Diya Gupta

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A subterranean mystery: Jesus College’s forgotten air raid shelter

Written by Diya Gupta
Date of Publication: Monday, 15th March, 2010
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“There were 424 air raid alerts at Cambridge during the war, during which the enemy dropped 118 high-explosive bombs, 3 oil bombs and about 1000 incendiaries, and 29 people were killed. The Round Church, the Union Society and houses in Jesus Lane were hit in July 1942.” Jesus College’s 41st Annual Report, published in July 1945, provides this brief statistical evidence of the damage sustained by Cambridge during World War II. In the context of the most devastating war ever fought across the world, Cambridge’s wounds appear minimal.

The city was not badly bombed, but because it was on the flight path for Coventry it faced a large number of air raid warnings. Walking in the verdant orchard of Jesus College in summertime some 65 years later, it is hard to imagine the shadow of war reaching the peaceful grounds of these gardens. The lush grass itself, however, reveals the immanence of wartime history, its smoothness interrupted by a mound with pronounced contours and doors on either end. The doors both conceal and convey the presence of civil defence planning: beneath their hinges lies a forgotten air raid shelter.

Built in the summer of 1939, this air raid shelter is now a dark, dank and empty place. With its ventilation shafts taken out at the end of the war, condensation has seeped in, creating puddles along the narrow 100-foot long corridor. Two small rooms appear to the left of the corridor, which veers out toward the stairs that provide the exit. The shelter is made of concrete, and dangling cables reveal that it once had electric supplies, which the College cashbook of April-May 1939 corroborates, listing the sum paid to connect the mains to the concrete trench. Five mysterious coloured tiles decorate the shelter’s wall; their purpose is hard to fathom.

Paul Stearn, Head Gardener at Jesus College, has visited the shelter many times, particularly when it was dry enough to be used as storage space for gardening materials. He believes the shelter wasn’t used often during the war. The College was operating on reduced numbers, with many members called to the armed forces. Undergraduates reading medicine, science, engineering, mathematics and other subjects for which there was a demand for war purposes were allowed to proceed to their degree; the arts and social sciences, however, had a sizeable void.

There were other students: Jesus had a strong RAF presence during the war, with many rooms being filled by Short Course Candidates for the RAF. The shelter could then have been used by the airmen, and the remaining fellows and students. But Stearn believes that fellows preferred to sit out air raid warnings in the comfort of their rooms rather than make their way underground. And in fact, there’s not much in the shelter attesting to human presence.

The shelter isn’t mentioned in the archives of the College Council meetings, nor is its construction noted in the 1939 College Annual Report. Little used during the war, it was little remembered afterwards. For years a puzzle among undergraduates, interest in the shelter is slowly beginning to grow, with students being shown around this year.

The fact that the shelter survives makes it a small yet inseparable part of the College’s long history. It exists not simply as a relic, but as a means of understanding the lives of those for whom such shelters were an inescapable part of reality. The Cambridge Regional College archives note the boyhood memories of Sam Harris, who remembers using air raid shelters near Midsummer Common. An especially vivid memory is of seeing the sky black with enemy bombers on their way to London. It is difficult to envisage such times now, and to realise that these shelters wouldn’t have survived a direct hit. The Jesus College air raid shelter serves as a call to our imagination of grimmer times.

Thanks to Paul Stearn, Peter Moore, Frances Wilmoth and Harry Tayler.
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