As the final installment of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we look at how the people of Islington and Finsbury celebrated Victory in Europe Day, or ‘VE-Day’ in May 1945.
Monday 7 May 1945 marked a joyous occasion – the formal surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces in the Second World War. Winston Churchill addressed Britain the following day with a speech broadcast from Downing Street, stating “we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead”. National celebrations were well under way by the time Churchill made this official announcement. Tuesday 8 May 1945 was designated Victory in Europe Day to commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe. The people of Britain celebrated by coming together to host street parties to mark this momentous occasion.
In Islington and Finsbury, the streets were crowded with tables, likely stacked with spam and dripping sandwiches, eggless fruitcake and Lord Woolton pie (a pastry dish of vegetables). Some food and materials, such as those for buntings, were derationed temporarily to help residents mark the occasion. Special treats, such as sweets, buns, jelly and “lashings of ice cream,” were also enjoyed at the celebrations. Local businesses and benefactors gave donations of food and money to supplement the £2,000 (approximately one farthing per person) provided by the council for the occasion.
Whilst many celebrated, VE-Day did not mark the end of the war for everyone, with many soldiers still fighting in the Far East. 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 countered by another who replied, “What a ridiculous statement! There are still thousands for whom it is not yet finished.” It would take many years for wounds to heal, but for some the psychological relief would never come.
958 Islington lives were lost as a result of enemy air activity throughout the war, and the physical landscape of the boroughs would be changed dramatically. An estimated 3,097 houses were destroyed beyond repair; 1,253 seriously damaged and 36,877 damaged but occupiable. There was damage to 144 churches, 74 schools, 518 factories and 298 pubs. It was against this backdrop of six years of destruction and difficulty that Islingtonians and Finsburyites were ready to celebrate Victory in Europe.
Islington on VE-Day
Seward Street, Finsbury, May 1945
Residents of Seward Street, Finsbury enjoying a street party to celebrate Victory In Europe Day. ‘VE-Day’ commemorates the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces on 8 May 1945.
While London’s focal point for celebrations was Trafalgar Square, the Mall and Buckingham Palace, local street parties and celebrations, like this one in Finsbury, were held all over the capital.
Athelstane Road, Islington, May 1945
Some celebrations started as soon as the news of the end of the war in Europe was announced on 7 May 1945. Some were postponed until all evacuees returned home so that entire families and communities could celebrate together, such as here in Athelstane Road, Finsbury Park. Events included street parties, parades and bonfires.
Revellers wore their best clothes or fancy dress. They made paper hats and sang and danced in the streets. Material for flags and bunting was de-rationed for the occasion. It was the first festive occasion that many children would have experienced.
Cloudesley Road, Islington, May 1945
VE-Day celebrations in the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury areas were 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, as seen here in this group photograph.
Seward Street, Finsbury, May 1945
As well as street parties, as seen here in Seward Street, VE-Day celebrations in Finsbury included a tea party and a concert for 900 senior citizens at Finsbury Town Hall. An open-air service of thanksgiving at Wilmington Square, Clerkenwell, on 13 May 1945 was attended by over 1,000 people.
The Mayor of Finsbury, Frederick Barnett, addressed the older generation, “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.”
Tilloch Street, Islington, May 1945
As families were reunited and local communities came together to celebrate the end of the war in Europe, as seen here in Tilloch Street, Islington, the church and the press considered the possibility of reconciliation between Britain and Germany.
An editorial in the Islington Gazette titled ‘Pray for Germany’ commented, “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.”
This is final edition of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45.
At Islington Museum we are lucky to have a dedicated team of volunteers that share their skills and expertise with us regularly. These volunteers assist us with a huge range of activities on a daily basis, from customer service, to collections work, educational assistance and research. A recent addition to the volunteer team is Johnny, who moved to Islington in 2019 and assisted with the We’ll Meet Again exhibition by researching and writing the articles Each bob you pay keeps the bomber away: The Islington Spitfire and The German Destroyer in Finsbury.
In the below piece from Johnny, he talks of his experience researching life in Islington during the Second World War. Thanks from everyone at Islington Museum and Islington Local History Centre to Johnny and our fabulous team of volunteers who helped bring this exhibition to life, including Anne Marie and Julia.
Helping out on the WW2 Exhibition project has been a great experience for me, especially as it has taken me back to my nerd like interest in WW2 as a child.
Researching what happened in and around Islington during the Blitz was extremely interesting and informative. It was an aspect of the war of which I was aware but didn’t have a great knowledge of. My own home city of Belfast also suffered during the wider blitz, especially around the east of the city where I grew up as that was where the Harland & Wolf shipyard and Short and Harland aircraft factory were based. It wasn’t on the same scale as London, with only four raids recorded, but caused widespread damage and many people lost their lives.
The second raid, on the night of Easter Tuesday 15th April 1941, was undertaken by 150 German bombers targeting the city waterworks, harbour area and shipyard amongst others. Fifty-five thousand houses were damaged leaving 100,000 people temporarily homeless, 1500 injured and over 900 dead. It was the greatest loss of life in a night raid outside of London during the Blitz.
While I was aware of what happened it wasn’t something that was often spoken about by my family or others. As a child I used to play in my grand-parents back garden and over in one corner was an old, small concrete out building, big enough for me to stand up in that was used as the coal bunker. It was only years later that I found out that it had been built by the original owner of the house as an air raid shelter during WW2. That was my first introduction to the reality of how people lived at a time of war not knowing when the next raid would come or where the next bomb might fall.
This memory came flooding back to me as I looked through the photographs and read accounts of the people of Islington from this time. It was while doing this that I found a piece of information that brought the experience of the blitz a lot closer to me than I expected.
While consulting a bomb damage map for some information on a particular street for one of the archive photographs, I happened on the street where I now live. I saw that there was a little group of three houses toward one end of Ripplevale Grove that were colour coded as having been damaged. They were the only ones in the street that had been hit. On closer inspection I found that the house in the middle that had been ‘damaged beyond repair’ was my house! It had been totally rebuilt while the houses on either side that had been badly damaged were able to be repaired. Later I found an eye-witness account of what may have happened from someone who had been sheltering in a public shelter around the corner on Hemingford Road. It seems an unexploded anti-aircraft shell had fallen back down and exploded on hitting the house, causing massive damage. Other reports say that it was a high explosive bomb. Luckily the occupants of the house were already in one of the public shelters and escaped injury.
The captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, pictured above on display outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place in October 1940, became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2.
The aircraft was a twin-engined heavy fighter or ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’ in English) flown by the Luftwaffe and some other nations during WW2. It was championed by Hermann Göring who nicknamed it ‘Eisenseiten’ (‘Ironsides’). The Bf 110 was a successful aircraft in the early stages of WW2 in the Polish, Norwegian and French theatres of war. However, its lack of agility in the air was its primary weakness and this was exposed during the Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940). Some Bf 110 equipped units were withdrawn from the battle after heavy losses and redeployed very successfully as night-fighters. It enjoyed a successful period following the Battle of Britain as an air superiority fighter and strike aircraft in other theatres of war. During the Balkans Campaign, North African Campaign and on the Eastern Front it provided valuable ground support to the German Army as a fighter-bomber (Jagdbomber/Jabo). Later in the war it was developed into a formidable night-fighter, becoming the main night-fighting aircraft of the Luftwaffe.
The aircraft seen on display at Garnault Place, Bf 110 S9 + CK, was originally part of a large German attack during the Battle of Britain that took place on 15th August 1940. The Luftwaffe had put together a force of 1120 aircraft to attack the airfields and airfield installations of Fighter Command, from Newcastle in the north to the Solent in the south. German aircraft came from airfields in Norway, Denmark and France.
The Bf 110 S9 + CK was one of 16 fighter-bombers from 2 Staffel Erprobungsgruppe 210 (2./Erp.Gr.210) that took off from Calais-Marck airfield in Northern France. It was piloted by Oberleutnant Alfred Habisch and crewed by Radio Operator Unteroffizier Ernst Elfner. They targeted the airfield at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk and destroyed some workshops and the officers mess. Two hangers were seriously damaged and the attack also ruptured the watermains and disrupted telecommunications.
The aircraft of 2./Erp.Gr.210 then went on towards London, escorted by 8 Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Their target was Kenley but, flying into the low setting sun, they mistook the South London airfield of Croydon which was a civil airport being used by the RAF as the target. As they commenced their bombing run, Hurricanes from 32 Squadron Biggin Hill and 111 Squadron Croydon arrived on the scene. While the Bf 109 escort departed and escaped largely ignored by the Hurricanes, the German fighter-bombers, led by Hauptmann Walter Rubensdorffer released their payload of bombs on the buildings below.
The suburb of Croydon shook as explosions shattered the airfield. Surrounding houses were damaged as blast waves tore holes in walls and one house had its roof lifted. The blasts were felt as far away as Woolwich and the Houses of Parliament in Central London. It’s not known if Rubensdorffer was aware that Croydon was a suburb of London. At this time, Hitler’s explicit orders were that London, including its dockland area and suburbs, were not to be attacked or bombed. Anyone violating this order would be court-martialled if they survived such an attack. Rubensdorffer would never find out if he would be court-martialled for what became the first ever bombing raid on London in WW2. His crippled aircraft crashed as he tried to guide it back to base after the attack, killing both himself and his crewman.
While being chased by the Hurricanes of 32 and 111 Squadrons as they tried to escape, the Bf 110s actually flew over the airfield at Kenley that had been their intended target. One by one they were hit and had no time to go into their defensive circle pattern, their only means of defence against the British fighters. Some tried to keep altitude and head for home, others became victims of the chasing fighters and crashed into the heavily populated suburbs around Croydon and Purley. The Bourjois Perfume Factory in Croydon sustained a direct hit. Sixty people died and over 180 were injured. A number of the German aircraft also came down in the fields of Kent and Sussex, of which S9 + CK was one, coming down at Hawkhurst in Kent. Others struggled to make it back to their base in France with many crashing into the Channel.
Habisch and Elfner both survived the crash and were captured by the local Home Guard. Elfner suffered a bullet wound to his right hand. Both crewmen were eventually shipped off as POWs to Canada. Their aircraft, still mostly intact, was later displayed outside various locations, including Finsbury Town Hall, as part of a ‘Victory Tour’ during the Battle of Britain. It was then shipped to the USA on the SS Montanan in April 1941 and passed to the Vultee Aircraft Corporation for evaluation.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45), we delve deeper into the significant bomb damage suffered in Islington and Finsbury.
Britain began preparing for the devastation of war on the home front well before the Second World War began. With the government conscious of war potentially being waged against civilians, Islington’s residents began receiving air-raid shelters from February 1939, more than half a year before the war and attacks on home soil began.
As part of war preparations, volunteers were trained in civil defence duties to warn or respond to attacks. Many civilians became Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard members, firefighters, first-aiders and ambulance drivers, who would provide invaluable assistance to their community once war began.
On 7 September 1940 the German Luftwaffe initiated their Blitz on Britain. The term Blitz was taken from the German word Blitzkreig, meaning ‘lightening war;’ a clear indication of Germany’s intent from day one. On the first day of bombardment, 430 were killed and 1,600 injured in London. Thousands of deaths and endless destruction would follow the continuous bombing over the ensuing months.
London was bombed significantly at night, but daytime attacks were frequent too. In October 1940, Islington’s rescue service attended 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. Records show that 206 people were recovered alive, with 83 deceased. Rescue operations to retrieve casualties could take several hours or even days to complete and were sometimes performed whilst raids were still in progress.
Islington’s Bomb Damage Respondees
Auxiliary Fire Service drill, Islington, 1939/40
This photograph shows members of the Auxiliary Fire Service dealing with a blazing ‘incendiary bomb crater’ during a demonstration at an Islington square. Drills such as this were common during the early days of the war to ensure that crews were prepared for the ‘real thing’.
The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed in 1938, as part of the Civil Defence Service. Its role was to supplement the work of fire brigades at local level. The AFS and the local brigades were superseded three years later by the National Fire Service.
Hugh Myddelton School, Finsbury, after 25 October 1940
This photograph shows firefighters cleaning debris following a raid at their fire sub-station located at Hugh Myddelton School in Corporation Row, Clerkenwell. The building took a direct hit from a high explosive bomb.
Beatrice Arnold, 28, of Holloway and Swedish-born, Constable (Police Reserve) Karl Friman, 37, resident of Bloomsbury, were killed in the incident.
Pembroke Street, Islington, after 17 April 1941
On the night of 16/17 April 1941, Pembroke Street, Islington,was badly hit by a parachute mine. Lorries were brought in to clear the vast amount of debris from the bomb damage.
Although the majority of casualties from this were accounted for in two days, it was not until 29 April that the Rescue Service was able to finally leave the incident. In all, 23 residents from numbers 39-52 Pembroke Street died in the attack.
Finsbury Square, Finsbury, 15 October 1941
This atmospheric photograph shows firefighters bravely tackling a fire at Finsbury Square. The attack was part of the Luftwaffe’s ‘Tip and Run’ raids that followed the Blitz. These ad-hoc raids occurred between May 1941 and December 1943, and were carried out by fast-moving German fighter-bombers.
The buildings ablaze here were located in the north-eastern part of Finsbury Square, near to the junctions with Christopher Street and Wilson Street. There were no reported casualties but the buildings were considered beyond repair and later demolished.
Garnault Place, Finsbury, 5 July 1944
Firefighters in action in burning debris in Garnault Place, off Rosebery Avenue, following a V-1 rocket attack. To the right of the photograph is the Champion Arms public house at 8 Garnault Place. Eight people died in this incident.
The first V-1 (Vergeltungwaffe or ‘Vengeance weapon’) rocket to hit London landed on 13 June 1944 at Bow. The first in Islington occurred on 18 June in Spencer Street and Wynyatt Street, Finsbury, killing 13 people and injuring 83 more.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45). Next week we’ll be looking at life on the Home Front in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we look at the significant bomb damage suffered in Islington and Finsbury.
The Second World War turned the home front into the battlefront. On 7 September 1940, Dornier and Heinkel bombers, escorted by Messerschmidt fighter planes, began bombarding London. Islington and Finsbury would come under fire on this day – the first day of the Blitz – and throughout the war; with so many houses, pubs, churches and anything in between reduced to rubble.
Parachute mines were used to cause the most destruction by the Luftwaffe, leaving behind enough debris that fleets of lorries were required to remove the rubble. From the remains, usable bricks and timber were collected and stacked for later use, whilst timber was often offered to residents for firewood. In Islington, this remaining debris was taken to a temporary dump in Petherton Road, Highbury.
Whilst London was regularly attacked, the ferocity of some raids far exceeded others. On the night of 10-11 May 1941, London was hit by its largest raid, where 711 tons of high explosive, along with 2,393 incendiary bombs, were dropped on the city. 1,436 civilians lost their lives in that raid alone. Improvement of defences via increased anti-aircraft guns and spotlights helped the British ward off major raids on London until January 1943.
From 1943, Islington and Finsbury would suffer greatly under the Luftwaffe’s Operation Steinbock or ‘Baby Blitz’ and the V-Rocket campaigns. Whilst some areas of the borough came out unscathed from these attacks, others, such as the northern end near Clerkenwell Road, suffered from irreparable damage.
Islington’s Bomb Damage
Seven Sisters Road, Islington, after 8 October 1940
Damage caused by a 750lb high explosive bomb to Seven Sisters Road and the sewer, between Hornsey Road and Thane Villas.
12 adjacent shops were demolished and service mains and overhead electricity cables were also severely damaged during the raid. The local Civil Defence Service, operated by Islington Council, employed road, gas, water and electricity repair gangs to restore power and services as soon as was possible. Between September 1940 and May 1941 their work was relentless.
St Mary’s Church, Upper Street, Islington, after 9 September 1940
At 10.20pm on 9 September 1940, the third night of the London Blitz, a high explosive bomb destroyed the majority of St Mary’s church, leaving only the tower and spire intact.
The bomb exploded near the communion rails and brought the roof and galleries crashing down. The main body of the church was completely wrecked. St Mary’s was rebuilt following an appeal, and dedicated in 1956.
Pentonville Prison, Islington, after 11 May 1941
The night of 10/11 May 1941 found the rescue services once again fully extended, with what proved to be the most devastating raid on London during the Blitz. Islington’s rescue services operated at nine major incidents including one at Pentonville Prison, where a string of high explosive bombs scored a direct hit on the prison’s C-Wing. The wing was rebuilt in 1958 as Pentonville Prison’s education block.
The attack on the prison killed 13 people. In total that night, over 1400 people were killed in the capital and 1800 seriously injured.
Gaumont Cinema, Holloway Road, Islington, after 12 August 1944
On 11/12 August 1944, a V-1 rocket (or ‘doodlebug’) smashed through the roof of Holloway’s 3,003-seat Gaumont Cinema. The photograph shows extensive damage to its auditorium.
Just five months later, the building was again blasted, this time by one of the last V-2 rockets to be launched during the war. The Gaumont eventually opened for business once more in 1958. It survives today and is now the Grade-II listed Odeon Cinema at 419-427 Holloway Road.
Charterhouse Street, Finsbury, after 8 March 1945 (Image: IWM HU 131433)
At 10:58am on 8 March 1945, a V-2 rocket struck the north side of Charterhouse Street at Smithfield Market, near the junction with Farringdon Road, on the boundary of Finsbury Borough with the City of London. The market was very busy at this time with both workers and those queuing for produce.
As captured in this photograph, looking east from Farringdon Road, the huge explosion caused massive damage to the market buildings, affecting the railway tunnel structure below into which many victims fell. In all, 110 people died and 340 injured.
Mackenzie Road and surrounds, Islington, April 1945
At 7.26pm on 26 December 1944, an enemy V-2 rocket missile exploded at the junction of Mackenzie and Chalfont Roads. More than 340 people were casualties of this attack: 73 people died and 86 suffered from severe injuries.
Many buildings were destroyed, including the Prince of Wales public house on Mackenzie Road. The pub’s clientele who were enjoying a celebratory evening out for Christmas accounted for many of the fatalities from the attack. This aerial photograph shows the devastation caused. Paradise Park is now on the site.
Highbury Corner, Islington, 1946
On 27 June 1944, Highbury Corner suffered one of Islington’s most destructive wartime attacks. At 12.46pm an enemy V-1 rocket or ‘flying bomb’ dropped on Highbury Corner, near the junction with Compton Terrace. It killed 28 people, including a four-year-old girl, and injured a further 150.
This aerial photograph, taken by the RAF two years later, shows the empty space where houses in Compton Terrace once stood.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-1945. Next week we’ll be looking further into the bomb damage to Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
“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!
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45), we look at the various ways in which people from the borough were protecting themselves during air-raids in the Second World War.
From 1 September 1939, mass evacuations from cities were followed by nightly blackouts, with those left behind facing sirens, bombing, fires, and for many, death. British homes were now the front line, with ruins being left where family homes, schools and businesses once stood.
Preparations for air bombardment began prior to the Second World War, with the British government providing air-raid shelters to families for free or for a small fee, depending on their income. Over the course of the war, shelters would take a number of forms and provide security for the people of Islington and Finsbury, and throughout Britain.
Islington received the very first of the Anderson air-raid shelters in Britain, prior to the outbreak of war. These shelters were open and below ground level, and as a result they were often cold, damp and noisy, but did help protect those inside to a degree. In response to the installation of the shelters in 1939, Islington’s Mayor Douglas assured the Minister for Civil Defence that, “Islington Council would do their utmost to carry through their duties in connection with the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) loyally and efficiently.”
1.5 million Anderson shelters were distributed in the months immediately leading up to the outbreak of war. Mrs Treadwell of Tiber Street was one of the first to receive a shelter, but felt dubious about its protective qualities. She told The Times newspaper, “If trouble does come, I’ll feel safer than in the house. In any case, we can always use it as a summer house!” When production ended 3.6 million Anderson shelters had been produced.
Throughout the war other locations, such as underground stations, were used to bunker down, and a variety of shelters were developed. By 1944, Islington’s communal shelters had private rooms, each with three adult bunks and three children’s bunks. The rooms also featured electric lighting and each had an electric heater – a vast world apart from the simplicity of Anderson shelters.
Air-raid trenches, Islington Green, 24 January 1939
Sir John Anderson (centre), Minister for Civil Defence inspects new air-raid trenches on Islington Green. During the visit he formally handed over the trenches to Islington Mayor Douglas Jackson (right). Also present was Lord Wolmar (right), topped by members of Islington Council.
The previous year, serious civil defence efforts began. Cellars and basements were taken over as shelters, and trenches, such as these on Islington Green, were dug in the parks and residential open spaces. Buildings were also sandbagged and barrage balloons tethered over London.
Anderson Shelter, Carlsbad Street, Islington, February 1939
Cllr Douglas Jackson, the Mayor of Islington, visits the location of London’s first steel air-raid or ‘Anderson’ shelter. Resident Mrs Spong of 3 Carlsbad Street (now York Way Court) is seen here with her son Ernest. Named after Minister for Civil Defence, Sir John Anderson, and issued free to anyone earning less than £250-per-year, the shelters were made from corrugated steel sections.
Their bases were buried three feet in the ground and the tops covered with earth. These shelters gave good protection, except in the case of a direct hit. This photograph appeared on the front page of the Daily Sketch on 2 March 1939.
Hugh Myddelton School, Finsbury, 4 September 1940
Pupils of Hugh Myddleton School in Corporation Row, Clerkenwell, reading comics and playing cards in the school shelter during an air-raid drill.
Many children were evacuated from London to rural areas, and overseas evacuation was introduced in June 1940. Over 2,500 children were sent to Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and thousands more were fostered privately in Canada and the USA. Those children who remained in Islington quickly became familiar with the various shelters that were available, especially in their schools.
Public air-raid shelter, Islington, 1940/41
An ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, wearing Pattern No.41 overalls, sits with three young women in an unidentified public shelter in Islington during the London Blitz.
This ‘moral-boosting’ photograph was taken by Bill Brandt, the Ministry of Information’s official photographer. It would appear in ministry publications and popular magazines, such as the Picture Post.
Air-raid shelter, Islington, 1 November 1940
Islington residents displaying ‘Blitz spirit’, sharing drinks with neighbours while sheltering in an unidentified underground location.
Many Londoners used tube stations and underground tunnels as air-raid shelters. They preferred to use the tunnels and platforms because they felt safest deep underground. Stations were fitted with bunks, supplied with first-aid facilities and equipped with chemical toilets. An estimated 170,000 people sheltered in the tunnels and stations during the war.
Communal air-raid shelters, Islington, 8 April 1944
This photograph shows new communal shelters constructed in an Islington street in 1944.
These contained private quarters and were built in areas where there were three and four-storey houses that could not be provided with either Anderson or Morrison shelters; the latter form of shelter were steel cages with mesh sides.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45). Next week we’ll be exploring the bomb damage to Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45), we look at those who were evacuated from Islington to rural locations during this time.
Throughout the Second World War, many of London’s children were evacuated to country towns, such as Cambridge, Kettering, Sheringham and Huntindon. The separation was often highly painful for both the parents and children; However, the press encouraged an unsentimental attitude towards evacuation, stating that, “Mother must use her head as well as her heart and be really sensible.”
Evacuees wore labels indicating their destination and were allowed to take one favourite toy. Parents were issued with a list of items that their children would require whilst away, including clothes and wash items, but many struggled to afford everything.
Foster families were advised to treat evacuees like members of their own family. Some children were probably happier, and many healthier, in the country, but most, naturally, missed their homes and families.
Evacuations from London began on 1 September 1939, however, many of these early evacuees returned to city within a few months. With relatively little military action occurring in the early period of the Second World War, people began calling it the ‘Phoney War’; this encouraged half of Islington’s children who went to Cambridge in 1939 to return to the city by March 1940. A second wave of evacuations took place during the Blitz, which started in September 1940.
Hugh Myddelton School, Finsbury, 1939
A teacher from Hugh Myddelton School in Corporation Row, Clerkenwell, speaks to parents about evacuation from the school at the outbreak of the war.
The evacuation of mothers, children and some disabled people began on 1 September 1939. In London, teachers took parties of children to the stations and the trains moved off once filled. Final destinations and billeting arrangements were fairly haphazard.
Evacuation from Holloway, Islington, 16 September 1939
Teachers from Holloway carry their baby while supervising the evacuation of local school children.
Teachers took an immense share of the responsibility for the care and organisation of evacuated pupils, which often disrupted their own lives. All those involved in evacuation found themselves learning how the ‘other half’ lived, sometimes a pleasant experience, sometimes a painful one.
North Islington Nursery evacuees, 1939/40
North London Islington Nursery evacuees playing and having fun outside at Ashenden, Essex.
Several large and famous country houses in Britain, including Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth House, hosted groups of evacuated nursery-aged children and their mothers. Many of these grand houses also became temporary schools. In some instances, the houses and their staff benefited from a sense of new life being brought into stately surroundings.
Tollington Park Central School evacuees, 1939
Evacuated girls from Tollington Park Central School, Islington, tending to a vegetable garden in Huntingdon. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged civilians to grow their own fruit and vegetables to maintain a healthy diet during a time of rationing and reliance on tinned food.
So-called ‘Victory Gardens’ were cultivated in private gardens and public parks, including Highbury Fields. There were vegetable allotments in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, and King George VI even instigated vegetable gardening at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
Highbury Park Vale School evacuees, 1939/40
Highbury Park Vale School, Islington, evacuees milking a cow in the country. Dealing with farm animals was an entirely new experience for most Islington children, many of whom would have never seen a cow before.
Additions to the school curriculum included nature studies, practical geography and local history. Upbeat articles in the press encouraged the healthy country lifestyle, and how the children were too busy with lessons, new friends and activities to be homesick.
Islington evacueesfishing, 1939/1940
Whilst away from the city, evacuees took part in many new outdoor activities, including fishing. The Holborn and Finsbury Gazette describes such a fishing trip in 1939, “The river is a big attraction and in the shallows you will find many [evacuated] youngsters, hardly ‘complete anglers’ for their equipment usually consists of a jam jar, line and a bent pin, but all very optimistic and happy.”
Throughout the war, fish was not rationed but it became increasingly scarce and more expensive to buy as the war progressed.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45). Next week we’ll be exploring the theme of shelters in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
Islington Museum is delighted to present the photographic exhibition, We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45).
Over the coming months, we will be sharing a series of captivating images of the people and places in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War; shedding light on the hardships endured and perseverance demonstrated by those that lived through this historic time. Each week, We’ll Meet Again will explore a key theme from topics such as evacuations, shelters, bomb damage, the Home Front and Victory in Europe. This post we introduce this exhibition and provide context to to situation faced on the Home Front between 1939-1945.
The Second World War was a conflict fought on several fronts. Not only was victory secured by the forces fighting on the front line, but also by the daily sacrifice and determination of the people they left behind on the ‘Home Front’.
The experience between 1939 and 1945 was unique in British history. Twelve Million British families fought their own battle, including those in Islington and Finsbury, who went without all but the most basic necessities. Civilians, alongside men and women in the armed forces not posted abroad, all endured the hardships and sudden dangers in what also became know as the ‘people’s war’.
Aspects of the Home Front were common to all: rationing, the blackout and, more terrifyingly, enemy air raids and the threat of untimely death. It was to prove a long period of regulation and shortage, uncertainty, boredom, fear and anxiety, and also a time of dramatic change. Children were evacuated, men and women conscripted into the forces or directed into essential war work, homes disrupted and lives were put on hold for an indefinite duration. Those not called to the armed forces helped the country in many ways: Civil Defence, the Women’s Voluntary Service, working in munitions factories, digging for victory, raising money for the ‘war effort’, or simply making a contribution by remaining cheerful and ‘making do’.
With its title taken from one of the most famous songs of the war, and sung by Vera Lynn, We’ll Meet Again portrays Islington and Finsbury’s home-front experience during these six historic years. Like many parts of inner London, the area suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz from 1940-41, and as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944. However, in spite of increasing fatalities and an uncertain future and hardship, Islingtonians and Finsburyites on the Home Front kept ‘calm and carried on’.
Upon the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, Islington Museum presents a photographic exhibition to commemorate all who bravely endured life on the Home Front in Islington, Finsbury and beyond.
We’ll Meet Again is dedicated to the memory of Islington historian and resident Mary Cosh (1919-2020).
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45. Next week we’ll be looking at the evacuations that took place from Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
Like many parts of inner London, Finsbury suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz (1940-41) and, again later, as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944 onwards. Citizens lived with the threat of bombing, invasion and untimely death. However, in spite of fatalities, an uncertain future and much hardship, Finsburyites kept calm and carried on. The constant bombings were designed to break morale but conversely brought people together.
The London Blitz inflicted major damage on EC1’s historic buildings, including the Charterhouse, the Priory Church of St John and the Church of the Holy Redeemer. However, not all was ruined. The 17th-century Oak Room at New River Head was removed to safety “for the duration”.
In 1943, the parcels depot at Mount Pleasant Post Office was destroyed. It relocated to the Royal Agricultural Hall in Upper Street, where it remained until the 1970s. Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Rosebery Avenue was requisitioned in 1940 to serve as a rest centre for bombed-out local families, while the cast and company went on tour.
One of the cruellest losses of life occurred on 15 October 1940 when the deep basement shelter at Dame Alice Owen’s School in Goswell Road received a direct hit. Many families were taking refuge when damage caused to a large New River water pipe resulted in many drowning. A total of 109 people out of the 143 people in the shelter perished – rescuers took weeks to recover the casualties.
The number of bombs dropped on Finsbury during the London Blitz amounted to 175 high explosive bombs and four parachute mines. In addition, further bombs landed during the ‘Baby Blitz’ of early 1944, as did the fearsome V1 and V2 Vergeltungwaffe, or ‘vengeance weapons’, rockets during 1944 and 1945.
Five days after the first V1 rocket or ‘Doodlebug’ hit London at Bow on 13 June 1944, it was Finsbury’s turn. A V1 rocket landed in Spencer Street and Wynyatt Street resulting in 13 people losing their lives, with a further 83 injured. Six more V1 and V2 strikes were to follow, culminating in the devastating V2 attack on Charterhouse Street and Smithfield Market in the morning of 8 March 1945. A huge explosion caused massive damage to the railway tunnel structure below, into which many victims fell. In all, 110 people died and 340 were injured.
Of the borough’s 9,899 houses and flats, no less than 9,015 were damaged during the war: 983 were totally demolished, another 23 virtually so, and 642 hit badly enough to force the residents to evacuate. This left more than 11 per cent of the population needing re-accommodation. Although the population more than halved, from approximately 60,000 in 1939 to 27,000 by 1945, it was estimated at the end of the war that some 5,000 new housing units were needed. In the meantime, prefabricated houses rehoused the displaced in various parts of EC1, including Farringdon Road, Gee Street, Hermes Street, Ironmonger Street and King’s Square.
The severe housing shortage was recognised by the new Labour government, and Finsbury Council could now realise several housing plans that had been decided in its mid-1930s’ ‘Finsbury Plan’. The borough’s rebuild ensured that housing catered for its working-class – the majority of its population. This began with the Berthold Lubetkin-designed Spa Green Estate on St John Street/Rosebery Avenue (1946-50) which embodied the promise of post-war housing: a pleasant life, well-equipped flats and careful design.
It was to be a while before the council’s fuller realisation of a better residential post-war future was accomplished by building among others: the King Square Estate (1961), the Brunswick Estate (1949- 62) and the Finsbury Estate (1967). These schemes were truly born out of the rubble and wreckage created by the ‘terror from the skies’ some quarter of a century or so earlier – a rebuilding of Finsbury in the hope that the post-war era would serve to symbolise a brighter and safer future.
Article produced for the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1935-45) by Mark Aston, Islington Local History Centre and Museum Manager. First published as The blitz spirit returns: EC1 under attack in EC1Echo (April/May 2020). With thanks to Oliver Bennett.