Colin Grainger

VE Day celebrations: What the papers said about life in West Ham and East Ham

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe.  Despite our current worldwide crisis, we are still making time to mark this landmark in our nation’s history.

As the Editor of the Newham Recorder for many years and a journalist for 48 years – over 40 of them with the Recorder – I know how precious our heritage and history is to local people.

I also edited the Stratford Express during the last six years of its existence until it was merged with the Recorder. The Newham Recorder wasn’t born until 1968, and so the Express was the paper of record on VE Day.

And so it is fascinating to see how the paper reported the VE Day celebrations back on VE Day and in the weeks after.

Despite the constant threat of Hitler’s campaign to destroy our lives in the Second World War, everyday life had to continue in the former boroughs of East Ham and West Ham for six long years.

But when Churchill proclaimed freedom from the “evil-doers” on May 8, 1945, scenes of celebration were reported in the Express, alongside more sobering reflections on a dark period.

The headline of May 11 1945: Scenes of Jubilation was accompanied by a solemn and patriotic image of Allied flags draped across a V for Victory, surrounded by portraits of the King, Churchill and other prominent figures of war.

Page three gave way to outward displays of joy, billed as “two great days of celebration.”

Reports of one event made for an amusing read. In Stratford Broadway, there was a customarily tasteless re-enactment of Hitler’s funeral.

The report said “The ‘coffin’ bearers were smoking and singing, and in front was a Master of Ceremonies with cork moustache and beard. He carried a dilapidated parasol and walked in shirt-sleeves and open collar with an air of majestic dignity.

“They read the services standing on the ‘coffin’. A woman who professed to be the widow of the ‘man in the box’ carried a stuffed rag baby. Collectors were busy with saucepans and caps to hold the money (which would be used) for a children’s victory party.”

The VE Day front page of the Daily Mail reporting how celebrations had started the night before!

The earliest recorded such party, according to the 1945 Express, was that afternoon, when a Mrs E T Gaywood, of Haldane Road, East Ham, received upwards of 30 guests. Pictures of such parties were carried in the paper for weeks afterwards.

Impromptu dances were held in the grounds of East Ham Town Hall in Barking Road, and in nearby Central Park.

  • A VE Day street party in Auberon Street, North Woolwich. My aunt Jill is pictured as a child

An official thanksgiving ceremony was announced for West Ham Park. Tellingly, there were no appearances at police court that day.

Another correspondent witnessed countless celebratory bonfires in the areas. These were made from household furniture, and many were topped with effigies of the late Fuhrer.

In reaction to years of having to live with the blackout, every building was floodlit that evening. Dock buildings with had borne the full brunt of Hitler’s bombers, proudly displayed flags and flares went up.

Another reporter camped out on top of a school in Stratford and penned this comment: “For miles around, buildings were silhouetted against a crimson sky, with searchlights and fireworks leaving vivid trails.

The physical toll was listed.

In four years of bombing from 1940 to 44, 4,655 incidents in West Ham and East Ham had claimed the lives of 1,508 people, seriously maimed 3,140 and injured 4,061 others.

Of course, this was added to later when incidents like the Hallsville School Disaster were revealed in their true light. The figure of 77 deaths was later revised to 600 in due to this one incident alone.

In East Ham, 2,000 homes were officially lost and 30,000 damaged.

  • Bomb sites in North Woolwich

West Ham Council members claimed West Ham Borough (including the docks areas) were the worst hit borough in London.

Several thousand homes, 32 factories, many later demolished, 71 were part demolished, six cinemas wrecked, 13 public buildings, 18 churches and two hospitals partly demolished.

The paper also used the VE Day celebrations to praise the heroes. Civil Defence volunteers, police, fire and ambulance crews – countless of whom perished in the line of duty.

Special praise was made to the folk who continued to work in the Royal Docks while bombs rained down.

The paper commented: “In the air attack on London, the Port of London as an effective shipping centre was undoubtedly priority number one in the German plan and it was remarkable that though the docks were a continual target and much damage was done, on no occasion was any vital installation put out of action.

“Quaysides, warehouses, ships and equipment were damaged by high explosive and incendiary bombs, but the Port was always working and the organisation never broke down.

“No one will ever forget the first night of the attack – blazing wharves, warehouses and factories. Miles of fire were being fought by thousands of firemen and  dock workers still under bombardment, and the ordeal lasted a long time, but the work went on.”

57,000 tonnes of meat passed through the docks from 1940 to 1944. Without which London would not have been fed adequately.

In the following two editions of the paper, jubilations reigned.

Births of Victory Babies were reported at Queen Mary Hospital, Stratford where two were given the middle name of Victoria.

And West Ham won their first post-war match at home. On May 12, they beat Luton 9-1.


  • Pictures: Colin Grainger, Roy Cable, Newham Archives, Daily Mail


  1. Jacqueline Collins (new Hadaway)
    May 9, 2020

    I am in the photo in auberon street where I lived with my parents Nelly and John and my sister Maureen brother John and later Billy.
    I’ve been telling my granddaughter how we painted the curbs and lampposts red white and blue.
    What fun we had skipping in the road playing rounders and races round the block and the favourite – knockdown ginger. But embarrass ed now that I’m in my eighties but it was fun.

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This article was written on 04 May 2020, and is filed under Heritage, History, World War Two.

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