As a tribute to one of east-London’s very finest, the wonderful ‘Dame Vera Lynn’, who sadly passed away on the 18th June last week, at the grand old age of 103 – ‘London Shoes’ ventured onto public transport for the first time in 3 months throughout the current Covid19 pandemic lockdown, and took a short tube journey over to East Ham-London E6, to check out the east-end origins and life of this remarkable lady.
Vera Lynn was born ‘Vera Margaret Welch’ on 20th March 1917 at her family’s home in Thackeray Road–East Ham-London-E6 (now in the London Borough of Newham).
Her dad Bert Welch, was a plumber and her mum Annie, a dressmaker – Vera had an older brother named Roger.
Vera’s father Bert was the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ (MC) at the ‘East Ham Working Men’s Club’ in Boleyn Road, just a 5min walk from the family home, and located right near to West Ham United FC former home ground.
In 1921 aged 4, Vera’s family moved from their Thackeray Road home, to 38 Ladysmith Avenue, just a few streets further down the Barking Road.
Vera Lynn undertook all of her schooling at the local Brampton Road School, just a couple of mins walk from home. She left the school in 1931 aged 14.
Family sing-alongs were common entertainment throughout her childhood, as every Sunday afternoon the extended family would congregate at the her grandparents’ home for a get together and a good old sing-song.
In 1924 Vera Lynn made her very first public performance aged just 7, at her dad’s ‘East Ham Working Men’s Club’.
By the time she was 8 she was becoming a regular performer at the Working Men’s Club venues throughout east & north London, and sometimes venturing out as far as the fringes of the Essex/London border.
Vera Lynn left Brampton Road School in 1931 and started work in the ‘rag-trade’ sewing buttons – but she very soon realised that she could make more money singing for a living than sewing buttons – so she soon jacked that job in.
In 1932, aged just 15, she got her first job as a pro singer – performing with 2 of London’s most popular bands at that time – The ‘Billy Cotton Band’ & the ‘Howard Baker Band’ – and it is at this time she dropped her surname Welch and adopted her maternal grandmother’s maiden name of ‘Lynn’.
By 1934 she was singing all over the country for the extremely popular and accomplished ‘Joe Loss Band’, and got to appear on radio for the very first time.
1935 saw Vera Lynn enter a recording studio for the first time making records as a singer for the Joe Loss Orchestra and the Charlie Kunz bands.
In 1936 she released her very first record as a ‘solo’ artist, when she recorded “Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire”, that was released on the ‘Crown’ label (Crown records were bought out by Decca Records in 1938)
Also, 1936 saw Vera Lynn’s first venture into the movie business with a bit-part in the film “A fire has been arranged’. She went on to appear in several films throughout her life.
By this time Vera Lynn was one of the principal singers with the popular ‘Bert Ambrose Band’, a position that saw her perform ‘live’ in concerts all over the country, plus appear in many radio broadcasts.
In 1938 Vera Lynn experienced her first hit record when she sang the lead vocal on the Bert Ambrose Band numbers ‘The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot’ & ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’.
1938 was also the year in which Vera Lynn appeared on TV for her very first time, singing with the Bert Ambrose Band.
By this time her success and its financial rewards enabled enable her to be in a position to purchase a house for her mum & dad at 24 Upney Lane-Barking, just a mile or so up the road to the east of their former Ladysmith Avenue home in East Ham.
In 1939, a young east-ender by the name of ‘Harry Lewis’ joined the Bert Ambrose Band as a saxophonist and clarinetist – and very soon Harry & Vera were dating – they were to marry in 1941.
By the end of 1939 war had broken out in Europe, and Harry Lewis and other members of the Bert Ambrose Band joined the RAF, where they went on to form a band called the ‘Squadronaires’.
During the early dark days of the ‘Blitz’ Vera Lynn would often entertain the hundreds of people taking shelter down in the London Underground tube stations, by performing a song or two, in an attempt to keep everyone’s spirits up.
During the early 1940’s Vera Lynn continued to tour concert venues with the Bert Ambrose Band, at a time when performers were continually putting their lives at risk during evening air raids.
Vera Lynn left the Bert Ambrose Band in 1941, and during the same year she appeared as a solo performer at the London Palladium.
A song that she had recorded in 1939 just before the commencement of WW2, all of a sudden became very popular amongst the public – the song was “We’ll Meet Again”.
She would regularly perform concerts for the Armed Forces, whether it be at military barracks, concert halls or during hospital visits – where she would sing emotive numbers such as ‘We’ll Meet Again’ – ‘The White Cliff’s of Dover’ & ‘There’ll always be an England’.
In an opinion poll conducted by a national newspaper at that time, Vera Lynn was voted the British Armed Forces favourite performer, and she became affectionately known as ‘The Forces Sweetheart’.
She had her own prime-time radio show ‘Sincerely Yours’, which was very popular with the troops as she would broadcast messages from loved ones to the ‘boys’ serving overseas. At its peak, her radio programme was receiving up to 2,000 letters per week. However, after a run of 18mths the BBC bosses pulled the programme, on the basis that they considered the show to be just ‘sentimental slush’!!!
In 1944 Vera Lynn joined ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) and travelled overseas to the front-line to give outdoor concerts to the troops in places such as Egypt and India.
She also volunteered to go to Japanese occupied ‘Burma’, where the British troops were fighting a terrible war with the enemy in inhumane conditions. Vera did a 4 month stint in the Burmese jungles performing to the ‘boys’ – something that they never ever forgot.
Throughout the WW2 years Vera Lynn recorded & released lots of material. One of her most popular tunes was ‘Lili Marlene’ which was a big hit, not only with the Allied Forces, but ironically, also with the German Armies!!.
In 1943 Vera Lynn’s husband Harry was invalided out of the RAF and became his wife’s full-time manager.
In 1944 they bought a massive country house in Clayton Holt in the Sussex Downs, near Brighton.
1946 saw the birth of Vera & Harry’s only child – a daughter, who they named Virginia. That very same year they moved from Sussex and relocated the family home to North Finchley-London N12.
Following the end of WW2, in 1952, Vera recorded & released a song entitled “Auf Wiedersehn Sweetheart” which became the first record by a British performer to top both the UK & USA charts, where it stayed for 9 weeks. The success of this particular record lead to Vera Lynn performing on prime-time US radio and tv stations.
In 1952 the UK published its first music record charts, and the very first chart that was compiled had 3 Vera Lynn records in its top 10.
In 1954 Vera Lynn clocked up another no.1 hit with a song called ‘My Son, My Son’ which she actually co-wrote.
In 1955 she was commissioned her very own first TV series with the BBC.
Vera Lynn left Decca Records in 1960 and signed for EMI subsidiary MGM Records. She recorded 13 albums in total and also released 14 songs that were translated into German – again, rather ironic considering we had just been at war with them.
In 1960 Vera Lynn recorded Lionel Bart’s “The Day After Tomorrow” which was a hit song from the west-end musical “Blitz” that was all about the recent WW2 experiences in London.
Throughout the 1960’s & 1970’s Vera Lynn regularly appeared as a guest on prime time tv programmes like the ‘Morecombe & Wise’ show.
In 1969 Vera Lynn was awarded the OBE and in 1975 she was made a ‘Dame’ for her services to the RAF and to charities such as ‘The Stars Organisation for Spastics’ – the ‘Vera Lynn Breast Cancer Research Trust’ – the ‘Dame Vera Lynn Trust for Children with Cerebral Palsy’ all of which she either founded or patronised.
Throughout the 60’s & 70’s she continually appeared on the bill of the ‘Royal Variety Performances’.
In 1978 Vera Lynn was awarded the ‘Freedom of the City of London’.
Following the cessation of the Falklands War in 1982, Vera Lynn recorded & released the single ‘I Love This Land’ in commemoration of the victory.
For her contribution and support to the WW2 Burma campaign, Vera Lynn was awarded the prestigious ‘Burma Star’ medal in 1985.
In 1992 she was awarded an ‘Honorary Degree in Master of Music’ by the University of London.
To mark the Golden Jubilee of VE Day in 2005, Vera sang a few of her famous and nostalgic WW2 songs outside Buckingham Palace –an event that was televised.
In 2005 she made a surprise appearance at the VE Day Anniversary event held in Trafalgar Square – where she sang the opening lines to her famous & much loved hit ‘We’ll Meet Again’, whilst the audience took over and sang the rest.
In 2009, at the grand old age of 92, Vera Lynn became the oldest living artist to make no.1 in the UK Charts with her compilation album “The Very Best of Vera Lynn’.
Three days before her monumental 100th birthday in 2017, Vera Lynn released a new album entitled ‘Vera Lynn 100’ on which her original vocals on her classic and most popular songs, were pitched against newly orchestrated backgrounds – by the end of that year she was the bestselling female artist of 2017, selling more albums than modern artists such as Dua Lipa.
In 2018 the famous & long standing 2 Woolwich Ferries that operate north & south across the River Thames, were replaced and one of the new ferries was named ‘Dame Vera Lynn’ in her honour.
2020 saw the unveiling of a portrait of Vera Lynn at the Royal Albert Hall in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of peace in Europe since the 2nd World War. Throughout her life time Vera Lynn performed the Albert Hall an astonishing 52 times.
In April 2020, just a few months before her passing, the lyric to her famous WW2 song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was echoed by Queen Elizabeth II in her television address to the British nation at the height of the Covid19 pandemic.
On Thursday 18th June 2020 Dame Vera Lynn sadly passed away at her home in East Sussex at the grand old age of 103.
The east-end of London and the entire nation lost one of its true legends – an amazing woman who led an amazing life that will never be forgotten.
I hope you enjoyed London Shoes little tribute to Dame Vera Lynn and hope my accompanying photos compliment this remarkable lady’s life. RIP Dame Vera.
See below – all of the photos & images relating to the Dame Vera Lynn blog