For millions of people the simple field poppy has been the symbol of remembrance for the war dead since 1920, and its adoption was inspired by a poem written by Canadian doctor Lieutenant- General John McCrae: who in turn was moved to write it by the death of a friend, Alex Helmer, in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when McCrae noticed how poppies quickly grew around the graves of the war dead
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The rondeau was published by Punch in December 1915 and gained immediate popularity for its depiction of the sacrifice of so many men’s lives, and was also used in war propaganda and for motivation and encouragement.
Poppies became popular as an icon of public remembrance through the work of Anna Guerin of France and an American professor and humanitarian named Moina Michael of the USA, who took Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, and devised a practical way of raising vital funds for wartime charities.
Moina Michael wrote a response to McCrae’s poem entitled We Shall Keep The Faith in 1918.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
She vowed to always wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. Michael realised the need to provide financial and occupational support for ex-servicemen after teaching a class of disabled veterans at the University of Georgia, and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for them.
Moina Michael’s efforts inspired Frenchwoman Anna Guérin to suggest to the newly-formed British Legion that they should take on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ in 1921 used artificial poppies made by women and children in war-devastated areas of France.
Because the money already raised for widows and orphans could not be spent on buying poppies until after distribution to the public, Madame Guerin agreed with the British Legion’s treasury to take responsibility for the poppy order from France on the understanding that they would reimburse her afterwards. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ ended up raising £106,000. In 1921 Earl Haig set up the Earl Haig fund to assist ex-servicemen, and one of the ways that was done was the sale of paper poppies in the weeks before Armistice Day on 11th November.
The Founding of the Poppy Factory
The Poppy Factory was the brainchild and inspiration of Major George Howson, himself a serving soldier and founder with Jack Cohen MP of The Disabled Society in 1920 in response to the growing need for employment support amongst wounded veterans of the Great War. When he opened the original Poppy Factory in 1922, it was his “to give the disabled their chance.” Thousands of wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen were returning from The Great War without the means of earning a living, despite the promises of ‘a land fit for heroes,’ and Howson was sure he could do something about it.
George Howson persuaded Earl Haig that the Disabled Society should supply the appeal’s poppies to provide paid work for British veterans wounded in the war. Haig accepted and Howson was given a grant of £2,000 with which he set up a small factory off the Old Kent Road with five ex-servicemen. It was here that the first British poppies were made.
Howson wrote a moving letter to his parents of the news of the grant for the factory; “I have been given a cheque for £2,000 to make poppies with. It is a large responsibility and will be very difficult. If the experiment is successful it will be the start of an industry to employ 150 men. I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth trying. I consider the attempt ought to be made if only to give the disabled their chance.”
The workforce quickly grew to over 40 men and they made over a million poppies in 2 months. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited The Disabled Society’s Poppy Factory in November 1924. The factory made 27 million poppies that year. Most of the employees were disabled, and by then there was a long waiting list for prospective employees.
Within 10 years, the name had changed to The Poppy Factory and Howson was employing over 350 disabled veterans to make the poppies. The factory moved to Richmond in 1925 and in 1928 Howson founded the annual Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.
Within just three years, the British Legion Poppy Factory (as it had become known) had outgrown the former collar factory premises in Bermondsey as the demand for poppies increased, so in 1926 it moved to the Lansdown Brewery site in Richmond on the Petersham Road using funds donated by Howson. The charity is still based in Richmond to this day.
After George Howson’s death from pancreatic cancer in 1936, his coffin was taken to The Poppy Factory and surrounded by colourful wreaths and poppies. Every worker then took his turn to hold an hour of silent vigil in his memory.
George Howson founded the first annual Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1928 with a small band of disabled factory workers. They grouped around two battlefield crosses, familiar to those who had served in Flanders and the Western Front, with a tray of poppies and they invited passers-by to plant a poppy in the vicinity of the crosses. In the first year, there were only two memorials – one dedicated to “Tommy Atkins” – a nickname for a rank-and-file soldier in the British Army – and one to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, who had died in January that year.
In November 2014 the annual order for poppies and wreaths was the largest ever from The Royal British Legion, and the 2014 Poppy Appeal raised a record £44m for the charity. Whereas The Poppy Factory has to fundraise itself to support disabled veterans into the wider world of work, the cost of producing the poppies is recovered from The Royal British Legion. The Poppy Factory’s annual Field of Remembrance was opened in 2014 by HRH Prince Harry, and raised a record £35,000. The money raised at the Field is traditionally donated to The Royal British Legion.
With many thanks to Mel Waters and Bill Kay at the Poppy Factory for permission to use the information and photos on their site.