VE DAY throughout England began very early in the morning, when the altars were crowded with worshippers. In London, so vast were the crowds which visited Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, from 10 a.m. onwards, that informal thanksgiving services were held in both churches at every hour throughout the day. No sooner had one congregation filed from the doors, when another surged in, filled the chairs and pews, and waited quietly till the next service should begin.
Unprecedented scenes took place at Westminster in the afternoon, when the House of Lords came to the Abbey and the House of Commons to St Margaret’s to return thanks for victory. The approaches to Parliament-square were choked before three o’clock, when the Prime Minister was to broadcast. Every inch of the square itself was jammed with people — even the statues were crowded out. One man perched for hours above the throng, clutching Disraeli’s bronze hand. Abraham Lincoln’s chair provided another resting place.
The only way to reach either the Abbey or St. Margaret’s was by cleaving a path through a solid mass of shouting humanity. Sometimes it was necessary to wait for a draft of policemen before a move of any kind could be made. The constables formed in single file, each clutching the elbows of the man in front. Would-be worshippers grasped the elbows of the last policeman and were dragged through the crowd like the tail of a comet.
The House of Lords
Members of the House of Lords arrived in the Abbey at about 3.30. In the front of the procession was Black Rod. Lord Woolton, acting leader of the House, followed, with Lord Addison representing the Labour peers and Lord Samuel the Liberals. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Wakefield came next, two hundred peers in ranks of three following. The Abbey was cool and dark after the sunlight. The Dean took the service, and among other thanksgivings and petitions read a prayer adapted from Lincoln’s historic inauguration address in 1865:
“Grant, O merciful God, that with malice towards none, with charity to to all, with firmness in the right as thou givest us to see the right, we may strive to finish the task which thou hast appointed us: to bind up the nation’s wounds: to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan: to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The privileged few waiting in St Margaret’s for the arrival of Members of the House of Commons could hear the Prime Minister’s speech at three o’clock, as it was relayed by loudspeakers outside. Almost every sentence was punctuated with a burst of cheers. But when the whole House of Commons came on foot along a gangway driven through the crowd by the police, the crowd lost all control. At the sight of the Prime Minister a roar was raised by thousands and thousands of throats, whistles were blown, gongs and bells rung in deafening applause.
The Commons at St Margaret’s
The Commons walked bareheaded in the sunlight. The Speaker entered St Margaret’s first, preceded by the Serjeant-At-Arms bearing the mace. Behind him came the Prime Minister and Mr Arthur Greenwood, who took their seats in the front row. Following them were members of the Cabinet. The women Members came in a bunch in the middle of the men, many of whom were in Service uniforms. The National Anthem was sung, and then the Speaker’s chaplain, Dr Alan Don, called the Members to thanksgiving and dedication. The congregation sat during the singing of a metrical version of the “Old Hundred and Twenty-fourth”, to its lovely melody with unusual harmonies:
E’en as a bird out of the fowler’s snare
Escapes away, so is our soul set free:
Broke are their nets, and thus escaped we.
Then Dr Don read the names of the twenty-one Members of the Commons who have given their lives in the war, while the congregation knelt. Finally, “O God, our help in ages past,” was sung — a rare experience, never to be forgotten.
The six hundred men who govern England lifted the tune to the roof. Their voices drowned every other sound — no echo of the choirboys’ voices could be heard: their mouths appeared to be opening soundlessly, so great was the volume of men’s voices. Then, after the blessing, the Speaker led the Members back through the crowd, the Prime Minister smiling and giving the V sign as he went.
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s held its great service of thanksgiving earlier in the day, at noon when the Lord Mayor was received at the west door by the Dean. People surged up the steps and into the nave where many stood in the alleyways because there was no room anywhere else. There were men from the British fighting Forces, American soldiers, office workers, shopkeepers and labourers, women with babies, girls with tricolour paper hats, and children with flags and rosettes.
The Dean went at once into the pulpit, where he read thanksgivings and intercessions for those who were still fighting in the East. The Lesson, the Song of Moses and the children of Israel, as read by Canon Alexander: “The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil: my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.”
After the Te Deum and the blessing the great congregation could scarcely find its way out of the Cathedral for the press of another great congregation attempting to enter for the next service. Outside people were climbing on railings, waving flags and emptying white showers from the waste-paper baskets.
In Canterbury Cathedral the great service of the day was held at ten o’clock in the morning. All the chairs had been removed so that more people could be admitted; and there must have been five thousand worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder for the thanksgivings and prayers. In the absence of the Archbishop and the Dean, the Bishop of Dover gave the blessing. In Southwark Cathedral eight services were held, and in the intervals individual worshippers entered the Cathedral for private prayer.
In St Albans Abbey, the place where freedom to worship in England was first won by martyrdom, the VE-Day service at seven p.m. had the character of a family assembly — so many parents with children filled the great nave for thanksgiving and dedication to service in the coming generation.
In Oxford, the Cathedral and parish churches were thronged with worshippers at a succession of services that continued throughout the day, and large numbers of men took part in the services in the college chapels. In the great cities of the north of England, the workshops had emptied their workers into the churches.