VE day in York, 1945

February 2011

Minster bells, and a man on a motorbike playing bagpipes

While reading this you might want to listen to cathedral bells celebrating the end of World War Two … (see below)

In the excellent displays at the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington I read a description of York on the night of VE day, as remembered by Philip Moyes. York Minster was lit up for the first time since 1939. A city centre dance hall opened its windows so people outside could hear the band, and they were dancing in the streets.

The following morning, ‘the slopes around the ancient city wall were strewn with sleeping Canadians’ and the only thing still moving was a motorcycle. ‘One Canadian was driving it and another was sitting backwards on it playing the bagpipes.’

Old Minster bells, on mid-20th century 78, on portable record player, via video camera, via internet, to you & me

Victory bells 78 – label

Ah, isn’t the internet wonderful sometimes. I was searching for some York-related thing on YouTube, and stumbled upon a recording of cathedral bells ringing on ‘Victory day’ at the end of the war.

Not just any old cathedral bells, but our own Minster ones, included on this short recording. The Minster bells come after those of Westminster Abbey, and are followed by those of Coventry Cathedral. You’ll hear them announced by one of those wonderful BBC voices of the time. It’s all rather crackly and ‘lo-fi’, but it’s all the more charming for that. Do read the bit of info on the page about how you come to be watching an old 78 going round on a turntable. All the combined factors added to the sounds of the Minster bells made me cry. But then I am a soppy old fool.

A bit of research revealed an interesting web page on old documentary 78s which includes this picture of the label of the ‘Victory Day bells’ recording (see last entry on page), as well as many other documentary 78s, putting them in context.

It’s often these small details that bring history alive, isn’t it.


  1. My grandfather was the man playing bagpipes! I’ve been trying to find reference to his crazy story!

    • How lovely! :) Here’s a photo of the article, in a display case at the Air Museum, which mentions it. (Sorry it’s not great quality but it was quite dark and behind glass.) The museum may be able to give you more information on where it came from (local press, etc).

      Thanks for adding this comment Kyle, made me smile. Let us know if you have any further background info on the story!

      • I actually have a written account of his celebrations that I will try to get for you. The event described here was actually just the tale end of an interesting evening!

    • Hello Kyle
      I’m writing a novel set in WW2. I love the story of your grandfather and would like the make a reference in his honor. Due to copyrights, would you be agreeable to this?
      Kind regards
      Eve Annette

  2. This VE Day item,brings back vivid memories of that night,seeing the Minster lit up,hearing those bells for the first time in 5 years.It coincided with our Tuesday night youth club dance,at the Rowntree Lecture(dance)hall,where around 50/60 of us youth(later to be called”Teenagers”)congregated to dance to records of the well known wartime swing bands .The dance that night was off,for the MC Horace Pulleyn and his staff to celebrate,in their own way,So all the tribe of us swarmed down Haxby Rd,to exhibition square,outside the De Grey Rooms,and danced in the street,to the sound off Bert Keech’s big band
    In loud speakers in the square.This was full of our friendly allied air men-mostly Canadian/Free French,all having a ball,and mixing/jiving with us completely unrestrained and joyous.We eventually continued our way to Parliament Street,where similarly the Radio Relay shop had its speakers out,and the whole tribe of us joined arms across the street,and “Hokey Kokeyed”the full length to the Pavement and back again.This was very typical of these blue informed wartime-heroic allies,sky larking there way around York,in between their deadly retribution missions to Europe.I saw many instances of these friends of ours in York,”Enjoying”some well deserved relaxation,with not many people around in the modern York,to appreciate their contribution to winning that awful war!Living into one’s Eighty’s isn’t all bad!

  3. Really nice to see your comments on this page, dating from almost five years back. Thanks Stephen for your wonderful account of that night, always a pleasure to read your comments.

    Kyle, I’ve emailed you about your grandfather’s account, would be really nice to see it and to be able to include it on these pages,


  4. Ruth Seymour england

    I was 5years old in 1944 and remember being on my fathers shoulders in Parliament square celebrating VE Day. Also a barrage ballon landing on Clifton Green. Wish I could see some photos of these events

  5. Alan Winspear

    I was 8 and a half years old on VE day and I remember the celebrations in York. My outstanding memory is of the river. All the bridges were lit up. and all the boats, including a couple of Motor Torpedo Boats were festooned in lights. My older brother,(Bob), took me into York to see the sights in much the same way as he had done to see the bombing of the station and the church in Coney Street. The reason I particularly remember the festivities because we went down on to a sand bank at the foot of Ouse bridge, opposite the old Boyes store. Spotting a socket without a bulb in it, what was an 8yr old boy expected to do. I poked it with my finger. There was a flash and a thud, and the lights dimmed for a split second. The thud was me hitting the sand 10feet away. Fortunately I was wearing wellingtons that day. Times were hard in those days and wellingtons were very hard wearing and lasted a long time. My brother was extremely shocked but I just shrugged it off. I’ve shrugged off all calamities and catastrophies ever since. I had a great time growing up in York. A fabulous city. I don’t now know why I ever left it.

  6. Ruth Seymour england

    Actually this was 1945 in Parliament street when I was 5 years old

  7. Ruth Seymour england

    I remember being on my fathers shoulder in Parliament street on VE. Day in 1945 , and wondered if there are any photos from there. My grandmother was Annie Seymour Pearson the suffragette in York.
    I remember a barrage balloon on Clifton Green too.

  8. Diane Holmes

    Does anyone know anything about the lettering on a wall at the end of Nelson Street off Haxby road which said VICTORY IN EUROPE and can still be seen but is very faded?

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