Revelry and jubilation, bonfires, squibs and brass bands: VE-Day celebrations in Islington and Finsbury 1945

“After days of suspense the news was announced that on Monday afternoon [7 May 1945] the German Government had capitulated. War in Europe was over”, so announced the North London Press. The following day, Tuesday 8 May 1945, became known as VE-Day (Victory in Europe Day), with Winston’s Churchill famous speech marking the start of both official celebrations and a national holiday; he also reminded the nation that Japan had still to be defeated.

In 2020, in spite of the devastating and ongoing Covid-19 situation, and 75 years after this momentous occasion, the nation is together in its commemoration of VE-Day. Here, we pay tribute to all who bravely endured life in Islington and Finsbury (and beyond) during the dark days of the Second World War. In Islington, 958 people lost their lives, an estimated 3,097 houses were destroyed beyond repair: 1,253 seriously damaged and 36,877 damaged but could be occupied.  In addition, damage was reported to 144 churches, 74 schools, 518 factories and 298 pubs. It was against this backdrop of six years of destruction and privation that Islingtonians and Finsburyites were ready to celebrate!

High spirits

Press articles held in the collections at Islington Local History Centre and Islington Museum capture Islington and Finsbury’s mood perfectly at the news that war had ended in Europe:

“London was jubilant. The people of Islington – a happy loyal people for all they had suffered in the war – were second to none in the high spirits with which they greeted the victory” (North London Press, 11 May 1945).

Indeed, like every other city, borough, town and village in the land, the residents of Islington and Finsbury celebrated the end of the Second World War in Europe with an outpouring of emotion, joy, revelry and jubilation. While London’s focal point for celebrations were Trafalgar Square, the Mall and Buckingham Palace, local street parties and festivities were also held all over both boroughs.

North London Press, 11 May 1945

Local councils and revellers, however, were mindful of the Home Office directive instructing the nation on how they could celebrate: “bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” The Board of Trade did the same, “until the end of May you may buy cotton bunting without coupons, as long as it is red, white or blue, and does not cost more than one shilling and three pence a square yard.”

Eve of VE-Day

Some celebrations started as soon as the news of the end of the European war was announced on 7 May, and some were postponed until all evacuees returned home so that entire families and communities could celebrate together. Here is how the North London Press (11 May 1945) reported the borough’s reaction to the initial news:

“The eve of VE-Day was celebrated by cheering, singing crowds of people, youths and children who gathered round huge bonfires which blazed on many bombed-sites in Islington. Within a quarter of a mile area of Mackenzie Road, Holloway, there were at least five bonfires burning. One of the largest was at the junction of Palmers Place and Ringcroft Street. Youths fed the bonfire with doors, planks and broken furniture which they dragged from shattered buildings.

Many children and young people sat precariously on the sloping roofs of street shelters in order to get a better view of the proceedings. The crowds of people celebrated with all the enthusiasm they possessed. Some couples danced, others joined hands with anyone who happened to be there and then let themselves go in the celebrated ‘knees-up’.

It was a spontaneous display of joy, there was no effort at organising, no one wanted to be organised, everybody did what they felt like doing. But nearly everyone joined in the singing of old favourites like Pack up your Troubles, Tipperary, Lambeth Walk and endless others.”

“You have won the war, see that you do not lose the peace”

As with many post-Second World War events and activities, on 8 May 1945 Highbury Fields was a focal point for community celebration. During the evening, many families attended the park’s “less-confined atmosphere” where they enjoyed entertainment provided by Islington Borough Council:

“After dance music played on records a group of professional artistes gave a cabaret show from the stage of the open-air theatre. As the evening grew later the people became more numerous, young folks plucked up courage and asked each other to dance, while children, unmindful of ceremony, gaily romped in and about the weaving dancers. The lilting sound of the latest dance tunes was relayed from loud-speakers set up at various angles round the spacious field, and people sitting or standing round the field joined in the singing of the popular tunes. Darkness was not allowed to encroach upon this scene of merrymaking, for an Army searchlight unit operated the bold brilliant glare of their searchlight upon the dancing and singing throng.”

A surprise visit

The Mayor of Islington [Cllr George ‘Pa’ Bennett] paid a surprise visit to the Fields and spoke to the people from the platform of the theatre. He told them that they had “defeated Germany through the valour of their fighting men and the skill and resolve of the men and women who laboured in the factories, offices and homes. Now they must make certain that they did not slacken in their efforts to bring about final peace.”

 “You have won the war, see that you do not lose the peace. I am proud to be an Englishman and you too have cause to be proud of your country and dominions.” After the Mayor had finished speaking the gathering joined in singing, ‘For he is a jolly good fellow’.” North London Press (11 May 1945).

North London Press, 11 May 1945

Street parties

Later in the days and weeks to follow VE-Day, local street parties became the order of the day. Across Islington and Finsbury, partygoers wore their best clothes or fancy dress. They made paper hats and sang and danced in the streets. It was the first festive occasion that many children would have experienced.

Islington Gazette, 25 May 1945 / Southeby Road party

The Ministry of Food was preparing for the ‘V Holiday’ in advance of the German surrender to ensure that food traders, restaurants and cafes, as well as “housewives”, were prepared. Food was still on ration, and continued for several years after the war, but local businesses and benefactors gave donations of food and money to supplement the £2,000 (approximately one farthing per person) provided by Islington Council for the occasion. Foods that were likely served at VE-Day parties included spam and dripping sandwiches, eggless fruitcake and Lord Woolton pie (a pastry dish of vegetables).

Special treats, such as sweets, buns, jelly and “lashings of cake and ice cream”, as reported as being consumed in Thornhill Square and Gardens (North London Press, 25 May 1945), were also enjoyed at the celebrations.

Outram Street victory party May 1945

Celebrations in the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury areas were reported as being particularly lively, with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. In Frederica Street over 130 children enjoyed a huge tea with jelly and ice cream. They danced to an accordion band and were given a 10s (50p) note each.

In Cloudesley Street and Cloudesley Place contributions to the celebrations were so generous that there was enough extra money to fund a cinema trip for all residents. The children of Cloudesley Road also had an additional outing. Destination unknown! In Tufnell Park, Mrs England of Ingestre Road, whose husband was in Germany, was hostess for its children’s street party. For days she had planned the treat, making house-to-house collections of food and money. This was typical of the community spirit in both borough’s that lead the festivities.

North London Press 18 May 1945 / Cloudesley Street party

Finsbury gives thanks

Finsbury’s celebration officially opened with a united, 1,000-strong open-air thanksgiving service at Wilmington Square on Sunday 13 May 1945, attended by Finsbury Mayor Frederick Barrett and Borough Council. On Wednesday 16 May 1945 evening there was an entertainment at the Town Hall for repatriated prisoners of war, members of the Forces on leave, families of prisoners-of-war and veterans of the last war. The Mayor also held an “at home” for representatives of the various voluntary organisations and local business houses.

The council also arranged for victory parcels of cigarettes to be sent to Finsbury lads serving in the Far East. However, the entertainment of school children had been postponed until all of the evacuees have returned.

Pensioners entertained

Older people were not forgotten in the festivities. An Islington Gazette (18 May 1945) article wrote of a rousing speech and praise given by the Mayor to 900 of the borough’s older residents at a tea and concert at Finsbury Town Hall,

“It is your sons and daughters, born and bred in Finsbury, who have formed part of the British fighting services, gaining honour and distinction in every theatre of war”, said the Mayor. “Thanks are due to you for the way you brought up your children who, after spending their childhood days in ways of peace and happiness, proved themselves when the testing time came not merely equals but masters of a nation where every boy and girl was brought up to believe in war as the only thing worthwhile in life.” The Mayor paid tribute to the magnificent way the old folk had stood up to wartime perils and dangers, and for the service tendered to the community during their working lives.”

Chocolate and money

The entertainment of school children was been postponed until all of the evacuees had returned, and then the street parties could commence. The residents of Finsbury celebrated as much as their Islington neighbours, and this in spite of the borough being devastated by enemy air raids; 328 people lost their lives and approximately 18% of the area was damaged by bombing, a figure only exceeded in Stepney and Shoreditch. It was estimated that over 90% of Finsbury’s housing had suffered from some form of bomb damage, with nearly 1700 houses out of a total of 9899 uninhabitable, destroyed or demolished.

A victory party in Granville Square, Clerkenwell on Saturday 19 May 1945 was attended by 110 children from the square and neighbouring streets. The party was organised by Mrs Buck, who was the square’s shelter-marshall. The children had a “lovely tea, and afterwards ran races for prizes of chocolate and money. Each child also received ice cream, lemonade, and a bag of sweets. In the evening the grown-ups had a singsong and dancing,” as reported the Islington Gazette (25 May 1945).

Seward Street VE Day party May 1945

Bittersweet

For some, VE-Day was a bittersweet occasion. While residents celebrated, 8 March did not mark the end of the war for everyone, with many servicemen and women still fighting in the Far East or held as prisoners-of-war by the Japanese. These weren’t reunited until after ‘Victory over Japan’.

One resident wrote to the Islington Gazette to say that, “90 per cent of Theberton Street were flying colours. Why the 10 per cent aren’t I cannot say, unless they are less interested in victory than war.” This was later countered by a Canonbury resident who, incensed, replied, “What a ridiculous statement! There are still thousands for whom it is not yet finished… many ostentatious displays were made on VE-Day by people who contributed little towards victory and suffered even less.”

Islington Gazette 25 May 1945 VE Day Letter

Pray for Germany

As families were reunited and local communities came together to celebrate the end of the war in Europe, the church and the press considered the possibility of reconciliation between Britain and Germany. A moment of editorial reflection appeared in the Islington Gazette titled ‘Pray for Germany’, “We should have failed if we have merely crushed and humiliated our foes, leaving legacy of bitter hate and sullen resentment. We must pray the German nation might experience a change of heart.”

A brighter future

The moment of victory for many people was also tinged with sadness who mourned the loss of a loved one killed in service or in an enemy air raid. The war in Europe had been won and following celebrations it was to be a time of rebuilding – homes and lives – and continued austerity for a number of years to come. This, all in the hope that Islington’s and Finsbury’s post-war plans would serve to symbolise a brighter and safer future for its Second World War citizens, their families and beyond.

We remember all those who died in Islington, Finsbury and elsewhere, and all those who suffered and endured throughout the Second World War, to safeguard future freedom and democracy.


Article by Mark Aston, Islington Local History and Islington Museum, 7 May 2020.

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