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The last air raid shelter in Houghton-le-Spring can be found at Houghton Hillside Cemetery, Sunderland Street

Earlier in the year (2008), there was talk in the air to demolish the brick air raid shelter which is located next to the Lodge within the garden area of Hillside Cemetery. Paul Lanagan looks back into the structure’s history and questions whether it should be demolished.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Houghton Urban District Council rolled out a programme of air raid shelter building across the district. This was aimed in particular at those who were unable to erect an Anderson Shelter which was partly below ground level. Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

The lonely Hillside Cemetery Lodge, the last house at the top of Sunderland Street, was occupied by the Cemetery Keeper, Mr Ely, and his wife. The UDC constructed a brick air raid shelter with a concrete roof for the use of Mr and Mrs Ely and for any visitors to Hillside Cemetery who were caught out during an air raid.

The last WWII Air Raid Shelter in Houghton-le-Spring?

At that time there were wooden benches inside the air raid shelter, which was enclosed by a reinforced metal door and a metal escape hatch. The escape hatch was bricked up after the War, and the air raid shelter was used as tool storage, though vandalism in the 1970s saw the removal of this brickwork, revealing the window-like escape hatch. The door and benches have long since disappeared and the air raid shelter is now sadly neglected and open for abuse. Recent acts of vandalism have revealed that the structure is constructed of a comforting three layers of brick!

3 layers of brick: WWII air raid shelter at Houghton-le-Spring

Local resident Ron Atwill recollects the air raid shelter: Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

“My Grandad was friendly with old Mr Ely, the cemetery keeper.
They both kept carnations and were both leek growers, keen on their allotments. Mrs Ely was friends with my Nana and they knew each other from the British Legion.
In 1943 or 1944 I was at the cemetery when the siren went off and we had to go for cover in the air raid shelter. I can remember the wooden benches inside.
Old Ely used to collect the battered glass globes from graves and put them on the tip. He gave me one to use as an aquarium and my Dad sanded it into the yard!”

Brick built WWII air raid shelter at Houghton-le-Spring with vintage public service messages

During WWII the siren was located on High Hillside, where all of the town below would be able to hear it. The town of Houghton was lucky to escape relatively intact during the German’s bombing raids, but bombs were dropped in the vicinity: four high explosive bombs were dropped on Houghton Cut in July 1940, and we can only imagine what this must have been like for Mr and Mrs Ely who would have sheltered in the nearby Hillside Cemetery air raid shelter.

So why was there talk about the potential demolition of a historical monument and integral part of Hillside Cemetery’s history? Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

Brick built WWII air raid shelter at Houghton-le-Spring, 2003
A similar air raid shelter in Hull
The air raid shelter at Houghton Hillside Cemetery
A similar brick built shelter near Hull

It was widely accepted that some peculiar visitors to the site would use the air raid shelter as a latrine and the emanating smell on a hot day was testament to this, however in recent years the air raid shelter has become a target for acts of graffiti, and most recently (as part of the recent youth disorder problems) as a place to hang out in. Recent visits to the cemetery have revealed discarded lager cans, fire remnants and condoms within the vicinity of the air raid shelter.

But is this a legitimate reason to demolish such an unusual feature for a cemetery?

Brick built WWII air raid shelter at Houghton-le-Spring

The destruction of this relic will be a permanent decision, one that cannot be reversed. Indeed, the feeling amongst the local heritage circuit is that demolition would be regretted and disapproved of in the future.
Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

There is another option, which is also more advantageous and will remove the risk of displacing the current problems to a more sensitive area of the site (such as tombs and headstones). The shelter could be secured up like many Council depot buildings and used as short-term storage, such as for the storage of litter grabbers on the morning of a litter pick. Another alternative would be to have a door with bars. This would show any would-be-burglars that the air raid shelter was in fact empty and not worth the hassle.

Of course, the current issues of disorder and vandalism will continue irrespective of demolition, but it is imperative that the Friends group continues having a presence in the community and within the local schools, and it is with a balance of restoration, management and campaigning that the Friends will overcome these problems.

Demolition is the easy option. Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

Let us not commit an act of ‘internal vandalism’ by repeating the mistake of 1974 which saw the demolition of the Hillside headstones, or in the words of the Hillside objector, Thomas W. U. Robinson, in 1853:

"People very often commit 'great mistakes' in doing what they conceive to be 'kind actions'"

Thomas William Usherwood Robinson

Click HERE to view the measurements of the Air Raid Shelter.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

Image of the Hull brick built air raid shelter from:



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PAGE UPDATED: 04/09/2008

For domestic use there were three main types of air-raid shelters — - the ‘Anderson’ shelter, named after John Anderson (later Sir John) the then Home Secretary who was responsible for air-raid precautions, these were made from straight and curved galvanised corrugated steel panels which were bolted together. Six curved panels, bolted at the top, formed the body of the shelter and the straight panels formed the ends, a door was located in one end. The shelter was partially buried in the ground and was then provided with a concrete floor. There was often a small drainage sump in the floor to collect any water that found its way into the shelter. This shelter could accommodate up to six people - brick built shelters having a reinforced concrete roof. These were often built in the back yards of houses or in gardens where they were sometimes partially below ground. - the ‘Morrison’ shelter, named after Herbert Morrison the then Minister of Home Security. This was an indoor steel ‘table’ shelter assembled from a ‘kit of parts’ which were assembled and bolted together inside the house. The steel top ‘doubled’ as a table and there were wire mesh panels around the four sides with an entry door through one of the panels.
sergeant frank stamp and houghton-le-spring 1941 Hurrican fighter plan crashed in Houghton-le-Spring.
A tank parked outside of Robinson's Brewery on Durham Road, Houghton-le-Spring, during the First World War.
Frederick Denby of Houghton, joined the Durham Light Infantry, was a prisoner of war for four years and returned home at Christmas 1918.
Soldiers marched along Church Street, Houghton-le-Spring, 1940.
Bombing raids in World War 2 in Houghton-le-Spring, included four high explosive bombs being dropped onto Houghton Cut in July 1940, and an incendiary bomb being dropped between Houghton and Seaham in March 1943.
Houghton-le-Spring's adopted warship is HMS Welland, which was adopted during Warship Week in December 1941.
George Fenton of Houghton served with 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, and was a Prisoner of War in Stalag 8B.
During the Second World War, in 1941,a Hurricane fighter tried to make an emergency landing on Houghon Golf Course. The pilot Sergeant Frank Stamp of the Royal Canadian Air Force sadly lost his life.
Captain William Brown, a Territorial Officer, was a solicitor in the Sunderland Street firm of Legge & Miller.

Brick-built shelter Brick-built shelters with reinforced concrete roofs were often constructed in backyards and gardens in the UK. The author of this article still had this type of shelter at the back of his house, a 12-inch thick solid reinforced concrete plate 8ft by 6ft resting on four brick walls plus door surrounding the shelter. The rear wall of the shelter was entirely embedded in the steeply rising hill garden, the two side walls were half-covered by the scarp and only the front was wholly free-standing.
From Aug 25th 2009: The air raid shelter is located just within the entrance of the site. It was recently re-painted before Open Day 2008. Of late it has been used by the night visitors to the site to shelter in. It has also had a fire lit inside and the charcoal remenents still remain there. It has also been subjected to large amounts of graffitti which included posters stating 'Your Country Needs You' and 'Join the RAF' which encouraged more graffitti in the way of spray painted Nazi signs. The group did discuss the possibility of demolishing it before they were aware of what it actually was however these plans have since been put on hold until the group can obtain more information about it. For the time being the posters have been removed and the outside repainted to make it look more presentable!