Stevenage at War, 1939-45
On 8 May 1945 Britain and its Allies celebrated Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day for short.
After nearly six years of war, blackout ended, the lights came back on and people took the chance to have a party and put aside the worries of wartime, before the final push to finish the war in the Far East against Japan began.
War is declared
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Stevenage was a small country town of less than 6000 people. As residents listened to the declaration of war on their wireless sets on a sunny Sunday morning in September 1939, could they imagine how much their lives would change? The town had already appointed Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens, begun to dig shelters, distributed gas masks and established a branch of the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence (known as the WVS) before war was declared.
Staff from Six Hills Nursery dig a trench for an air raid shelter in the High Street
In the first few weeks hundreds of evacuees and their families arrived and were accommodated in local homes and schools and for a short while a warehouse near the railway station was taken over by Billingsgate Fish Market as a distribution centre.
Porters from Billingsgate working in Stevenage in 1939
Evacuees from London, some had such find memories of Stevenage they chose to move to the new town after the war
As local men were called up and factories began doing war work, women were called on to do more and more on the home front, taking up jobs in factories and on farms alongside keeping homes running. In Stevenage the Education Supply Association factory and Vincent HRD helped make parts for Mosquito aircraft.
Women workers finishing the wings for Mosquito aircraft at the ESA factory, Stevenage
Land Army and agricultural workers
Men who weren’t called up joined the ARP and, from 1940, the Home Guard. Drill was held on the rough ground by the gas works in Sish Lane. A private car owned and donated by Mr Appleton, the Managing Director of ESA, was converted into an armoured vehicle able to carry three machine guns and a crew of five.
A Home Guard parade led by the armoured car donated by Mr Appleton
Target practice was held near Six Hills and night manoeuvres were carried out in collaboration with the Hitchin Home Guard providing mock attacks.
ARP wardens demonstrate how to use a stirrup pump, Fairview Road 1941
Local Defence Volunteers in 1940, renamed the Home Guard in July 1940.
In the Summer and Autumn of 1940 air raids began in earnest. Stevenage was relatively lucky, with little damage sustained from the bombs that dropped, but in September as the Blitz started, people could see the sky turn red as London burnt and the local fire service volunteers were directed to help fight fires in the docks there.
In 1941 the government nationalised the fire services to better co-ordinate the response to bombing. As well as London, local firefighters were also sent to Norwich in June 1942.
The Great North Road funnelled plenty of military traffic through the town, and in July 1940 the Old Castle Inn in Middle Row was turned into a forces canteen run by the WVS. A little over a year later the Orchard Road Restaurant was opened in the Town Hall to provide affordable and nutritious meals for civilians, again staffed by volunteers from the WVS.
A painting of the Old Castle Inn done in 1943 by local artist Mabel Culley.
Women from the WVS who staffed the forces canteen at the end of the war with some of the badges from the troops that used the canteen. Over the 6 years they were open they served over 860,000 cups of tea
Throughout the war, fundraising to help the war effort was a constant occupation. Residents joined in with a huge range of initiatives including:
- The Stevenage Spitfire Fund - the local garage organised a “ten-a-penny” club that asked club members to pay one penny for every ten enemy aircraft shot down – Mr Furr the fishmonger listened to the 8 o’clock news and chalked up the score outside his shop. Within five days the club had raised £454!
- Stevenage War Weapons Week – the target was to raise £30,000, the cost of two medium tanks.
- The Stevenage, Knebworth and District Warship Week – the target was to raise £62,000 for a Trawler-Minesweeper.
- Dances to raise money for Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund and the Prisoners of War Fund
- Wings for Victory Week aimed to raise £50,000 in Stevenage, the cost of ten Typhoons, and £20,000 in Knebworth, the cost of a Mosquito. At the end of the week, Stevenage had raised £67,240.
- Adopting HMS Deodar and raising money by a huge variety of means including whist drives, a military band concert, dinners and dances.
- A Penny-a-Week Fund took money from people’s pay packets
- Gymkhana and horticultural show
- Salute the Soldier Week
- An exhibition of boxing and unarmed combat raised money for the Beds and Herts Regiment Prisoners of War Fund
- Scrap and salvage schemes recycled metal, tin cans, rags, bottles and even food waste to feed pigs.
"As the tempo of the war increased . . . [the town] began to resemble a modern Tower of Babel, with a floating population of soldiers, sailors, airmen, industrial workers, Indian trainees, land girls, Jewish evacuees, refugees from the continent, American soldiers, girl factory workers from East Anglia and civil defence workers . . . "
In July 1944 a new social club for women war workers opened in Pound Avenue, called the Lytton Club. Facilities included a hall for events, a kitchen and dining room, a laundry and living quarters for the warden.
The war ends
Victory celebrations were held throughout the town during the spring and summer months of 1945. A victory parade was held on Sunday 13 May with units of the town’s Civil Defence organisations came together for the last time. Led by the combined bands of the Home Guard and the Army cadets, the parade marched through the High Street to the Astonia cinema to attend a short thanksgiving service.
The Home Guard lead the Victory Parade
The Home Guard Band on the steps of the Astonia Cinema
In the same week, the Catholic Church and Rectory gardens in Basils Road, The Cromwell Hotel and the War Memorial were floodlit. There were celebration bonfires at Fishers Green, Whitesmead Recreation Ground, Trinity Road and Longcroft Road and a firework display in Pound Avenue.
Several VE Day dances were held at the Lytton Club, and on one occasion it was reported that the dancers left the club and danced around the local streets. 30 members of the club, some of the last of the women war workers still billeted in the town, were invited one Sunday to a party given by the local US 8th Air Force Camp.
During the first week of July the ESA Concert Party presented a revue at the Town Hall entitled “Victory Parade”.
The ESA Concert Party went on to become the Lytton Players, a local amateur dramatics company that continues today
Victory parties were held in several streets in the town including Walkern Road, Albert Street and Alleyns Road.
Street parties in Walkern Road and Albert Street
A Stevenage wife and mother recalled in her diary:
“VE Day – Germans unconditionally surrendered – everyone full of it – I went up to London – Len and I in garden – saw lights up and down Street at 11.15pm – boys had a lovely bonfire – went to Thanksgiving Service in Benington.”
In Fairview Road they had their street party in August after VJ Day. Many years later one of the children in attendance remembered:
“Long trestle tables were erected in Fairview Road and all of us feasted on jellies, blancmanges, sandwiches and cakes all hastily knocked up for the occasion, jugs of squash and homemade lemonade quenched our thirst, the sun shone and no one mentioned atom bombs or Belsen or Hiroshima.”
Thoughts turn to the future
After VE Day, the elections were only weeks away in July. Thoughts began to turn to the job of post-war reconstruction and what the future would hold. In 1944 Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan had identified Stevenage as one of the possible sites for a new town to provide homes for bombed-out, overcrowded Londoners. The 1945 Attlee Government quickly set up a New Towns Commission under Lord Reith to consider how to deliver the plan and a year later, Stevenage was identified as the first of the post-war new towns. A new chapter in the town’s story had begun.