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Celebrating VE Day in St Ives

On the evening of 7th May 1945, people across Britain gathered round their wireless sets to hear the long-awaited news that Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. The announcement marked the end of the Second World War in Europe, after six devastating years. The following day, 8th May, was declared Victory in Europe Day, a day of celebration across the country.

Early on that bright, sunny day, the streets of St Ives were already filled with crowds of people, laughing and dancing. Flags were flown from the Malakoff, the parish church tower and from public buildings, business premises and private houses, and churches were open all day, for thanksgiving for “this happy victory”.

VE Day was not the end of the war, of course — that was still three months away — and prayers were offered at the parish church for those still fighting in south-east Asia and the Far East, as well as for the fallen and the bereaved.

The following day, a parade was assembled at the Malakoff, which included members of the Home Guard, Civil Defence, Air Training Corps, Observer Corps, St John Ambulance, Red Cross, Women’s Voluntary Service, Boys Brigade, Scouts and Guides. Crowds gathered at the Guildhall for a victory dance that evening, and dancing continued in the harbour.

St Ives Times VE Day

Among those who witnessed the celebrations were 13-year-old twins Irene and Jean Pooke, who had been evacuated to St Ives from their home in east London the previous year.  Their father, who was a member of the Home Guard, manning ack-ack guns and working on decontamination, had first-hand knowledge of the horrors of bombing, and with the advent of the Nazi V1 flying bomb campaign, he arranged for the girls to be sent to St Ives.

They boarded with William and Annie Dyer, who lived in Street an Garrow; William ran a butcher’s shop in Tregenna Hill. Irene’s son Calvin describes Irene and Jean’s time in St Ives: “They enrolled at St Ives Senior School, where they excelled, with Irene finishing top girl in her class. The twins were very well looked after in St Ives, and were happy but they missed their family and when they knew the war was coming to an end, they wrote to their father to ask if they could come home.

“A few days later the twins were out in St Ives when they heard their brother’s voice and looked up to see him and their dad. Their father had come down on the train as soon as he received the twins’ letter. They all stayed at Mr and Mrs Dyer’s for a couple more nights, which included 8th May, before returning home to the Old Kent Road.”

On VE Day, the twins recall the flags flying, and joining in the dancing in the street. Everyone was overjoyed and very relieved that the war was over, says Jean. “I can remember a brass band playing near the church at the beginning of Fore Street. Everybody in St Ives seemed to be in Fore Street and around the little road to the harbour, where the lifeboat station now is.”

Irene Jean Pooke
Irene (left) and Jean (right) picking hops in 1945

Later that day, their father took the girls on a visit to Lands End. They still remember the words they carved into the wall of the First and Last House: “The Twins Irene and Jean Pooke were here on May 8th 1945″.

Seventy-five years have passed since then, and now in May 2020, we should all have been celebrating this landmark anniversary of one of the most memorable days in British history. A nationwide programme of events was planned to mark the occasion — but that was before the coronavirus outbreak. English Heritage is now encouraging people to stage their own celebration at home, and has issued a VE Day 75 party pack, which includes recipes for 1940s-style food and drink, such as cheese and Marmite swirls, carrot scones and ginger beer. There are also tips for dancing the Lindy Hop, and lyrics to popular songs of the time, including Lambeth Walk — a song which has special significance in St Ives, of course, as it is the popular name for the promenade originally known as Pedn Olva Walk, which leads from Westcott’s Quay to the harbour.

Irene and Jean can explain how the change of name came about Both girls were members of the Happy Vaccies, a song and dance group formed by some of St Ives’ many evacuees.  In June 1944, the group performed at the Guildhall on two consecutive nights, and Lambeth Walk — from the 1937 musical Me and My Girl — was one of the featured songs. The twins recall that at the end of the second performance, which had attracted enthusiastic crowds, they and their fellow Happy Vaccies paraded triumphantly from the Guildhall, down Street-an-Pol and along Pedn Olva Walk, where they sang and danced once again. It has been known as Lambeth Walk ever since.  

The twins are 88 now, and both still enjoy good health. “Irene and I wrote a poem when we arrived back in London,” says Jean. “It was a competition that was organised by our school, and we won first prize. When I was doing wartime reminiscences with a group where I live in a small theatre about three years ago, the show ended with me reciting our poem. It received a standing ovation. I also told the audience how happy Irene and I had been in St Ives.”

This dreadful war has come to an end
We now must thank our allied friends
The Russians and their leader Joe
The Americans and their leader also

The Army, the Navy, the Air Force in blue
The Waafs, the Wrens and the ATS too
We thank them for the work they have done
Also for the victory they have won

We must not forget the wonderful Red Cross
But for their parcels boys would have been lost
They have done a marvellous job in this war
So people ought now to give a penny more

So now we can go to bed once more
And so forget this terrible war
We once again thank all our friends
Who helped to bring this war to an end

Irene and Jean Pooke, 1945

Download the English Heritage VE Day At Home pack from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/inspire-me/ve-day/

With thanks to St Ives Archive and the Pooke family