Long read

Who Were The Women In The Trafalgar Square Fountains On VE Day?

It's an iconic photograph - one that has been used across the world to highlight the celebrations on VE Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. But there's always been one big question surrounding this particular image: what was the story behind those two women smiling for the camera in the Trafalgar Square fountains on 8 May 1945?

Determined to find out more about the women, IWM put an appeal out on Twitter for help. Twenty-four hours later, we were contacted by a relative: their names were Cynthia Covello and Joyce Digney, and the two women were life-long friends.

Cynthia sadly passed away in 1983, but her family was able to put us in touch with Joyce, who now lives just outside Vancouver. After speaking with Joyce and looking at photos and a letter supplied by the Covello and Digney families, we are now able to share the incredible story of the two women in this famous photograph.

Joyce and Cynthia first met in the Women's Land Army in the summer of 1944. Joyce was 18 years old and Cynthia was 20. They became friends almost immediately and worked together on various farms across Surrey, just outside London.

Both Joyce and Cynthia had seen photos of the First World War armistice parades in London, and they decided that if they were still alive at the end of the war they would make the trip to London and join in the inevitable celebrations.

Victory in Europe was announced on Monday 7 May 1945, and the following day was declared a public holiday in Britain. The two women held true to their word, taking the early train into London that Tuesday morning. Their first stop was St Paul's Cathedral, where they each said prayers for the family members they had lost during the war. After paying their respects, they headed out into the crowds to have some fun. In a letter Joyce wrote to Cynthia's family in 2006, she recalled the atmosphere on the streets: 'We walked all over London, and unless you were there, you could not believe the euphoria; hugs, kisses, smiles and laughter. It was like a gigantic family coming together.'

The two eventually reached Trafalgar Square, where celebrations were in full swing. The roads were closed to traffic, and policemen looked the other way as revellers climbed on Nelson's Column and the four lion statues.

Joyce and Cynthia dipped into The Chandos, a pub just off the square on St. Martins Lane. The pub was packed with people and glasses were in short supply, but Cynthia somehow managed to secure drinks for the two of them. Joyce described the scene in her letter:

'We went into the pub that was crowded to overflowing. They had beer but not enough glasses. I am laughing thinking about it. [Cynthia] and I managed to get two glasses from people who had finished their drinks. No glasses were washed. Just filled up again!'

After the pub, the two women headed into Trafalgar Square, where Joyce remembers a giant Conga line snaking its way around the statues and fountains. It was a warm, humid day, and people were sitting on the fountains, wading their feet in the water. To cool off, Joyce and Cynthia decided to join them. They took off their shoes, rolled up their trousers and stepped into the water. In her letter to Cynthia's family, Joyce described what happened next:

'Two sailors came into the fountain to join us. [One of them] climbed up into one of the fountains and dived into the two feet of water. How he didn’t kill himself, I don’t know! He [put] his arms around me and fell back, taking me under the water with him. I grabbed the chap by the shirt and dunked him up and down screaming: "Look what you've done to me. How am I going to get home?"'

After the dunking, the two women worked their way south to Waterloo station, where they dried off next to a bonfire lit by another reveller, before taking the train back to Surrey.

Both Joyce and Cynthia married Canadian soldiers shortly after the war ended, moving to Canada within a few months of each other. Joyce and her husband Ernest settled in British Columbia, while Cynthia and her husband Oscar moved to eastern Canada. The two women stayed in touch, and Oscar and Cynthia eventually moved west, also settling in British Columbia. To this day, the Digney and Covello families remain close.

Both photographers and film cameramen present in Trafalgar Square that day captured Joyce and Cynthia in the fountain, as still images and film footage of their exploits have since been used in articles and documentaries around the world. Joyce remembers seeing a film of their fountain escapades in a cinema newsreel shortly after the war, but it wasn’t until much later that the two families discovered just how famous that film footage and photograph had become, regularly spotting Cynthia and Joyce’s familiar faces in television programmes, books and newspaper stories.

Speaking over the phone, Joyce laughed about the photograph’s fame and thinks Cynthia would be tickled too. In her letter to Cynthia’s family, she wrote: ‘How I wish she were alive to share all this with me. She would have thought it was a hoot!’