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Ipswich Icons - your chance to visit secret tunnels beneath school playground

PUBLISHED: 11:28 08 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:28 08 August 2018

Celia Waters in one of the air raid shelters beneath Ipswich Picture: John Norman

Celia Waters in one of the air raid shelters beneath Ipswich Picture: John Norman


Even before the Munich Crisis of 1938 preparations were being made for the possibility of another war, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society, as he looks at the history of the town’s air raid shelters.

This gives an idea of the size and shape of a typical school playground shelter  Picture: John NormanThis gives an idea of the size and shape of a typical school playground shelter Picture: John Norman

In particular ideas were being exchanged on the need for, and the design of air raid shelters. Underground shelters were sourced for large sections of the local population as well as family size individual shelters.

In Ipswich there was a grandiose scheme for an underground car park in Tower Ramparts, under the present bus station. Before the war this was a surface car park and buses used the Cornhill. Had it been dug the car park could have doubled as an air raid shelter and would have accommodated a substantial number of people. In the 1930s thousands of people still lived in the town centre and in the terraced streets where Crown Car Park is now situated.

The cellars under Stoke Hall, just to the west of St Mary’s at Stoke were utilised as an air raid shelter. These cave like cellars had been dug into the soft rock on three stacked levels, each accessed from the steep bank above Burrell Road. They had originally been a storage facility for imported wine arriving by barge in the river below.

Ipswich MP Richard Stokes of Ransome Rapier (inventor of the Stokes Gun) suggested digging a shelter under Alexander Park, with the entrance from the Civic College, restoring the park to a green sward so the shelter was invisible to passing aircraft.

Inside the Stoke Hall cellars   Picture: John NormanInside the Stoke Hall cellars Picture: John Norman

Men were recruited to be Air Raid Precaution volunteers (Hodges in Dads’ Army “put that light out”). When the war started they would watch and listen to the night sky, sounding the air raid siren at the earliest hint of approaching aircraft.

An ARP warden’s organisation was set up in March 1938. The town was divided into 13 areas ands 186 sub sectors, requiring a substantial number of volunteers. Although by the end of 1938 there were over 1,000 ARP volunteers there was a distinct shortage in some areas, including the town centre.

War was declared on September 3rd 1939 and on September 4th the air raid siren was sounded, the first of over one thousand alerts during the course of the war.

The most extensive range of air raid shelters was dug under school playgrounds. These were simple affairs; a trench was dug about eight feet deep and six feet wide, just wide enough for the users to sit either side knees almost touching. Internally they were arched precast concrete segments each a wall and half the arch. They were placed in pairs so as to lean together at the top and the remaining trench (outside the shelter) was backfilled and the shelter covered such that the crown was a few inches below the surface of the playground.

Clifford Road school air raid shelter is open to the public on certain dates throughout the yearClifford Road school air raid shelter is open to the public on certain dates throughout the year

Usually there were three main tunnels with connecting side tunnels and stair access in opposite corners of the system. This enabled escape should one of the stairs become blocked. The shelters were not bomb proof but were to provide protection from falling debris and the blast from an explosion a short distance away.

Some of these shelters still exist, under the Transport Museum, Cobham Road, under the playground at Springfield School and on the site of the former St John’s School in Cauldwell Hall Road. The Ipswich Society recently had the opportunity to visit the latter before new housing is built on the site. The shelters under the playground at Clifford Road School are occasionally open as a museum and can be visited by the public. Their next open days are August 18 and 19.

Ipswich came under attack from enemy aircraft more than fifty times during the course of the war, the first being on 21st June 1940. Eight bombs were dropped onto the factories surrounding
the Wet Dock but all failed to explode. One hit St Mary at the Quay Church and finished up under the choir stalls.

In all air raids destroyed 200 houses in Ipswich and seriously damaged a further 800. Fifty three people were killed and a further 164 seriously injured. 30,000 residents of the town volunteered for one of a number of Civil Defence roles including, for example: working with the Red Cross, Auxiliary Fire Service, Home Guard and as an ARP Warden. Two volunteers were killed in the course of their duty and a further six seriously injured. War does not discriminate.

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