Remembering the East End’s VE Day celebrations 70 years on

British girls dance in the street with American soldiers during the "VE Day" celebration in London M

British girls dance in the street with American soldiers during the "VE Day" celebration in London May 8, 1945. - Credit: Archant

On May 7, 1945 – 70 years ago yesterday – Grand Admiral Donitz, in charge of the Third Reich for a week, surrendered at General Eisenhower’s HQ at Reims in France. And people in Hackney and Tower Hamlets began to rejoice straight away rather than waiting for the official day of celebration on the 8th.

Magdalene road bombing

Magdalene road bombing - Credit: Archant

That night, folk were out on the streets, putting up bunting and banners and dancing.

From Stoke Newington High Street, through to Kingsland Road, Mare Street and all the way down to Bethnal Green Road, people flocked together to express joy for peace in Europe.

By the time night fell on that Monday, there were hundreds of bonfires blazing on bomb sites in the borough, surrounded by people singing and dancing.

The May 11 1945 issue of the Hackney Gazette said: “After the trials and horrors of nearly six years of war the people of North East and East London still know how to rejoice.”

It went on to say: “During Monday afternoon and evening flags and streamers fluttered in every street and by Tuesday the official VE Day – there was hardly a house or building without its emblem.

“Men wore red, white and blue rosettes in their button holes and women had tricolour ribbons in their hair. Some of them also wore dresses trimmed with red, white and blue. Even cats and dogs were adorned with patriotic favours.

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Throughout the day there were countless family reunions and in the evening parties held merry.”

The former Metropolitan Boroughs of Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington which today make up the modern London Borough of Hackney were all badly hit by bombs.

Each borough kept its own records of the incidents that occurred. The numbers for Shoreditch have not survived, but those for Hackney show that throughout the Second World War, 891 bombs and rockets fell causing 736 deaths, 2,303 injuries, and 200 major fires.

In Stoke Newington there were 204 deaths, six missing persons presumed dead, 10 killed but unidentified, and 1,100 people were injured.

On Tuesday, May 7, the official VE Day, thousands of people also joined in the journey from east to west London to cheer at Buckingham Palace.

On Wednesday there was an additional holiday and thanksgiving services took place as well as a surprise visit from the King and Queen.

The Gazette reported: “Not even the borough authorities had been apprised and there was no official welcome. Their majesties stopped at the Mary Hughes Mansions, the scene of one of the most disastrous bombings, where 128 persons were killed and 48 seriously injured.

“As soon as the news spread that the King and Queen were there, a huge crowd gathered and showed their loyalty by cheering again and again.”

Further celebrations were scheduled to take place throughout the week - with tea parties for schoolchildren, the elderly and the blind Among the thanksgiving services taking place, one of the most notable was that which occurred at the St John-at-Hackney Church, ravaged by bombs on Wednesday afternoon.

The Mayor addressed the crowd and while there was a spirit of celebration, there was also a reminder of what the borough suffered and a sombre note for action still going on in the Pacific and the Far East: “In spite of the feelings of relief and thanksgiving so freely expressed, underneath lay the sober realizations that the war was not yet over, that the final struggle in the Pacific and the Far East against the Japanese still lay ahead, that the enormous task of renovating and reconstructing a Europe battered by war had yet to be undertaken.”

The Mayor said that the people of Shoreditch had “stood very firm and very calm with cool heads and stout hearts, and did not panic as the enemy hoped they would have done. Day by day they went about their work with heads up, and maintained a grim determination that whatever might come they would never break.”

He added they had shown what they could do during these years of destruction, now they were called upon o show their ability to deal with reconstruction. If the war had taught the people of this country anything at all, it was the lesson of cooperation. They must look to the future with stout hearts.”