Wartime's hidden secret


CITY schoolchildren will be able to experience the reality of wartime Sheffield at first hand when a relic of the era is brought back to life.

An underground air-raid shelter, hidden for half a century beneath the grounds of King Edward VII Upper School in Broomhill, is to be restored thanks to a 10,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The labyrinth of passages - thought to include four rooms designed as a city council nerve centre - is to be excavated, carefully restored and then used as a living history classroom for youngsters across the city.

"It's tremendously exciting; everybody in the school is really enthusiastic about the potential. This is really a hidden treasure," said head of sixth form Rebecca Carpenter, who is co-ordinating the project.

The school had always known about the shelter's existence but concerns about safety prohibited any detailed exploration. However, when archaeology teacher Dr Caroline Hamilton joined the staff 18 months ago, she thought it would be a good opportunity for students to gain practical experience and began a careful check of the site.

Once satisfied that it was safe, she approached the education authority for backing and carried out a trial exploration.

"We were absolutely amazed at the extent of them," said Rebecca. "Not many wartime shelters have survived, and most are versions of the Anderson shelter anyway. But this was a much more complex and sophisticated system."

Little is known about the background to its construction - research will be another element of the educational value - but the tunnel could hold valuable wartime secrets.

King Edward VII archaeology students Richard Scholey,
John Crowley and James Hughes Lawson in the shelter

It is currently accessible only via a manhole and a ladder; stairs to the surface are bricked up. But the blocked-off section is thought to include four rooms intended for use as an operational centre for Sheffield City Council in the case of extensive bombing.

The shelter was never actually used during an air raid, but pupils regularly piled out of their classrooms and into its murky depths during practice sessions. There was also a rota of older boys who slept at the school overnight, ready to take action in case of fire.

One of those who remembers those days only too well is Norman White, who now lives in the Hope Valley. He was one of many former pupils who came forward in response to an appeal for information - and he played an important role in the school's bid for grant aid, answering questions about his memories, both from the grants panel and from current students.

The school heard this week that it had been picked by Sheffield Wildlife Trust (which is administering the Hearts and Minds project in this area) as one of four schools to benefit from the Heritage Lottery Funding.

Education manager Katherine Packer said: "We were really impressed by the enthusiasm of staff, pupils and local people at King Edward VII School and it was clear that the project would make a difference to so many people.

"It will be a great opportunity for pupils to excavate the air raid shelters themselves - but I think this will be just a part of the project; the really interesting work will be supporting the pupils to build a bigger picture of life during the war and to help them to explore people's feelings and experiences at this time."

Work will begin next month when experts take over the site for a day. A magnetometer will track over the surface of the football pitch, mapping out the ground and revealing the secret of what lies beneath.

Subsequent stages of the project will include step-by-step excavation of the tunnels, careful restoration and reinstallation of electricity supply. The first school parties are due to visit the shelter next summer.

Local Press, 22/07/2005