How two close friends took centre stage as the First World War ended

As the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the The Great War  draws near, it is my pleasure to reveal a touching story from a century ago – and also paint a vivid picture of how life was back then and in the times that followed in our part of East London.

One of the biggest events to mark the centenary is being held at Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford – but more of that later.

Our story is through the memories of Joyce Day. Her mother Ivy Callow is the  central figure, writes Colin Grainger.

Ivy was born in Deptford on January 22 1904, the third anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, and despite all the hardships of her life she passed away in 1997, just a few weeks short of her 93rd birthday.

Joyce told me: “Mum was very young when my gran remarried, and took up residence in an upstairs flat in Seaton Street Plaistow, one of the poorest areas of the East End at that time.

“Ivy became the eldest of four when gran, Henrietta Callow (nee England),

went on to have a second family, twins, Violet and Dick then baby Billy.

“Mum’s stepfather worked in the London Docks as a deal porter, he could earn good money some weeks, most of which was spent in the local pub on his way home – other times he would line up on the dockside, early in the morning, hoping to be hired, only to return home, cap in hand without the money to even buy milk for the toddlers.

“If a neighbour needed a midwife, gran was called as she had started to train as a nurse at The London Hospital when younger. At the other end of the spectrum gran would tend to the sick and lay-out the dead, the small sum she was paid helped eke out a meagre existence.”

It wasn’t much of a childhood with few luxuries by all accounts and Joyce told Ivy would talk about a roll of hair ribbon grandad found floating in the docks.

“He brought it home where it was washed and cut into lengths to go on the girls curls. Whatever the colour had been when it started out by the time this was used it had turned a dull green but mum said all her friends were envious of her wearing bows of proper ribbon.”

Ivy loved going to school and was a bright girl who won book prizes. She could have gone far had it not been necessary for her to get a job with a small wage to augment the family income.

And their workplace is how Ivy and close friend Lily White claim to play an important part in telling local people about the end of World War One.

Joyce said: “This need was how Ivy and her equally young friend Lily, wrapped up in big shawls, their clogs clattering, came to be trundling a trolley packed high with sweets and preserves along the wharf side at a confectionery factory in the London Docks community one memorable November day in 1918 – they were only fourteen years of age.”

That factory was Keiller’s.

  • Keiller’s and Tate & Lyle, Silvertown. Picture: Imperial War Museum

Keiller’s Dundee Marmalade moved to London to be near the docks for the oranges and for the sugar.  In 1880 they set up in Silvertown next to Tate’s sugar factory Keiller’s joined Tate and his arch-rival Mr Lyle the maker of golden syrup and another Scot who’d seen the sense in moving to the London Docks.  In 1900 Keillers built a spanking new wharf, Tay Wharf, named after the River Tay in Dundee and the area became known as the Sugar Mile. Tate & Lyle settled their differences and amalgamated in 1921, Keillers were joined by Trebor, Cross and Blackwell pickles, and Sharps Toffee. The air was thick with the sweet smell of sugar cooking.

Joyce went on: “Both the girls were terrified of the foreman, at Keiller’s in Tay Wharf, Silvertown. He was an imposing man in his white stiff coat and bowler hat, with a sheath of papers over his arm – he had the power to dismiss, on the spot, anyone not meeting his exacting codes of conduct.

  • Tay Wharf in Silvertown. Keiller’s entrance. Picture: David Porter 2012

“The two girls would always make a point of lowering their heads and pulling the trolley faster when they passed the point where The Old Man as he was known, stood. He would give his instructions as he kept track of the goods they were transporting from factory to barge and this morning they had every reason to tread carefully. Hidden in his apron pocket was a special treat for lunchtime.

“White and Callow, flagpole, now,” The Old Man barked. The girls froze – had he seen one of the lads working in the Packing Department lob a chunk of broken chocolate in their direction; did it mean they would be given the sack and what would happen when they told their parents? It didn’t bear thinking about.

“White coat and bowler hat followed them to the end of the jetty. The frightened girls turned to face what they thought at the very least would be a good ticking off, but instead of the anticipated scowl they were greeted with a friendly smile.”

Suddenly, they were thrust into the spotlight for a role that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The foreman pointed to the flagpole ropes to which had been attached a Union Flag and told the girls that, on his command, they were to pull hard on them and raise the flag to the top of the pole where it could fly proudly to signal The Great War was over.

“The girls were also instructed never to forget the part they had played in announcing to their fellow workmates that Peace had been declared.

“Mum never did forget and it was one of my favourite stories of when she was young, she told it so vividly I could almost hear the clogs clumping and feel the piece of chocolate she had hidden in her apron pocket, to share with Lily.

“The 1914 – 18 War had been thought to be the War to end all Wars but, like many of her generation my mother lived through the horrors of yet another War.”

  • An article on Ivy from Joyce’s collection

  • Ivy and her husband in the 60s and 30s

Sadly, no pictures survive of Ivy as a child and her best friend. But the story will live on forever.

In Newham, the big event will be in place from November 9 to 18.

The Shrouds of the Somme event will feature 72,396 shrouded figures, each 12 inches tall, laid out in rows on the South Park lawn, near to the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Each figure, wrapped in a hand-stitched shroud, will represent a British serviceman killed at the Battle of the Somme who has no known grave.The poignant project is the brainchild of artist Rob Heard, who got thinking about military fatalities in history while recovering from a car crash in 2013.

“I tried to count out loud the number killed in just one day at the Somme, but ran out of steam at about 1,500,” he said.He realised he needed to ‘physicalise’ the number. Each of the figures is linked to someone killed at the Somme, using records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

“As I go through the process of putting the figure within the shroud, I cross a name off. It’s vitally important that each is associated with a name, otherwise the individual gets lost in the numbers,” Rob said.“All these men are laying on the battlefield to this day and in some small way I would like to bring them home.” Rob, from Somerset, create  all 72,396 figures by November, to mark the centenary of Armistice day.

He said: “It would be like nothing else – 5,000 square metres of bodies laid out in rows, where they will be seen by thousands of people, reminding them of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.” The Shrouds of the Somme will be the second large-scale installation in London to commemorate the First World War’s centenary, following the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London. That exhibition, which was in place between July and November 2014, saw 888,246 ceramic red poppies placed in the moat, each representing one British or Colonial serviceman killed in the war.

And scores of events are taking place in Newham to celebrate Newham Heritage week, in which the Heritage Newham group is playing a big part.

All the details here: https://wordpress.com/post/heritagenewham.com/236 or at http://www.colin-grainger.co.uk

Joyce added another postscript to her mother’s story that has stayed with her for the last 21 years.

“As background to the story you may like to know that not long before she died mum tore up a photo of her family that had been kept in an old suitcase. It showed four children standing in a doorway, the two girls wore big white pinafores and they all looked clean. Both boys and girls were wearing boots and in a couple of cases, mum’s was one, it was clear to see that the uppers were coming away from the sole.  Mum was ashamed that they had lived like that. I am just sorry I don’t have that photo still.

“Times were very hard for families like my mother’s. With no savings, it was a case of pawning whatever would fetch in a few pence to buy food in the hope there would one day be enough spare cash for it to be redeemed. The arrival of the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen was eagerly awaited and in later years Mum would always find a few coppers to buy a copy of the War Cry when approached by a Sally Army Officer shaking a tin – she said she quite literally owed her life to their generosity.

“Some years ago, when waiting for my order in the local Waterstones, I was thumbing through a book on Plaistow, I could hardly believe my eyes, the whole centre fold was a picture of ladies from Seaton Street and my Nan, wrapped in a big ponny was in the centre.”

Said Joyce: “One of mum’s school prizes was a Hans Christian Anderson book of stories and another Sweet Content. She read these books to me, both are stored in the attic with some family bibles to pass on to my family. During her childhood years mum also acquired a love of poetry – when I was at school she would coach me on how to recite with feeling not to just rattle off a list of words.”

It was during the research for this piece that I came on a truly remarkable picture from 1944 in North Woolwich. An Imperial War Museum picture labelled “a grocery shop in Silvertown” showed a local clergyman shopping. Incredibly, it was North Woolwich and Clara’s, pictures of which are so rare. Even more incredibly, it showed my mother Lily serving. I recognised her instantly. It was an emotional moment that’s for sure.

  • My mother Lily, right and Clara, left

 

There was also another legacy left to Joyce by her mother so that she wouldn’t forget the end of the Second World War.

“I had just turned nine years of age on VE Day, still not too old to play with dolls.  Mum decided that I should make VE Day one of my never to be forgotten times so, she went to the big hopping box she kept under the stairs and found, in the bottom, some bunting left over from the Coronation Celebrations.

“Mum dressed me up in red, white and blue, made a pinafore of flags and draped pennants around my dolls pram. My doll Peggy who had gone everywhere with me throughout the war years, was decked out in similar fashion and off we went to Barking Park to join in the festivities there.

“How could I ever forget that?  Not sure if Peggy will remember the details, I’ll have to ask her as she is still with me, much loved and occupying pride of place with Daisy my other doll, on the bed in my spare room. As you will see, Peggy has weathered the years much better than me. Daisy’s nose started to flake many years ago hence the plaster.”

  • Joyce and her dolls

Peggy was bought for Joyce when she was three or four from the big in-and-out shop opposite Staddons in the Barking Road, Plaistow.

She added: “I chose her from all the others on show. She is very special.”

  • Treasured photo. Joyce and her mother

 

 


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