Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo of VE-Day celebrations, May 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series A, Item 195.
Moments after the announcement came over the radio, the streets were filled with people. As one Toronto woman, Gunda Lambton, understatedly put it in her diary—later published as Sun in Winter: A Toronto Wartime Journal (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003)—”The war is over. The war is over. The war in Europe is at an end.”
At about 9:30 a.m. of May 7, 1945, news came that at 8:41 p.m. (Toronto time) the night before, Germany had signed an unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers, ending the Second World War after five years and eight months of hostilities.
“Relief and thanksgiving overwhelm all hearts in this hour of victory,” the Globe and Mail recalled the following day, “There is a time that is too deep for joy alone—a time when it seems as if all the strings of one’s being, tautened beyond endurance, are suddenly released. Such is this day.”
Initially people wondered if the news reports were true because for days and weeks, rumours of an armistice had persisted and had even been falsely reported by the press. But within a half hour, Yonge and Bay streets were clogged with tens of thousands of jubilant revellers. Ticker tape rained down from office windows and downtown traffic ground to a standstill. As Mike Filey put it in A Toronto Album 2 (Dundurn, 2002): “To say that the city went wild would be an understatement.”
Photo of VE-Day celebrations, Yonge Street north of Queen Street, May 7 or 8, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Series 340, Subseries 8, File 50.
Although Toronto was far from the front, it was not untouched by war. Irene Plummer, for example, recalls meeting a boy she’d dated while attending high school in Haldimand County on a street outside her office at Yonge and King. In uniform, he was on his way to Union Station to ship off to Europe. Within a matter of weeks, Irene received word that he was dead. Such was life during wartime for many Torontonians whose husbands, sons, and brothers served overseas.
The scene outside Irene’s office was decidedly different on May 7, 1945. Office workers poured out of buildings to celebrate victory in Europe in warm weather and under bright, blue skies. The Globe and Mail described the scene:
Laughter and tears, a medley of noises welling up to a blue sky, ticker tape glinting earthward from office buildings, the blaze of horns, the roar of planes overhead, flags and bunting fluttering in the spring breeze, open church doors and prayers—this was Toronto’s response yesterday to the end of the European war.
Photo of VE-Day celebrations on Bay Street by John H. Boyd, May 7, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96214.
Sellers of Union Jacks and other flags, whistles, horns, and other noisemakers did brisk business, selling on street corners straight out of their cartons. On the east side of Yonge, south of Richmond, one soldier played Tarzan by scaling to the second floor of a building to retrieve flags that he threw down to his friends below.
The few vehicles that could manoeuvre through the crowds—decorated in ribbons and bunting—were overloaded with joyous passengers sitting on hoods and bumpers, or clinging to running boards. Peg Cross, an 18-year-old woman from Grimsby who’d volunteered with the RCAF Women’s Division while attending Ryerson Institute, remembered her celebration in Gene Quigley’s Voices of World War II (Jesperson Publishing, 2006). “I knew a guy who had a motorcycle,” she said, “and I got on back and we drove around the streets of Toronto.”
Photo of VE-Day celebrations on Bay Street by John H. Boyd, May 7, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96241.
When not bursting into spontaneous cheers, the crowd sang “Roll Out the Barrel,”
“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin,” “Pistol Packin’ Mama, Put That Pistol Down,” and other wartime favourites. Before a sound truck blaring music on Bay Street, an airman and a woman danced in the street. Other groups noticed by a Globe and Mail reporter formed snake dances as part of their “complete surrender to boisterous celebration.”
Photo of Police Constable Harry Carroll on Bay Street South of Queen Street, May 8, 1945, by John H. Boyd. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96213.
Men and women spontaneously (and good-naturedly) grabbed strangers from the crowd to kiss them. A Star reporter witnessed “[t]hree sailors, their cheeks streaked with lipstick and two girls on each arm, [walking] along like Chief Wahoo in full war paint.” Policemen were popular targets for similar affections. Police Constable Harry Carroll, already “festooned with paper tape as gay throngs used him for a maypole,” had to retire at least three times to remove lipstick marks from this face.
Having grown up on a farm near Dunnville, in Haldimand County, Irene Conway had moved to Toronto in her early 20s after attending business college. She secured work in Toronto at Melbourne Merchandising, a wartime crown corporation that procured and distributed wool for uniforms and other purposes. Over the course of the war, she had met and fallen in love with a pilot from New Zealand, Charles Plummer, who was in Toronto on a break from flight training in Kingston. He served with the MAC ships of the Fleet Air Arm, escorting convoys across the Atlantic. With a brief break in Halifax after one such crossing, Charles rushed to Toronto to marry Irene on January 15, 1945, before hastening back to his duties as a navy pilot. When news of the surrender hit, Charles happened to be in Toronto on Foreign Service Leave. When he made his way downtown, the newlywed couple joined the jubilant mob.
Among the crowd was one man still in his nightshirt, who’d jumped out of bed upon hearing news of the surrender, and ran out to join the fracas. The Globe and Mail spotted one woman who tried to continue with her daily chores in a dream-like state: “[I]n a West Toronto groceteria [she wandered] around with happy tears in her eyes abstractedly taking tins off shelves to put in her basket. Suddenly she looked down at what she had. ‘What am I doing?’ she asked the world in general. ‘I didn’t want any of this stuff.'”
Municipal, provincial, and dominion public buildings closed early. Union Station was all but deserted. Most stores—abandoned by both customers and staff—closed shortly after the announcement of surrender. At some retailers, like Simpsons and Eaton’s, employees removed valuables from displays and rushed to erect wooden barricades over store windows as a precaution before joining the street party themselves. But the crowd was reasonably well behaved and little vandalism was reported to police.
Victory in Europe Day celebrations, Bay Street, May 1945, from WikiMedia Commons.
With so many Torontonians rushing to the telephone to share news of the surrender, the the Bell Telephone Company had its biggest day’s business in its history.
“Everything is jammed,” one company official told the Star, explaining that the day overwhelmed not only the nearly 800 operators but also the company’s infrastructure. “We have plenty of operators,” the official added. “The only thing we lack are a couple of hundred more positions on the boards.”
All provincial liquor stores remained open on May 7 to help lubricate the celebration. But many restaurants that tried to remain open—the Globe and Mail observed—found that the wait and kitchen staff “untied their aprons and walked out, and the proprietors locked the doors and called it a day.” Many proprietors likewise shuttered their hotel beverage rooms when the daily beer supply didn’t arrive.
The Toronto Stock Exchange opened as usual at 10 a.m., but closed less than an hour later. The Star reported that staff in brokerage firms around town had difficulty following the stocks and prices because their junior staff kept throwing all the ticker tape out the windows.
Working on the twelfth floor, Irene Plummer had a perfect vantage point, perched above the bedlam below. “No, we didn’t throw paper out the window,” Plummer explains, “but everybody else around us and under us and over us and so on did, but we were all very excited. That’s for sure.” By the end of the day, the newspaper reported that it was “possible to wade up to your knees in wrapping paper, ticker tape and such.”
A few Mosquito airplanes added to the melee by dropping “bags of paper scraps that swirled down” as these planes swerved and swooped, playing ring-around-the-rosy with the Bank of Commerce building and other office towers.
“I am going to get out of the downtown and while I’m still in one piece,” one woman shouted at a Toronto Star reporter as “[s]he ran, not walked, north up Yonge St.” Irene Plummer confirms that, with public transit stuck in the crowd, the only way out of downtown to her home on St. George Street was by foot. Despite the efforts of four sailors who took over the directing of traffic at Yonge and Adelaide when no one was paying attention to the traffic lights, vehicular traffic was at a standstill.
Although many men in uniform milled among the downtown crowd—the Globe and Mail observed—others “were less demonstrative, less exuberant, especially those who wore ribbon and whose eyes told of things that the bobby sox brigade would not have to see.”
Photo of Corporal E.B. Jamieson and Private Allan R. Brown burying a burned effigy of Hitler on Gwynne Avenue by John H. Boyd, May 7, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96257.
Melancholy mixed with jubilation on Ritchie Avenue. Residents mourned K.A. Parrington, G.H. Lambert, W.H. McCluskey, neighbours who had died in the Italian campaign, in France, and in the Dieppe raid respectively—as identified in OpenFile’s Poppy File. Yet each house was decked out with flags and signs to welcome home Corporal Allan Thompson, who arrived home that day after being wounded the previous September while with a field ambulance unit on the Gothic Line.
Corporal E.B. Jamieson and Private Allan R. Brown, two local soldiers recently repatriated from the war front, burned and buried Hitler in effigy on Gwynne Avenue. Effigies of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito (with the Japanese leader adorned by a sign reading “SO SORRY, YOU’RE NEXT”) were burned over the course of the day on the lawn outside Queen’s Park, on the Danforth at Langford, and on Gerrard at Broadview.
According to numerous news reports, many of the city’s most exuberant celebrators were children who hadn’t even been born at the war’s outbreak. “Everywhere you went, there were children—flying along on bicycles draped with flags and bunting, tooting horns, or just standing talking in little groups on the street-corners,” the Globe and Mail reported. As soon as the announcement of the surrender was made, the city’s director of education, Dr. C.C. Goldring, officially closed city schools for the day and—after some raucous cheers with classmates—excited children ran home to tell their mothers of the news. A newspaper reporter overheard children talking in a park. “We’ve got to finish Japan,” one six-year-old articulated to his friends. “My dad’s over in Holland now.”
Photo of the children’s Colour Party in front of Whitby’s cenotaph on Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945. Whitby Public Library.
In residential areas, people celebrated at home, thinking of relatives at the front. “[A]nd on at least one lawn a handyman was snapping a lawnmower along with an idiotic grin on his face,” the Globe and Mail said, “ready to tell any passerby that his son had fought right through from Berniere-sur-Mer.”
In the privacy of homes and in churches, many Torontonians prayed and wept. Newspaper reporters also visited maimed, injured, and grief-ridden soldiers convalescing in the Christie Street Hospital. “On this day goes out the gratitude of all Canadians to their compatriots in the armed services, whose heroism and devotion have won so much,” the Globe and Mail stated in an editorial on May 8, 1945. “Sympathy surrounds the lonely homes from which have gone sons and husbands never to return. May bereaved hearts remain forever conscious of the pride this nation feels for those who willingly gave their lives in such a cause.”
Photo of official VE-Day service at Cenotaph, City Hall, May 8, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1667, Item 7.
From a platform outside City Hall on May 7, Mayor R.H. Saunders addressed a teeming crowd of tens of thousands that morning. In declaring the following day an official VE-Day holiday, Saunders said:
We are all happy that victory in Europe has been achieved. May I emphasize that though there is victory in Europe the war still goes on in Asia and many of our boys are still in great danger. It is the hope of your city that this shall be for Toronto people a day of thanksgiving. You should offer up thanks to Almighty God for saving us through the dark days of 1940 and it is our hope that the people of this city will find themselves in church today.
After his speech, the mayor led the crowd in the singing of hymns and “God Save the King.”
A Globe and Mail reporter visited local war-industry factories to find the (predominantly female) workers receiving the news “jubilantly but sanely.” At the John Inglis plant, the news was broadcast to the staff over a loudspeaker, followed by a plea for employees to remain at their stations to continue their work for the Pacific front. Workers at Research Enterprises, Ltd. stayed at work as well, “[b]ut from time to time, groups of employees gave expression to their pent-up emotions by impromptu celebrations on the production floors.” At de Havilland Aircraft and other factories, however, employees were too excitable and “spilled out into the bright sunshine, milling through the factory yards. Hundreds of autos were started—bandana wearing girls drove up and down the streets, blowing horns in one continuous blast.” Most factories shut down by noon.
Photo of a VE-Day celebration bonfire on Clinton Street by John H. Boyd, May 7, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96253.
Those Torontonians who didn’t make it to the central city—and municipal officials encouraged citizens to not make their way downtown—celebrated in city parks. As day turned to night, the day’s perfect weather gave way to a spring chill. So, the Globe and Mail observed, “bonfires blazed skywards from city parks and fireworks illuminated the faces of youngsters and oldsters and the in-between.” Around 50,000 gathered at Sunnyside Park, the amusement park, that evening.
On Tuesday, May 8, the weather was again perfect for the city’s official VE-Day holiday. Celebrations and Thanksgiving services were held in city parks and at Sunnyside. In the east end, a parade featuring members of the Canadian Legion, cadets, boy scouts, and marching bands trailed along Gerrard Street and was viewed by over 50,000.
It ended at a local park, where a solemn Thanksgiving ceremony was presided over by ministers of many local churches. East-end churches also united to form a non-denominational choir to lead the thousands of Torontonians gathered in the park in song. Similar parades occurred in suburbs like Whitby and Oakville.
At St. James Cathedral, Walter L. Lye carolled “a song of victory” from the steeple bells to announce the day’s special service. The 71-year-old carillonneur—who’d inherited his duties from his father and grandfather before him—had also rung the bells to celebrate the armistice of the First World War. Lye told the Globe and Mail that “there was a greater thrill to play the chimes in an hour’s recital of sacred song and God Save the King” on VE-Day than New Year’s Day. Many other churches in the city—such as St. Michael’s Cathedral—rang their bells to announce the day’s special services, many of which were so packed that worshippers had to be turned away.
Photo of crowd at City Hall, May 7 or 8, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1667, Item 11.
The celebrations on May 8 were much more subdued than the mob scene and street-dancing of the previous day. But months later, the city would go wild again—with singing and dancing into the night—when on August 15, 1945, the victory over Japan was announced.
Other sources consulted: Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 4 (Dundurn, 1995); Charles Cromwell Martin, Battle Diary: From D-Day and Normandy to the Zuider Zee and VE (Dundurn, 1994); newspaper articles on May 7, 8, and 9, 1945 from the Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star, as well as a personal interview with Helen Irene Plummer.