Photographed by Bill Brandt.
Londoners began to use the underground for shelter after the first German air-raid on the city, on 7th September 1940. Initially, this was an unofficial occupation of the stations. Those taking shelter were, effectively, squatting. The government was uneasy about this, fearing amongst other risks that it could lead to the spread of disease, panic, the lowering of morale and even to people refusing to leave. But it quickly came to realise that, on the contrary, the underground as shelter was essential, as it allowed people a sense of control. Government research into the shelters at the time concluded that:
the way civilians stand up to continuous raiding depends largely on the feeling that there is a secure refuge somewhere.
The boosting of morale was central to the activities of the Ministry of Information (MoI) and of the associated War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC). In 1940, the threat of a German invasion was real and it was politically crucial to present as positive a message as possible, both at home and abroad. This was particularly so in the case of the USA, which would not enter the war until December 1941.
It was against this background that the Ministry of Information commissioned Brandt to document life in the shelters. His images were endlessly reproduced and exhibited, and a set of prints was even sent to President Roosevelt to persuade him to maintain US support for Britain. In the end, Brandt managed to devote little more than a week to the project before influenza forced him to stop work, having made around thirty-nine images. At least one other MoI photographer continued, however, resulting in a bank of over 200 images which record life in the shelters.