Bonfires, street parties and vigilantes mark end of war

There were children's street parties, flags, and bunting everywhere
There were children's street parties, flags, and bunting everywhere

Jerky amateur footage - eerily silent - shows women in hats dancing arm-in-arm.

Jerky amateur footage - eerily silent - shows women in hats dancing arm-in-arm while a man blows a trumpet. A Tamplins beer truck cruises down a street –-probably Seymour Street in Kemptown, where the brewery was located - overloaded with revellers. You see crowds listening outside the town hall as the mayor, Councillor AV Nicholls, reads the proclamation of peace from a balcony. You see military bands, street parties, dignitaries processing to church.

American GIs "kissed all the girls in sight"

American GIs "kissed all the girls in sight"

The celebrations of Victory in Europe began on Tuesday, May 8 1945, and continued for a week. There was a thanksgiving service at St Peter’s Church on May 9, and a civic ceremony there on the Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon, a victory parade, comprising all the services, including the civil defence and the Women’s Land Army, processed from Madeira Drive along the seafront, with the salute being taken outside the Old Ship Hotel by Brigadier KES Stewart.

There were children’s street parties, there were flags and bunting everywhere, there were fireworks and bonfires (at Shoreham an effigy of Hitler was burnt), there was a spririt of gay abandon and celebratory anarchy.

One teenage diarist, Tony Simmonds, who spent VE Day evening around the Clock Tower, recorded that people “just went mad - dancing, singing, chanting, shouting … Firecrackers, flares and even pre-war ‘jumpers’ were thrown about the streets, even into buses”, the police all having “their eyes shut”. His bike had a big rosette and streamers on its handlebar; his house boasted four flags.

According to Clifford Musgrave, church bells rang for the first time since the outbreak of war, bonfires blazed on the Downs and the beaches, while American GIs “kissed all the girls in sight”. Two well-known street musicians, Marc Antonio, harpist, and Alexander, violinist, “played all day long in West Street”, making more money than they had in years.

Harry Cowley (1890-1971)

Harry Cowley (1890-1971)

It was all repeated on August 15, with the defeat of Japan. “Where all the fireworks came from remains a mystery,” Simmonds recorded, having again witnessed events at the Clock Tower. He says he had never seen so many people “jammed together in two streets”. Everyone was blowing whistles or shaking rattles. Every bus or car daring to get through was banged, rocked and fireworked; destination boards were stripped from buses to be burnt. The biggest fire was at the bottom of West Street, where all the advertising boards from outside the Odeon, Sherry’s nightclub, and Harris Grill were fed to the flames. The police were powerless. When a fire engine arrived, the revellers merely seized everything moveable on it, including hoses, and burnt them. A fireman in retaliation “drenched the crowd”.

On the beach, now cleared of mines, “hundreds of deck-chairs and beach-huts which had survived the war,” says Musgrave, “were smashed into pieces and thrown on the flames”.

Something of this spirit of anarchy extended to the Brighton Vigilantes, a squatter group organised by bowler-hatted socialist hero Harry Cowley (1890-1971), known as “The Guv’nor”. The Cowley Club, a community resource centre in London Road, founded in 2003, is named after him.

After the First World War, Cowley, a chimney-sweep, had liberated 64 empty houses for the benefit of servicemen’s families, and now in 1945 he again started to seize houses. The authorities this time restrained him, while agreeing to requisition properties themselves.

Novelist EM Forster, normally liberal-minded, wrote to the press in July demanding the difference “between vigilantes and gangsters”. He agreed the housing shortage was disgraceful, “but are we supposed to support a private organisation which takes matters into its own hands?” The Vigilantes’ activities gave him “uneasy memories of the beginnings of Nazism”.