Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

VE Day Wapping 1945

THE END OF the Second World War in Europe was announced by radio on the evening of Monday the 7th of May, 1945. The Ministry of Information’s message was brief:

In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.

Within minutes Londoners had begun converging on the city centre. The English novelist Mollie Panter-Downes wrote this account for The New Yorker of the celebrations:

American sailors and laughing girls formed a conga line down the middle of Piccadilly and cockneys linked arms in the Lambeth Walk. It was a day and night of no fixed plan and no organized merriment. Each group danced its own dance, sang its own song, and went its own way as the spirit moved it. The most tolerant, self-effacing people in London on V-E Day were the police, who simply stood by, smiling benignly, while soldiers swung by one arm from lamp standards and laughing groups tore down hoardings to build the evening’s bonfires.

Several recordings from that night and the following day are preserved in the BBC Archives. The one featured here, BBC library number 10238, was made on the 8th of May at the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, east London. Two tracks from the original transcription disc have been combined, as the first one is very short.

It begins with women singing The Lambeth Walk, a very popular song of the time which had originally appeared in the musical Me and My Girl from 1937. The lyrics you can hear being sung are:

  Ev’rything’s free and easy,
  Do as you darn well pleasey,
  Why don’t you make your way there,
  Go there, stay there.

  Once you get down Lambeth way,
  Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day,
  You’ll find yourself doin’ the Lambeth walk.

The second, longer track is more raucous and exuberant with brief snatches of several different songs being sung, including Pack Up Your Troubles and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Women’s voices predominate, but a few men can be heard as well. There’s also a curious sound like the agitator in a spray paint canister being shaken, and the bursting of a couple of balloons.

The disc label notes that the recording was made in the ladies’ bar at the Prospect of Whitby. Ladies’ bars were an occasional feature of larger pubs in Britain, and they were meant to be used by unaccompanied women. The pub still survives and is popular with tourists.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

VE Day Wapping 2:13