all ages and we’re extremely proud that since opening up in 2016, the small team of parents, staff and friends of Downs Junior School have helped us lead a massive 300 guided tours (each with groups of 10 visitors) giving us a running total of some 3,000 visitors. We are also really proud of the weekly school tours we can now offer. During visits pupils not only experience the underground shelter, but they also attend an interactive workshop led by our very own WW2 veterans Barry & Alan who do an amazing job making our local history fun and inspiring.
The small team who continue to give their time and energy so freely make Take Shelter the success that it is. We salute you all!