With the exception of a fortnight in Clapton, Daisy Woodard has rarely left her Isle of Dogs home. Yet she has lived a life ripe with adventure. The softly spoken 91-year-old with a laugh as dirty as a drain has been machine-gunned, blown-up and bombed. She can also proudly claim to have helped one of the world’s greatest adventurers scale Mount Everest – and all without leaving the East End. For 91 years, her home has been the Isle of Dogs, with its ancient cobbled streets, wharves and warehouses that served the thriving docks. No part of the East End has changed more in the last generation than the Isle of Dogs, and planners have laid waste to Daisy’s childhood neighbourhood. Now, it’s no longer majestic ocean-going vessels that tower over her streets, but the glinting glass skyscrapers of the finance industry.
Fortunately for us, memories of the narrow, sooty streets and vibrant communities recreated in Call the Midwife remain pin-sharp in Daisy’s mind. I visit her in her warm and neat flat, where we’re surrounded by models of elephants, which she loves so much (“Why do people hunt them?’ she questions.), her beloved word-searches and old sepia photos. ‘This is my mum, Sophia Jane,’ she says with a smile of pure love, holding up a black-and-white photo of a handsome woman with a shock of thick black wavy hair and a look that says: ‘Bring it on!’ to the world. ‘Mum was a grafter, she started work at 6am in a factory in Surrey Quays, but always made sure I came home from school to a plate of my favourite liver and bacon. Scrupulously clean, when she wasn’t working or cooking, she was down the bathhouse scrubbing sheets. You’d never find her yakking on street corners, but whenever we passed a group of women talking on the street, she’d lean down and whisper: “Always leave ‘em laughing, Dais,” before making a wisecrack that would have ’em doubled over.’
It’s her mother’s ability to bring laughter that enabled only child Daisy to find fun in the darkest of hours. ‘When war broke out, I says to Mum: “I ain’t going nowhere.” Fortunately, she agreed, and I remember waving goodbye to all my pals as they disappeared from the street on the back of a flatbed lorry off to be evacuated. ‘I was laughing and waving – little did I know what lay ahead.’
Overnight, the crowded cobbled streets, usually covered in great packs of kids playing Hi-Jimmy Knacker, marbles and hopscotch, emptied, as if a wartime Pied Piper had swept through the neighbourhood. ‘I was lonely,’ Daisy admits, ‘but I had the strong instinct that, as long as I was by my mother’s side, I’d be all right.’ Daisy got a rude awakening when the phoney war came to an end. ‘I was playing at the end of my street when I saw a plane flying low over our neighbourhood, so low I swore I saw the pilot’s face,’ she recalls. ‘He was smiling, so I assumed it was one of ours. I’m waving madly up at him when, all of a sudden, a hail of bullets starts pinging around my feet, cracking off the cobbles.’ Daisy ran for her life up Newark Street, skinny white legs pumping ten to the dozen, and threw herself in her mother’s open doorway. ‘Thank God most of the women left their doors open in the summer to let cool air up the passage,’ Daisy says.
Her mettle was to be tested further at the outbreak of the Blitz on what came to be known as ‘Black Saturday’, September 7th, 1940. The industrial docks were the target of the Luftwaffe, who dropped thousands of incendiary bombs out of a seamless blue sky. By nightfall, they returned, and this time, they had the fires from the mighty conflagrations to guide them along the distinctive loop of the Isle of Dogs. ‘We only had a street shelter, and the noise was tremendous in there. It stunk and was packed. I felt so claustrophobic and I remember yelling: “I’ve got to get out!”’ Daisy tells me. She ran to the arches in Mudchute, with her mother in hot pursuit. ‘It felt like the whole world was on fire,’ she remembers, still shaking her head at the memory. ‘The noise wasn’t much better in there – they had three anti-aircraft guns posted on the arches, guns I nicknamed ‘Big Bertha, Big Aida and Big Welly’, but I felt safe when they fired back.’
During the first few weeks of the Blitz, the authorities showed a grievous dereliction of care towards the mainly poor East Enders, packing them into miserable and squalid shelters, and shutting safe deep-level shelters like the Tubes off to civilians.
That was until East Enders fought back, and ordinary, working Londoners fought for their right to safety. By the time Daisy turned 13, the Undergrounds were equipped to shelter thousands, but she and her mother still preferred to sleep in bunk beds under the arches at Mudchute. ‘On my 13th birthday, I woke up in my bunk bed and says to my mum: “I wonder what’s Hitler’s brought me for my birthday?” I got home to find a smoking pile of rubble where my house used to be.
“I knew he wouldn’t forget me!” I called to Mum.’ Daisy’s sangfroid at being bombed out and left homeless masks what must have been an intensely frightening and challenging period. ‘My poor dad, he was so upset, when we got to Poplar Town Hall, he promptly collapsed and had a fit on the floor,’ she says. ‘He was a soldier in the First War and had been badly injured. I think by that point, he’d just seen too much. A worker there took pity on us and slipped us the keys to a vacant property on the other side of the Island, saying: “I’ll probably get the sack for this.”’ Because of his generosity and common sense, Daisy and her parents saw out the rest of the war in ‘luxury’. ‘We went from two rooms to a whole house,’ she says. ‘I felt ever so posh!’ At 14, Daisy started at Moltens sweet factory, ‘eating more than I earnt’, before she finally settled at rope works Hawkins & Tipson on the Island, staying there for 16 years. ‘I used to help make manila and sisal ropes,’ she recalls.
In 1953, Daisy got an unexpected summons. ‘I was told to report to the Dockland Settlement as a grateful customer wanted to meet me,’ she explains. Daisy’s foreman, a man named Wally, granted her permission to go on her 30-minute dinner break, provided she wasn’t late back. ‘I was ushered into a room and there was a tall man who introduced himself as Edmund. He shook my hand and I remember mine just disappearing in his. His hand was enormous.’ The huge hand belonged to none other than 6ft 2in adventurer Edmund Hillary, fresh from his record-breaking climb to the summit of Mount Everest in May 1953. The Queen had recently appointed him Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. To 26-year-old Daisy, he was ‘just a lovely fella who was interested in ropes’. ‘He thanked me for the rope I’d made, which he’d used on his expedition up Everest, and said it saved his life,’ Daisy recalls of her incredible meeting. ‘Nowadays, of course, you’d have press and people taking photos and all that, but back then it was a quick handshake and nice chat. At the back of my mind, I’m really panicking as I’m aware that my 30-minute dinner break was nearly up, and I didn’t want to get my wages docked. He was so grateful and gentle, I’d have loved to have stayed and chatted all day, but I had to hotfoot it back to work. So, I shook his giant hand again, and said: “Ta-ta!”’
Daisy’s brush with the great adventurer has never left her and she still feels enormous pride in her role at helping make history. ‘Little old me,’ she chuckles, patting her armrest. With her outlook subtly shifted, Daisy turned her ambitions towards something a little more modest than scaling mountains. Instead, she resolved to work hard and save for her own camera. ‘I’d always been obsessed with photography and worked hard, eventually saving enough to buy a Leica Zeiss Ikon. Daisy’s trusty Leica went everywhere with her and she admits she made herself ‘the factory pest’, even taking it on the work beanos down to the coast, where she would pop up announced when her workmates crouched behind a bush to spend a penny!
But it’s this glorious photo of Daisy, laughing with her workmate Dolly on a tea break, that led me to her door.
A friend of mine showed me the photo. I posted it on Facebook and within 30 minutes, up pops the message: ‘That’s my mum’s neighbour.’ (Thanks Julia) The world is not such a big place after all. ‘So, what were you two laughing at?’ I ask when I visited her last month. ‘I’d been plaguing my foreman, Wally, shouting: “Whato Wally” in a silly voice, when he grabbed the camera off me and turned the tables, taking a snap of me,’ she smiles. Taken in an unguarded moment, this evocative photo shows Daisy and her mate Doll, at their best. Fun. Irreverent. Full of life. Sixty-five years on, she still is. ‘You still got it,’ I tell her. ‘There’s barely a wrinkle on your face.’ ‘That’s cause I’m sitting on ’em, love,’ she flashes back, with a gleam in her eye. It’s time to take my leave of Daisy. Leave her to her word-searches and her elephants, but I tell her it’s been a privilege, listening to her story and the incredible events through, which she didn’t just survive, but thrived. ‘I don’t know about that,’ she shrugs. ‘I’ve just always tried to make the best of things.’ Keep smiling, Daisy.
Daisy on the left, with her old pal Eileen.