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VE Day In Bedford

As the news reached Bedford that the Germans had surrendered in Italy, along with rumours that Hitler was dead, Bedford prepared to celebrate victory in Europe.  

Leah Aynsley, of Marlborough Road, Queens Park, Bedford, described in her diary [reference Z1606/6] the anticipation felt in the town: 

May 3rd 1945 – “Last night after I’d gone to bed there seemed such an air of excitement outside I thought it might be V-Day and expected church bells to ring out, but it was only my imagination ran riot” 

May 4th – “No news of final victory yet, but shops have notices on the doors that they will close within an hour of the official announcement and all the following day, unless it should be Saturday, when they will close on Monday instead” 

May 7th – “The news said this morning that Victory would probably be announced this evening, but has not been up to 6.30.” This promise of 2 days holiday as soon as it happens has put everything at 6s and 7s. One does not know whether to lay in stocks or not” 

Womens Land Army VE Day Z50-142-796

Members of the Women’s Land Army celebrate VE Day in Bedford [Z50/142/796] 

On Tuesday May 8th Germany’s unconditional surrender was announced and a public holiday was declared. A large crowd gathered in Bedford’s Market Square to hear Churchill broadcast to the nation at 3pm. John Albert Canvin, the Mayor of Bedford, issued the following message to the people of the town:  

“We have now, by the grace of God, the guidance of our great leaders, and the sacrifices of the men and women of all the Allied Nations, decisively defeated our enemy in Europe; and we should now thank God that we have travelled so far, remember those who have made sacrifices that we might live, and dedicate ourselves to the great task ahead, especially remembering those in the Far East who must continue the fight on the land, in the air, and on the seas. We will not forget those who have suffered and are still suffering, as well as those who are anxious for news of their loved ones and also those who are still confined in prisoners-of-war camps. Victory in Europe has produced a natural feeling of elation and a desire for celebration, and rightly so; and I would thank everybody for the way in which they have celebrated on this occasion, and the good taste they have shown throughout the holiday.” 

Bedford had its own place in the national celebrations, as a service of thanksgiving in the evening of the 8th was broadcast on the radio from St Paul’s Church. The service was led by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Fisher, with music conducted by the BBC Chorus Master Leslie Woodgate. The service began with a trumpet fanfare sounded by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which had been relocated to Bedford in 1941. 

The Bedfordshire Times of 11th May described the joyful and decorative appearance of the town: 

“Not since the time when the Coronation of King George VI was celebrated has Bedford presented such a gay and festive spectacle. Flags, bunting, and coloured lights first made their appearance in many of the streets on Monday evening, when the Prime Minister’s announcement was expected “at any hour.” On Tuesday the dawn of Victory Day was heralded by hundreds of flags and strings of pennants which had appeared in every street, and almost on every house, as if by magic. From windows and on poles, on bicycles and motor-cars, and even on the pleasure craft on the sparkling river, flew a myriad of gay emblems, all contributing to make a kaleidoscopic pattern of colour.” 

In Queens Park Leah Aynsley found VE Day (or V Day as she called it at the time) surprisingly quiet, but also mentioned the appearance of decorations.  

May 8th – V DAY. Well, the day is nearly over now. Very quiet around here. I have not heard any victory bells. The street has blossomed out into flags, bunting and fairy lights. The local shops were open – even the fish shop – and the baker called as usual. Churchill broadcast at 3pm. 

In the centre of town the celebrations were far more boisterous. The Bedfordshire Times described the crowds as “lively but good-tempered". It reported that: 

“Through all our years to come we shall remember this Victory Night in Bedford; the scenes on the brilliantly-illuminated Embankment as the crowds sang and danced until voices became hoarse and limbs could no longer respond to the demands of ebullient spirits … This ancient town has never known such scenes. Throughout a lovely evening, warm and bright, the people gathered in their thousands along High Street and the Embankment, overflowing the pavements and riverside walk, linking arms and forming human chains across the roads. There was laughter on every lip. Our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and their American comrades … got together in proud fellowship. Rockets, thunder flashes, jumping crackers – almost every type of minor explosive – went off at people’s heels. Yet the happiness evident on every hand during the daylight hours was but a prelude to what was to happen as dusk fell. At 10 o’clock promptly the fairy lights along the river banks were switched on. We had not seen them for six long years. 

Here was the supreme moment, when pent-up emotion was released in a full-throated roar of cheering that came spontaneously from every part of the dense throng. It was the signal for an almost unrestrained demonstration of joy. Suddenly phantom-like figures, moving in a circle, could be seen dancing in a blaze of light at the centre of the Embankment gardens. Explosions rent the air. Cars came to a standstill, waiting upon the pleasure of people who, in a trice, formed themselves into parties and danced the Lambeth Walk or waltzed and fox-trotted from gutter to gutter.  

So it went on with undiminishing zest and energy until the small hours of the morning, the while illuminated and beflagged boats sailed up and down the river. The arc lamps shed brilliance over the streets and buildings, and flood-lighting created a spell of enchantment … Slowly moving cars were never built for such loads as they had to carry through this packed humanity. Uninvited, young bloods climbed aboard and somehow contrived to hold on for a free ride. Yet really unseemly conduct was almost entirely absent, and the townspeople are to be complimented on the way in which discretion tempered their rejoicing. Some windows in High Street were boarded up, but the precaution did not seem necessary. People walked over the walled-off lawns by the river, and yet the flower beds were not harmed.  

Children who had never seen Bedford lit up before were out with their parents until the middle of the night. Babies in prams and youngsters asleep in their fathers’ arms were frequently seen.” 

Kirkman Close VE Day Z50-142-795

Residents of Kirkman Close, Bedford celebrate VE Day [Z50/142/795] 

The next day Russell Park was the scene of a calmer celebration, with an outdoor service attended by several thousand people, including the Mayor and Corporation of Bedford in full regalia. Leah Aynsley describes the celebrations in Queens Park following VE Day: 

May 10th – [Yesterday …] As darkness fell they started a party in the street. I heard they were going to burn an effigy of Hitler at midnight, but our family went to bed at 10.30 as Jim had to rise at 6.30am. After about half an hour I heard such a terrific din I thought they must be burning the guy. I got up and went downstairs to peep out. Upstairs windows were lit up all along, which lighted the streets, two loud-speakers provided music and people were dancing and shouting at the tops of their voices. I went back to bed but the noise went on until 1a.m. Today great preparations were made to give the children and old folk a tea in the street. … We went to the riverside and on the way passed a couple of streets where tea parties were going to be held and one lot of tables was already set out and beautifully decorated with flowers. Alas! It came on to pour with rain and on our return we found all the folk carrying the stuff to the West End Club. Our street had not started setting out, so on account of the rain they used an empty motor coach garage. As soon as it became fine they brought all the chairs into the street and started party games. After the children had had enough they introduced a jazz band and the older ones danced. The band, if you please, was next door’s piano in the bay window and the rest of the instruments were in the front garden!!  

… Our street closed down at 11pm, it being their second night of festivities, but Westbourne Road kept on until about 1a.m. Wasn’t I thankful when the last God Save the King was sung. When I peeped out the last time lots of better-class strangers were looking, obviously come to see how the “lower order” were celebrating victory.” * 

It should be remembered that although VE Day was a cause for celebration, as Mayor Canvin pointed out it did not mark the end of the Second World War. The continuing war in the Far East affected many people in Bedfordshire, particularly as two battalions of the Bedfordshire Regiment served in that theatre of war. The 5th battalion were captured when Singapore fell in 1942 and spent the rest of the war in terrible conditions as prisoners of the Japanese; the 1st battalion fought in Burma with the Chindits. Victory over Japan did not come until 15th August.  

* Leah Aynsley’s wartime diaries have been published in The Bedford Diary of Leah Aynsley, 1943-1946, edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson (Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, vol.96, 2020)