How Islington Greeted VJ Day 1945

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day (Victory over Japan), marking the end of the Second World War, is being commemorated nationally on Saturday 15 August 2020.

1945 front page Evening News (London) reporting the end of World War Two and VJ Day
Front page of the London Evening News reporting VJ Day and the end of the Second World War,   15 August 1945. [Image: Islington Local History Centre]

Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day)

While VE Day (Victory in Europe) marked the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, many thousands of Armed Forces personnel were still engaged in bitter fighting in the Far East. Similar numbers were also still being held as prisoners-of-war. Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day) marks the day, Wednesday 15 August 1945, Japan publicly announced its surrender. This act, in effect, ended the Second World War in which an estimated 80 million people perished. In Britain, a special two-day holiday was announced to celebrate the event. At midnight on 14/15 August British Prime Minster Clement Attlee gave an historic speech to the nation announcing the news that victory over Japan was complete. 

Events leading to the Japanese surrender were greatly accelerated when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 August and 9 August 1945, respectively.

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation
The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud shortly after detonation, 6 August 1945. The bomb was dropped by the United States Air Force long-range B-29 bomber ‘Enola Gay’.  Some 70,000–80,000 people, around 30 percent of the population of Hiroshima at the time, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm and another 70,000 were injured. [Image: Public Domain]


On 9 August the Soviet Union also declared war on Japan and, the following day, the Japanese government communicated its intention to surrender. A formal surrender ceremony later took place on 2 September on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, officially bringing the Second World War to an end.
Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signing the ‘Instrument of Surrender’ on behalf of the Japanese Government, formally ending the Second World War on 2 September 1945. The ceremony aboard the deck of the USS Missouri lasted 23 minutes and was broadcast throughout the world. [Image: Public Domain]

The World celebrates peace

Millions of people across the world celebrated the Allied victory over Japan in August and September 1945, including Londoners and the residents of Islington and Finsbury. It was peace at last!

After the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had put forward an offer of surrender on 10 August, however, it took several days for the exact terms of the surrender to be agreed. When news of this initial offer broke, London took to the streets to celebrate. While the capital’s focal point for celebrations were, as with VE Day three months earlier, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and the West End, local street parties and celebrations were held all over the capital.

Crowds dance in Oxford Circus, 10 August 1945. © US Public Domain (IWM EA 75898)
Crowds dance in Oxford Circus, 10 August 1945. [Image: IWM EA 75898]
Civilians and service personnel in Piccadilly Circus celebrate Allied victory, August 1945. © IWM (D 25636)
Civilians and service personnel in Piccadilly Circus celebrate Allied victory, August 1945.
[Image: IWM D 25636]

Reminiscent of VE Day celebrations, dancing, music, fireworks and bonfires played their part again in festivities. While no official, local programme of celebrations was announced, the mood in both Islington and Finsbury was jubilant and residents took to the streets to celebrate, although for some it was a bitter-sweet occasion. The theme was also one of thanksgiving that finally the war was over, however, many families still awaited news of their loved ones serving or captured in the Far East. Some had not heard news for over three years as to whether their relatives survived.

How Islington greeted VJ Day

The Islington Gazette (17 August 1945) captures the mood of Islington’s citizens in reporting how the borough greeted the event, along side other local news: 

“Islington Town Hall was gaily bedecked with flags of the Allied Nations for VJ Day and after dark the building was flood lit. One of the first effects of the Victory announcements was bigger queues, which began forming outside bakers’ shops before 7am. Crowds also besieged grocers, butchers and food shops generally to get what they could for the holiday.

VJ Day article Front page LR
Not all news was the reporting of VJ Day and the end of the Second World War. Local news criticising the Council and petty crime were also included! Islington Gazette, 17 August 1945. [Image: Islington Local History Centre]

Although no official programme of celebrations was announced locally, Islingtonians were as much in a celebration mood as anybody and expressed themselves with singing and dancing in streets bright with flags and buntings. The bonfires that blazed in many corners of the borough on VE night again made their appearance, pianos were hauled out of homes for singing, and the sound of happy voices was supplemented by the crack of fireworks.

Many made their way to Clissold Park where the LCC [London County Council] had arranged facilities for dancing with floodlighting. At Islington Green yesterday there was an afternoon band performance. It having been officially announced that it was the desire of the King that Sunday 19 August should be observed as a National Day of Thanksgiving, it is expected that a united service will be held in Islington, probably at St Mary Magdalene’s.

Thanksgiving services were held in many local places of worship on Wednesday night.”

VJ Day Food Problem: Housewives don’t like V-days

The two-day holiday celebrating the momentous occasion was all singing and dancing but, for a number of housewives, it also signalled a time of stress, as this article taken from the North London Press (Friday 17 August 1945) highlighted: 

“The midnight announcement of peace, on Tuesday, brought a new flock of troubles to the housewife that were fully realised on Wednesday morning. Wherever our reporter went, he met tired housewives who had been queuing for food from the early hours. “We mustn’t be caught out was the remark of one St Pancras woman, and her example was followed by several thousand others.

Bakers, grocers, fruiterers and fish shops were all besieged before opening time by irate housewives in their frantic search for food. One shopkeeper complained to the North London Press of the unnecessary repetition of the VE Day mistake. “I think it’s ridiculous that the Government did not realise the shoppers’ difficulties,” he said. “This is not a happy celebration for them.”

And, writing to the Islington Gazette (below), one resident thought that the expense of celebrating was less than desirable and a burden to the already over-taxed Islington rate payers!:

VJ Day article tax letter LR
“Enjoy yourselves by all means but not at the general public’s expense”,  signed ‘Civis’ (or ‘citizen’). Islington Gazette, 17 August 1945.             [Image: Islington Local History Centre]

Islington celebrates

Dancing, music, fireworks and bonfires all played their part in festivities. While no official, local programme of celebrations was announced, the mood in both Islington and Finsbury was jubilant and residents took to the streets to celebrate.

It was, indeed, a joyous occasion for many, as the examples below taken from the North London Press (Friday 17 August 1945) and the Islington Gazette (Friday 24 August 1945) bear witness:

Ashburton Grove, Hornsey Road and Morgan Road: What a bonfire! What revelry! Morgan Road’s bombed site was also “all lit up”, the flames throwing into sharp silhouette the grim outline of shattered dreams.

Arlington Square and Mary Street: On Saturday [18 August 1945] the children of Arlington Square and Mary Street held their victory party at St Phillip’s School rooms, Linton Street. The tea, which consisted of sandwiches of spam, tomatoes and cucumber, cakes, jam tarts, blancmange and fancy cakes, was followed by a Punch and Judy Show which the children greatly enjoyed. Read more about Arlington Square’s party below: 

VJ Day article (10)x
Party time in Arlington Square and Market Street!                                   Islington Gazette, 24 August 1945. [Image: Islington Local History Centre]

Caledonian Road: Youngsters were given a victory tea and what a spread it was – with cakes, lemonade, jellies, blancmanges and all those goodies dear to the hearts of children. Wynford Road, Halfmoon Crescent, Balmoral Grove and many of the other turnings off Caledonian Road, from Holloway to King’s Cross, also celebrated in grand style.

Chapel Market: There were many celebrations in the side streets, and in the famous market there were scenes of real revelry. People brought their glasses of beer out into the roadway and danced and sang with abandon. In Parkville Street, the return home of two soldier-friends were being celebrated by another large crowd of children and their parents. The lilting sounds of music mingled with the crackling sounds of the bonfire. The soldiers, next-door neighbours, are Privates Thomas Bartram and Thomas Bown – D-Day veterans. At the end of Chapel Market and, into Barnsbury, fires were everywhere, including Penton Street, Culpepper Street and Carnegie Street. In Culpepper Street, flood lighting and loud speakers providing dance music added to the attractions.

Finsbury Town Hall: Finsbury Borough Council minutes, September 1945 records, ‘VJ celebrations – Town Hall banner. “The Town Clerk reported that in accordance with the instructions given at a conference of party leaders with the Mayor, a banner had been prepared and placed across the Town Hall , at a cost of £14. The Borough Engineer, in consultation with the chairman and town clerk, endeavoured to arrange for the banner to be more prominently displayed.”

Liverpool Road: The road’s residents lived up to their reputation for “doing things well.” From nearly every side street, the scenes of merriment were repeated while the glow of the fires merged into one huge vivid red glow which, at times, transformed the night into scintillating brilliance. The night air echoed to a chorus of happy voices, while fireworks added to the din. Kiddies, who had never known a world without war, joined in the revels with awe and wonder.

Thorpedale Road: In Thorpedale Road, scene of one of the worst bombing incidents in the district, a great crowd, in full victory spirit, sang and danced round a bonfire which illuminated the site of the new prefabricated houses. 

Wilmington Square: ‘Thanksgiving for final victory: Open air service in Finsbury’. “In accordance with the King’s expressed wish that Sunday should be observed as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, an open-air thanksgiving service to mark the end of the World War was held in Wilmington Square, Finsbury, on Saturday.”

The Wilmington Square service was conducted by the Rural Dean, the Revd H Brewer, assisted by local clergy and ministers. The Hornsey British Legion led the singing. The Mayor and Mayoress of Finsbury (F.J and Mrs Barrett) and members of the Borough Council walked in procession from Finsbury Town Hall to Wilmington Square. The service witnessed lessons being read, thanksgiving prayers offered and addresses by dignitaries given, involving the themes of liberation and loss and peace and security.

Return of Islington servicemen

It was clearly a great cause for celebration when those on active service from Islington returned home in time for VJ Day festivities. Some families, though, still awaited news of their loved ones serving or captured in the Far East. Some had not heard news of them for over three years and didn’t know if their relatives had survived.

Once again, the local press provides an insight upon the return of Islington’s servicemen and their stories: 

Craftsman William Bullen, Liverpool Road: Star of the party at the junction of Barnsbury and Liverpool Roads was Craftsman [Private] William Bullen, recently returned home from four-and-a -half years’ service in the Middle East. This veteran of El Alamein and battles of North Africa was given a rousing reception by his many friends. A toast was also drunk to Henry, his brother, at present with the British Liberation Army in Berlin. Henry made the headlines by driving the first British tank into Berlin and the second over the River Rhine. A reception is planned to celebrate his return next month.

British Sexton self-propelled guns in Berlin during the Four Nations VJ Day parade, 7 September 1945 © IWM (BU 10256)
British self-propelled guns in Berlin during the Four Nations VJ Day parade, 7 September 1945.  Henry Bullen of Liverpool Road made earlier headlines by driving the first British tank into Berlin and the second over the River Rhine. [Image: IWM BU 10256]

Lance Sergeant Ted Halsey, 26 Junction Road: Ted experienced heavy fighting and bombardment in Burma. Fortunate to survive not only the jungle battles but also disease. He described the ordeal in one word – “hell.” He was pleased to make it back home to Islington where banners and flags were hung out to welcome him. His brother remained a prisoner of war in Japan, having been captured in Malaya in 1942. Another brother was still serving in occupied Germany and he had a sister serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).

Private Willy Hammett, Roman Way: A big party in Roman Way was in full swing in honour of Private Willy Hammett, just back home from the Burma front. It was his first time home in four years. He was given a real victory hug by his five-year old daughter, Doreen, born only a short time before he left Britain.

Harold Hutchings, 36 Addington Mansions, Highbury: After months without a word from 26-year-old son Harold Arthur Hutchings, a prisoner-of-war in Japanese hands at Hakodate (Japan), his mother received ten postcards in a bunch to say that he was fit and cheerful. Then at seven o’clock on Wednesday morning Mrs Hutchings heard the news on the radio. She is hoping that her son will be flown home as soon as he is liberated.

Sam and Tom Law, St Katherine’s House, Penton Street: These two men have been in the services for nine years and have not yet had leave in England. They were captured at Singapore but news has been received of them and their sister, Mrs Geater, is eagerly awaiting their return home. “This means more to us even than VE Day.”

Gunner Harry Perkins, Elmore Street, Essex Road: Harry returned home after four years abroad, “bringing joy to Miss Ellen Allen, of Compton Estate, his girlfriend.”

Able Seaman (AB) Puddefoot and AB Gill, Hemingford Road: Two ‘Cally’ heroes and lifelong friends were home again. They had arrived within a few hours of each other on VJ Day. Puddefoot said, “This is not only a celebration; it’s a reunion of comrades. We were both at Buckingham Street School and brought up in the ‘Cally’. I have come from the Pacific war-front and my pal from Iceland. If you want to know what he thinks about that place just look at him now, hugging that bonfire.”

Private John Frederick Saterlay, 51 Goodinge Road: Will the peace bring news of Private John Saterlay (27)? That is the question which his sister, Mrs Emily Ewens, seeks an answer. John was captured at the fall of Singapore and no news has been heard of him for three years. Neighbours who have had happier experiences share with John’s family the hope that some definite news may now be forthcoming.

[Sadly, John was never to return home. His death was recorded in the Far East on 1 August 1943]

Corporal Stephen Talby, 148 Junction Road:  On his return after four years in the Far East to his wife and four-year-old daughter Carol, Corporal Talby said, “This looks like the end of the war out there. Those of us who have seen something of what it’s like are particularly thankful. The Japanese are a tough and devilish enemy.” Before the war, Corporal Talby was a motor mechanic employed by the General Post Office and expected to return to his old job. 

“Victory in itself does not bring peace”

The Islington Gazette’s V J Day edition (17 August 1945) editorial, following the announcement of the Japanese surrender, as well as aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, issued a concerned statement about humanity’s future:

VJ Day article (4) crop
“Let us not forget those who will never come back.” Islington Gazette, 17 August 1945. [Image: Islington Local History Centre]

“In this triumphant moment of victory our first thoughts are those of relief. It is above all a time of thanksgiving – thanksgiving for our deliverance, and of thanksgiving to all those who have fought that there might be peace and freedom in the world. But in our rejoicing let us not forget those who will never come back and the debt we owe to the maimed and orphaned.

Victory in itself does not bring peace. But victory, attained only after great sacrifice and bitter fighting in every quarter of the globe, provides the greatest, and perhaps the last opportunity. With the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Japan there opened up a new era in history of mankind. The awful alternative to peace is no longer war, but the annihilation of humanity.

The United Nations are determined today that there be no future threat to civilisation. How to maintain that determination and abolish the possibility of war is the problem which the statesmen of today and tomorrow must solve. The World Security Organisation, whose foundations were laid at San Francisco, must be hammered into an effective and permanent instrument of peace.”


The above Islington Gazette editorial echoed what many in Islington and beyond later felt about the devastating alternative presented by the atomic bomb.  

In an evening broadcast on VJ Day from Buckingham Palace, King George VI also added,  “Our hearts are full to overflowing, as are your own. Yet there is not one of us who has experienced this terrible war who does not realise that we shall feel its inevitable consequences long after we have all forgotten our rejoicings today.”The Second World War had, indeed, ended and this was being rejoiced. Soon the thought of war and celebrations was replaced with thoughts of building a new world free from war. There were, however, consequences following the rejoicing, and it wasn’t long before a new conflict was to emerge, the Cold War, and with it, a potential for destruction greater than those who witnessed the atrocities of the Second World War could ever imagine.


Further reading

Islington on the Home Front during the Second World War


Mark Aston
Islington Local History Centre | Islington Museum
Islington Heritage Service
August 2020

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