“A piano was dragged into our street, and I was asked to play” – Alumni Share Memories of VE Day

Alumni share their memories of VE Day

Plus: see the free video shared by the British Film Institute which shows Hull’s historic victory celebrations.

This year marks 75 years since VE Day and the celebrations in May 1945 not only lit up the whole country but were an especially feverish reason for rejoicing in Hull, a place which had been hit worse than any other provincial British city during the German air raids. Even today, many of Hull’s older generation still remember the excitement and events that gripped everyone on that now distant weekend, not least the parade of thousands of Hull school children bedecked in all forms of fancy dress, or the dancing in the parks and the countless numbers of street parties held across the city and the East Riding. 

We asked alumni to share their memories of VE Day with us, and you can see their responses below.

In addition, a remarkable film was made at the time of the events surrounding the VE celebrations in Hull and Alvar Lidell, the famous war-time BBC announcer, provided the commentary. The film, now in the Yorkshire Film Archive collection, is a unique piece of social history and provides an astonishing glimpse of the war-ravaged city on that celebratory weekend. In the film you can not only see thousands of Hull people marching or gathering against a backdrop of damaged buildings and bombsites and enthusiastically celebrating victory after more than five and a half years of total war but you also see representatives of Hull’s key institutions, not least the University College staff playing their part in the weekend’s events: then, as now, an essential anchor of for this unique port city through times both turbulent and tranquil.

Watch the film here

George Paynter, American Studies, 2000: On the 8th May 1945 I was four days short of my thirteenth birthday. I was in Fowey a small port on the South coast of Cornwall. In the run up to D Day Fowey was inundated with U.S. Navy and army personnel. The harbour bustled with landing craft plying to and from two mother ships. We know now, but did not know then, that these vessels were training to bring the dead and wounded off the beaches of Normandy. I remember vividly teaching a young U.S. sailor the complexities of duodecimal currency, the difference between half crowns and florins for example. The army contingent were all soldiers of colour and segregated from the white personnel. One day the harbour was full and then they were gone. I guess the end of the war was in sight then did we but know it.

Recollections of VE Day are very different from those of the big cities.  I recall a dark evening when my cousin and I went out along the Esplanade road to a point called Polly Foot’s Cove. There, the road is bounded on the harbour side by a wall offering protection from an almost vertical drop to the rocks and sea below. A celebratory small crowd of young men and women, both civilian and service had gathered there. Someone, maybe a little worse for wear, skied a hat over the wall to float down. Other hats followed that example. It may be that some of the servicemen found themselves on “fizzers” shortly thereafter.

So there we are, a brief memory of the day. I graduated inn American Studies in 2000. It may be that my interest in things American started back in 1943.

Patrick Boylan, Geography, 1960 VE – Victory in Europe – was announced while we were staying for a few days with our grandparents in the Marfleet Lane area of Hull.  Two days before I had developed measles and soon was very ill with this. I therefore spent the whole of VE Day in a blacked out bedroom having nothing but glasses of water. Grandma used many of their precious ration coupons to buy food for a very special treat: Spam fritters, followed by tinned fruit salad. I missed not only this meal but also the street celebrations. 

It was four or five days before I was able to go outside, and I remember that in the middle of nearby Carden Avenue there was a huge crater, this time not made by a German bomb, but by the local celebration bonfire, which had burned right through the thick concrete road. Tonight Pam is going to make up for my loss with an evening meal of Spam fritters and tinned fruit salad.

Dr Jon Hall, 1983: As children we had not the slightest notion of the full implication of war and we considered the food rationing-air raids-limited hours of schooling to name a few – to be a great adventure. On many occasions we would stand by the air raid shelter looking up at the night sky watching the probing searchlights locating the German bombers heading down the Humber to – as we later  learnt – to Hull and beyond.(this nocturnal habit was soon broken when the Germans decided to blitz Grimsby!) VE day eventually came. By that time I was sixteen years of age living in the street where I was born – a working class terraced street named Hope Street famous for its flag bedecked buildings so many as to block out the daylight sun. I digress – come the evening of VE day a piano was dragged out into the street and I was asked to play. Play I did from Nine pm. To the early hours of the following day. Such singing dancing and joyfulness I have never heard or witnessed since. People at last were free! Later with sore fingers and overwhelming fatigue I went to my home and to sleep. What a memory.

James Shrimpton, Law, 1980: I was 5 years old at the time.  My parents and I lived in a flat in Victoria. My father was at the Admiralty that day.  My mother took me quite early to The Queen Victoria Memorial so we had a good view of Buckingham Palace. I well remember the joyfulness of the crowds and the appearance of the King followed by the royal family. There was much cheering.  Later the crowd shouted “We want Winston….We want Winston”.  Soon he appeared.  A bit later the crowd yelled for Clement Atlee and he soon came on, too.

John Cooper, Politics, 1964: On VE Day I was  standing with my mother opposite Morley`s impressive town hall in Yorkshire`s West Riding. The tiers of the building`s steps were occupied by the reserve forces which included the local ATC squadron amongst which was my cousin Philip Schofield the later Yorkshire rugby player. There was a reasonable crowd of onlookers but not a mass of folk. Any excitement soon left the assembly as it became obvious that whatever was going to happen would be late. Also it was overcast and chilly After what to me seemed an eternity there was a single pass from an isolated Spitfire and after a further delay a single tank trickled past, imprinting the main street surface for years to come. And that was it. To me an anti-climax if ever there was one and certainly absent of the frantic crowd antics we are subject to on the BBC transmissions. People were tired, anxious and poor and the future more a matter of hoping for something a bit better than supping champagne whatever that was!

David Easterbrook, History, 2009: Remember party in Chalmers Street, Liverpool, our wartime home near the main railway goods yard Edge Hill which was severely bombed. My father was regular navy who served from 1939 on HMS Prince of Wales until she was sunk. He then served on HMS FAME which was engaged on the Atlantic convoy run after which he served on HMS Terpsichore in Pacific waters. He was at the surrender of the Japanese.As my father was still engaged in war when VE Day came about my mother, brother and I did not much care about it although we did attend the street party. I had five uncles who served with the military in Europe and all came home. Needless to say my aunts and cousins thoroughly enjoyed the party. Subsequently both my brother and I served with the RN.

Ann Smith (Naylor), History, 1956: I was a child of ten when the war came to an end. We lived on the edge of the small market town of Alford in Lincolnshire. My father was in the army and was stationed in Inverness. So..I do not remember any celebrations. I think my mother was still grieving for the loss of her brother who was shot in the olive groves of Italy by the Germans.  My mother was the daughter of a farmer in East Yorkshire and I remember that she was terribly upset when she saw the devastation in Hull. We could see the fires of the bombing in Lincolnshire.

Professor Michael Walton, Drama Professor: In 1945 my family were living in Gosforth, about 3 miles from the centre of Newcastle which had been regularly bombed. My recollections of that are rather more interesting than the reaction to VE Day.  In 1945 I was six and in my second year of school, my sister Barbara, to whom I was talking about this a couple of days ago, was coming up to 13. We are both agreed that it was all very low key. Our father was a vicar but there was no special service. All that happened was that he could hang up his ARP hard hat. Neither of us remembers any reaction in our schools, not as much as an extra half holiday. The only memory we have was taking down the blackout panels over her bedroom windows. 

She reckons there were some people out on our road celebrating, but mutedly and the effect was delayed. No one we knew was returning from the front line except the verger. Food was still severely rationed and would remain so, with regard to sweets which was what interested me most, for the next eight years. We had ration books, of course, with coupons whose value changed with each budget and I suppose most foods were in as short supply as before: one egg  a week and so on. No flags, no bunting, no street parties.

So, though I suppose it was a significant and probably well handled by the BBC, I can offer nothing to interest you, not even a sense of relief. Our parents’ generation was determined to keep children as free from anxiety as possible, even during the blitzes, so there didn’t seem to be a lot not to be worried about any longer, if you see what I mean.

John Gibbs, History and Government, 1960: I was born in November 1937. When the war broke out my parents took me to live with my grandparents in the safety of the Lincolnshire countryside. It’s just as well they did because in 1940 the land mine which destroyed my grandpa’s house also rendered our house unliveable in. I remained in Lincolnshire until early 1945 when my aunt took me back to Hull to live with my parents-our house had in the meantime been repaired.

It was quire a shock to see such widespread destruction in the area where I now lived but understandable because, as I became aware, Lodge Street (my parents’ home) was not very far from the big eastern docks which meant that if Nazi bombers missed their targets residential areas suffered terribly. The centre of the city was largely destroyed and looked an appalling mess. I quickly made friends and, as VE Day approached , we were very excited about the impending celebrations. There was a superabundance of wood from bombed out buildings and other derelict properties in the area. Days before VE Day were spent feverously gathering as much fuel for the bonfire as we could. The result was the biggest bonfire I have ever been involved with. When the fire was lit it was witnessed by a large crowd of adults from the surrounding streets plus all my friends.

Some had acquired fireworks which added to the enjoyment,though they were rather tame when compared with modern ones. Nevertheless, we were all thrilled to be celebrating the end of the war in Europe and there was a great feeling of happiness and pure joy. As there was rationing there wasn’t much food in evidence but I recall having some potatoes which I put in the fire embers. When I removed them they looked burnt and they tasted disgusting because they were undercooked in the middle and burnt on the outside. I remember that I was allowed to stay up much later than usual. In any case I felt so excited that I would have found it impossible to sleep.

Anne Collings, Education, 1986: I was born in 1940. Apparently my mother was told that it is a bad time to be pregnant. How ever I remember VE Day. That day I saw several trestle tables being put out next to each other along our road. There was very little traffic where we lived  our road/lane was called Duddle Lane. I asked my mother why where the trestle tables were being put out along the lane. The tables were all together in a long line, she said “Well it is to celebrate the end of the war.” I said to her “Why did no one tell me that the war was over?” I was a bit  surprised to say the least. I was also very cross that no one had told me. I had been saying some little prayers for our soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Apparently, when the evening News  was on the radio in the evening, I was usually sent to bed so I knew little of the  war news. I was still very indignant about not being told sooner. However in the end my mother and father and myself joined the party and when I recovered from my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed it all.

Joe Mather, Chemistry, 1954: On 4th September 1939 my father joined the RAMC and I didn’t see him again as he supported the 8th Army from El Alamein and up through Italy. In1945, I was 13 and at Grammar School, eagerly awaiting my Dad’s return.

Around VE day while staying with my Aunt in Sunderland,  my cousins and I attended a makeshift dance at a local tennis club, lit by a bonfire of the previously bombed pavilion. And a very happy night it was too.

We had a lot of bomb damage, but when I started at Hull University  College in 1950, saw the enormous extent of what had happened there  I was a amazed at how the place survived.

Geoffrey Collier, History, 2012: Although only six years of age at the time, I still have memories of VE Day.  Like many others, ours was effectively a one-parent family at the time, comprising my mother, my two-year-old brother and myself,  as my father was serving in the RAF.  We had remained in Hull until the worst days of the blitz in 1941, at which point mother and I had sought temporary refuge with my father’s aunt in the relative safety of Goole.  In 1943, however, we returned to Hull shortly before the birth of my brother, my mother being anxious to have the support of her sisters at that time.

On VE Day her relief was palpable.  There would not be any more air raids, she explained.  No more dashing down to the air raid shelter in the back garden when the warning sirens sounded.  No more seeking safety under the stairs if she did not have time to get herself and her children into the shelter before the drone of enemy aircraft was heard overhead.  No more blackout restrictions – the lights would be on again.

There was a general air of euphoria and jubilation.  Even the teachers at school seemed exceptionally cheerful.  We children were encouraged to bring flags to school for a ‘Victory Parade’ around the playground. I managed to find a small Union Jack, but this did not look as impressive as a somewhat larger White Ensign, so I took that along as a token of my patriotism.  We each received a memento of the day (which I still have) in the form of a card bearing a message over the signature of the King.

A little later in the summer a Spitfire was put on exhibition in Queens Gardens and members of the public were allowed an opportunity to sit in the cockpit provided that they purchased a National Savings Certificate. With some difficulty my mother managed to rustle up the necessary fifteen shillings so that I could avail myself of the chance.  The pilot explained all the controls and (bloodthirsty urchin that I was) I was particularly interested in how the machine guns were fired.  To the best of my recollection, it was by pressing the lowest of a column of red buttons on the right of the control panel.

Alan Ayckbourn, Honorary Graduate, 1981: Regret I was six years old at the time and remember hardly anything about it.  My mother and I had moved around various seaside towns on the south coast throughout the war and therefore I didn’t relate to any one place.  I believe there was a street party where we were staying but I didn’t know why.

Barry Darwin, Economics, 1961: Aged 5 – bonfire ready to be lit. Rumours rife. Soldier on leave said the war was over. He was right but VE Day became the next day for whatever reason. I was imagining as usual that the King would come to our bonfire in his Coach and four and overturn as it swung into the quarry. I would pull him clear of course. Fire lit rejoicing began. No health and safety then : you could toast your toes right up to the fire. Father still in – Belgium building airstrips. Would come back eventually bearing a Baedeker guide the German bombers had used to target English cities. Sheffield and Hull in the book.

David Gilling, French, 1960: I was born and brought up in East Ham. We were bombed out in 1944 and a Mr Tattersall who lived in Deganwy North Wales invited us to stay there in his house. This was because my maternal grandmother was his cook. We returned to London after VE which we celebrated in Llandudno. We went up to town on VJ Day in August to see the royal family and Winston.

Mike Noddings, Maths, 1960: It was my 6th birthday and I thought everybody was celebrating my birthday!! 

Margaret Mary Steed, Education, 1957: On VE day I was living with my Grandmother in Gateshead as an official evacuee while my mother stayed to work as a booking clerk on the Underground in London and my father was serving in The Royal Scots Fusiliers. I remember first, the ladies in the street knocking on the door to ask for contributions to the party food or some coppers to help pay for the celebrations. Despite shortages everyone gave what they could, I expect.

I was 7 at the end of the war and not really aware of the significance of the victory but I remember the bunting hung from one side of the street to the other and in particular the last string in the street which was hung with two Laurel crosses commemorating my friend Ann’s father who was killed at Dunkirk and the brother of a neighbour who had died while flying with the RAF. I have a vivid image of those crosses still. We lived in a cobbled street, how quaint that sounds! That meant that the tables for the party had to be placed on the pavement but the games and the races for the children were held on the cobbles but I expect it did not faze us as we played there all the time in our stout wooden clogs. Shoes were only for Sundays! I cannot remember what we had to eat but it was probably fish paste sandwiches and maybe a piece of cake and jelly.

I remember it went on well into the evening and became quite boisterous as the adults who had worked so hard for the celebration let their hair down! I remembered them in their Union Flag pinnies both men and woman obviously enjoying their beer and they frightened me so much it made me cry and my grandmother took me in and put me to bed. The excitement was too much for me!

It was some time before I could go home to London with my parents. My father was stationed in a prisoner of war camp and hospital for Germans in Scotland and could not be demobbed until all the prisoners had been repatriated. We eventually went home together in February 1946.

5 thoughts on ““A piano was dragged into our street, and I was asked to play” – Alumni Share Memories of VE Day

    1. Hi Margaret, I’m not sure if we got your contribution, I must have overlooked it, I’m very sorry. Would it be possible for you to resend this?


      1. I have sent my V E Day contribution again as requested. I have had several kickbacks from Daemon so have checked all the necessary addresses again. Please let me know if
        you have received or not
        Mrs. Margaret Steed


      2. Hi Margaret, thank you, one of the messages did make it through and I have added your contribution to our article – thank you very much for this, it is a great memory to include in this archive, which has been a wonderful piece to pull together. Thank you. David


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