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Secret bunker discovered in Ilford: Cupboard leads to local government control room

PUBLISHED: 17:34 17 January 2019 | UPDATED: 11:48 18 January 2019

The bunker tunnel from the car park. Photo: Redbridge Heritage Centre

The bunker tunnel from the car park. Photo: Redbridge Heritage Centre

Archant

A secret bunker has been discovered in Ilford.

Civil defence plans of the bunker. Photo: Redbridge Heritage CentreCivil defence plans of the bunker. Photo: Redbridge Heritage Centre

Buried deeper down under Redbridge Town Hall is a government operations room, air filtration system, an ominous sounding “voice procedure” room and a toilet.

Entry to the bunker is via a cupboard under the stairs (yes really) and depending on which tunnel you take, you either come out in a secret vault or escape hatch the other side of Ilford High Road.

The Recorder spoke to a selection of councillors and they said they did not know of the bunker’s existence, yet civil defence drawings dating back to 1960s detail the layout.

Escape hatch in the town hall is located in a cupbord under the stair. Photo: Ellena CruseEscape hatch in the town hall is located in a cupbord under the stair. Photo: Ellena Cruse

In fact serving councillors only became aware of the bunker when a survey was being carried out to test the town hall car park ground for the new outdoor covered food market, which will be erected on the site.

Other mentions of the bunker were kindly found by Redbridge Library staff who dug through mounds of council meeting notes.

A 1939 council document said: “Subject to the approval of the home office for grant purposes we have authorised the provision in the town hall car park of underground shelter accommodation for the town hall staff at a rough estimated cost of £700.”

Ellena Cruse in the warren-like tunnels. Photo: Ben WatersEllena Cruse in the warren-like tunnels. Photo: Ben Waters

X-rays of the ground show that the bunker covers most of the area under the car park.

The new outdoor food market can only be drilled to a certain depth due to the underground chambers.

Reporter Ellena Cruse visited the town hall to find out more, read her first person account below:

Hatch from underneath the ground. Photo: Ellena CruseHatch from underneath the ground. Photo: Ellena Cruse

Lots of great stories start with a cupboard under the stairs - insert tenuous link to Harry Potter - but it would be prudent to remember that not all the characters survive to the end.

As I wait in the town hall lobby to be shown around the labyrinth of old tunnels that supposedly connect to a secret bunker, I should spare a thought for my safety but all I can register is building excitement.

Could the whispers be true (you hear a lot of rumours in this job after all)?

X marks the spot: The bunker can be accessed via a large drain cover in the car park, but you need a special tool to open it. Photo: Ellena CruseX marks the spot: The bunker can be accessed via a large drain cover in the car park, but you need a special tool to open it. Photo: Ellena Cruse

Is there really a bunker, buried below to protect the people of Ilford in case of war, or is it a modern-day fairytale passed around the coffee mornings and family parties of Redbridge?

I am directed to a door in one of the town hall’s many corridors and as doors go it is pretty unremarkable.

Upon opening the storage unit, filled with boxes and folders, I start to think I have been led to a metaphorical and physical dead end.

Reporter going down the tunnel. Photo: Ben WatersReporter going down the tunnel. Photo: Ben Waters

But when council clutter is cleared and a floor panel is removed, I am greeted with a weathered wooden ladder leading into a dark passageway.

“There you go,” the council employee said.

“I hope you haven’t got your good clothes on.”

Grabbing my phone, and a sense of adventure, I climb down - desperately hoping the rungs don’t give way.

My brain steps into optimistic denial and forgets about all the added Christmas weight. The pounds didn’t come down with the decorations this year.

Simultaneously taking a deep breath and swiping my torchlight on, I land on the ground floor.

Gloomily lit up, in front of me is a rabbit warren of tunnels and debris from a time long ago.

Word soon gets around about my reconnoitre and a different member of staff climbs down the ladder to join me on the journey.

To be honest, I am glad of the company, as although the hip-high tunnel looks structurally sound (going on my expansive Lego-making experience of building models with my son) there is no electricity and the stale air projects a vibe of the uninhabitable.

Like any decent underground story, we soon come to a junction.

One path allegedly leads to a bunker and the other will lead to an escape hatch which comes out somewhere by the former Harrison and Gibson shop.

But en route there will be many red-herring twists and turns and without knowing the lay of the land we make a decision to head back and try and access the bunker more directly from a hatch in the town hall car park.

Neither of us fancy being lost, deep underground after hours - especially with the quality of the air rapidly depleting.

“You see where the car park slopes? That’s where the bunker is,” the council worker tells me.

“It really is quite big.

“No one seems to know much about it, but I did some research and you need a specialist tool to open the panel that gives you access.”

We search nooks and crannies in the car park to find the hatch

Drivers give us questioning looks, wondering if we are a mismatched gang trying to steal catalytic converters to sell on the black market.

They say X marks the spot, and in this case, they were right.

Unimaginatively stamped with lots of little crosses we finally pinpoint the entrance.

Before my visit, I called round councillors and prominent figures in the community to find out more about the bunker but no-one had heard about it.

Like a port in the research storm, after I dusted myself off from crawling under the ground I headed over to Redbridge Library.

Helpful staff dug through mountains of records to find references to any sort of building buried in the vaults of Ilford.

As well sourcing 1967 drawings of the bunker which comprised of a lavatory, operations room, an ominous sounding “voice procedure room” generator and filtration room they also found minutes from a 1939 council meeting.

When the new covered food market was first announced I was excited about the new addition to the car park and hoped it would inject a new lease of life into Ilford.

Little did I know it would also unearth an exciting past and I really hope the council opens it up fully for residents to look around.

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