We’ve toured Winston Churchill’s secret base on the Piccadilly Line

Churchill loved the Piccadilly line, so he did. Image: Getty.

Before it became crucial to winning the Second World War, Down Street tube station was a bit useless. A stop on the Piccadilly Line (back when the line was known as the Great Northern Piccadilly and Brompton Railway), it was in the heart of Mayfair, and opened in 1907. 

But it lasted only 25 years. Down Street was between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner – two stops which are quite close together anyway, about a ten-minute walk. It was also set back quite far from the main thoroughfare, Piccadilly. There just weren’t enough people – either living locally, or who happened to walk past it – using Down Street. 

So it was closed in 1932 and used as a ventilation point for the Piccadilly Line.

Down Street's original exterior. 

That was until it was covertly transformed into an underground, bomb-proof and gas-proof bunker by the Railway Executive Committee during the Second World War. It also housed a crucial telephone exchange, which coordinated activity on the railways that were vital to Britain winning the war.

And, for a period of around 40 days, from October to December 1940, it was Winston Churchill’s secret shelter from the Blitz.

“It had disappeared off the Underground map, and when people were looking for somewhere to build a deep, bomb-proof bunker, this was a very good choice,” says the London Transport Museum’s Chris Nix, who is giving tours of Down Street, as it opens to the public.

“Because it had just gone out of people's thinking; it was no longer on the map, and it was hidden away on a back street in a relatively sparsely populated area of London. But, still very close to all of the seats of power that were going to run the war.”

Down Street as it is today.

Down a side street off Piccadilly, the nondescript grubby security door to the station is sandwiched between a small off licence (Mayfair Mini Mart) and a residential back entrance. It is blast-proof, has a spy-hole, and was policed by two security guards during the war. Behind it is an 82-step staircase and an old lift shaft that descend 22 metres below ground.

Grimy beige World War Two paint (not a London Underground colour) is still visible on the walls; so are some of the old station tiles, signs and the residue of wallpaper and wood panelling that was used on the walls of the some of the meeting rooms below ground. Instead of leading down to the platforms, painted signs with arrows point “To Offices”, and “To Enquiries and Committee Room”.

But when visiting Down Street, it is its current role in the tube system that’s immediately obvious. It works as a giant ventilation device – cold air comes through Down Street and replaces the hot air pushed to the surface by Piccadilly Line trains. It is very cold and windy beneath the surface, and the roar of Piccadilly Line trains on both sides is constant.

What's left of the telephone exchange.

During the war, there were 40 staff living down here full time. You can see the toilet cubicles cut into what used to be the staircase down to the platform, as well as an old sink, and the “ladies’ bath” is still intact. Eight of the staff were women: they bunked three to a room, some with their heads right beside the platform wall, making sleeping a challenge.

One of the earliest examples of a modern air conditioning system (fully gas-filtered) was built into Down Street. Without this, the workers wouldn’t have survived below ground for longer than 20 minutes without dying of heatstroke.

Winston Churchill would stay in a camp bed in one of the Railway Executive Committee’s offices when he had to take refuge, until a whole section of tunnels was converted into quarters just for him. Transport for London had to build this section rapidly and with the utmost secrecy – it was only discovered in 1994, and still no written record has been found of who stayed here. It was simply referred to by workers as “Number 10”.

Churchill would use this bunker to entertain members of his War Cabinet, particularly when he had to use diplomacy to win them round to his way of thinking. They would have caviar, champagne, cigars, brandy and all sorts of other luxuries that were impossible to come by during the war. On one of the walls, there is even an old service bell they used to summon the waiters.

Such decadent service and food was provided by caterers and suppliers used by the railways, which is reportedly how Churchill – reluctant to take shelter – was persuaded to use Down Street in the first place.

This way, please.

Tickets for the tours go on sale on 20 April. If you fancy it, you have to book in advance, through the London Transport Museum's website.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor of our sister title, the New Statesman. 

Guided tour dates: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 4 August to 11 September 2016; 24 November to 18 December 2016; 11 January to 5 March 2017.

All images courtesy of the London Transport Museum Collection.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.