The village of Borstal, technically a part of the City of Rochester but still, happily, a village, is most unfortunately known to the ‘outside world’ only by the fact that after the initial experiment in the early years of this century, it gave birth to the system of ‘Borstal Institutions’. It does, however, have other features of interest, both past and present, and, to any resident of over thirty-five years standing, one which recalls vivid memories is ‘The Tunnel’.
This was one of many to be found in the Medway valley between Chatham and Maidstone, where the river breaks through the chalk North Downs. For more than a hundred years, cement manufacture has been a major industry in the area. Through this the landscape has been ‘pock-marked’ with chalk pits, tunnels and chimneys, some still belching out white smoke, other standing desolate, a mute witness to their past activity. However, it is wonderful to see what Nature can do with a chalk pit when it has been ‘worked out’ from the industrial point of view. My own road, Manor Lane (Borstal) descends sharply from the village to the river and formerly had a deep chalk pit on either side. A solidly built, brick and flint lined tunnel, fifty feet down, linked the two pits to accomodate a works railway that ran out to river-side wharves, to load quarried chalk into waiting barges (now the site of Medway Marina). All this was pre-First World War. The tunnel, however, continued to serve a social purpose, for even in the 1914-1918 War it was used as an air-raid shelter.
With the greatly increasing hazards of World War II this tunnel really came into its own. The local authorities quickly declined to accept responsibility for it on the grounds that its approach was unsafe. We ‘locals’ were convinced that here was perhaps the best air-raid shelter in Kent (which was ‘bomb-alley’ – on the direct route from the Continent to London). Accordingly, we formed a local committee and constructed a reasonably safe descent parth down into the lower pit. We equipped it with a hand-rail, constructed of builders’ timber and scaffold-poles, lashed together. These were probably purloined from a nearby housing site, for, with the outbreak of war, all private house-building had come to a stand-still.
The morning of Sunday September 3rd 1939 brought our first air-raid warning siren, and a stream of villagers hurrying down into the pit. After the ‘phoney war’ the real ‘blitz’ got going in the late Summer and Autumn of 1940 – then our tunnel came alive. A motley collection of old iron bed-steads and mattresses, plus a weird assortment of personal impedimenta, found its way down. Families ‘staked their claims’. A nightly procession came down the lane and a new routine was established. Problems arose, and these had to be sorted out by us – the Committee. Nobody will pretend that there was much comfort. A hard earth floor, a damp atmosphere, an obvious lack of privacy – these were the price paid by man who had to do a hard day’s work on the morrow, but at least were able to snatch some sleep with a sense of security from the bombers passing overhead. We were living in a military ‘target area’: Short Brothers’ flying-boat works only half a mile distant, naval and military barracks at nearby Chatham, plus the great Chatham Dockyard – and the nearby airport with its ‘Stirling’ bombers. With all this panoply, we quite expected, in September 1939, to follow the experience of Warsaw and to be razed to the ground in a matter of weeks, if not days.
Thankfully, these expectations were not realised. However, we did have our serious incidents. The main worry was from the stream of German bombers to and from London. These would have liked to devastate Shorts’ factory, but the steep incline up from the river prevented this on their approach from the Continent. Their alternative was, having ‘visited’ London, to try to lob any spare bombs into Shorts’ from the west. In so doing they encountered fierce fire from a battery of half-a-dozen anti-aircraft guns mounted on Fort Borstal. This is one of a ring of 19th century forts sited round the Medway Towns, and just above our heads, as it were, on the steep hill immediately above the village. The fire from these was probably more shattering than the bombs themselves. Many a local house still conceals papered-over cracks originating from the vibrations of this gunfire. The guns added an unpleasant spice of entertainment to the ‘tunnellers’!
So, back to the tunnel itself. What memories! The man who snored loudly; the man with the very smelly feet; the well-known character who, with typical bravado, stood at the entrance during raids and regaled us with a running commentary on the approach of Heinkels, Stukas and Messerschmidts!
During that Autumn my wife and I used to entertain at home a young sailor, then posted at Chatham Naval Barracks. He so hated being crowded with thousands of other ratings into the official underground shelters that, if he could stay overnight with us, he would sleep upstairs on a bunk-bed, blissfully unaware of the overhead ‘racket’, which we heard from down in the tunnel!
After the initial severity of the ‘blitz’ many of us had had a ‘basin-ful’ of tunnel nights and returned to our own more civilised bedrooms, in spite of the later hazards, no more pleasant, of the V1s (‘doodle-bugs’) and the V2s (rockets). But one old lady actually slept down there every night until VE day in 1945 … and … “it’s an ill wind” … as committee treasurer, I was able to hand to the local Red Cross the balance of the Tunnel Fund – 12!