On the 11th November 1921, the first delicate silk poppies were sold to the public in commemoration of those who had fallen during the Great War. Almost one hundred years later, millions of poppies continue to be made, sold and worn in the UK in order to remember those lost in conflict since 1914, and to raise money to support the armed forces community.
Richmond has been the site of poppy manufacturing since 1925. Major George Howson MC, who had served on the Western Front, established his factory with the purpose of employing wounded veterans to produce the commemorative poppy. Richmond’s Poppy Factory continues to make not only poppies, but remembrance crosses, sprays and wreaths for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. Today, the factory not only employs ex-Service men and women; but also has grown into a specialist employability charity for disabled veterans. The Factory regularly opens its doors for pre-arranged tours to visitors.
Inspired by the sight of poppies growing in the battle torn fields of France, where friends and colleagues had fallen in 1915, a Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. Sitting in the visitor’s entrance to the Poppy Factory, this is how the story of this small red remembrance flower begins. An American woman, Moina Michael, wrote her own poem in reply to McCrae, whilst Frenchwoman Anna Guérin made and sold silk poppies in the U.S. and later, in Britain. The Poppy was instantly popular with the public, most of whom had suffered the loss of a brother, father, neighbour or friend during the First World War. Poppies were also produced in Scotland, in a factory established by Lady Haig in 1926. In the years since, demand for the poppy has only increased, as more men and women are lost in conflict. In the year 2010/11, 27.5 million poppies were produced in Richmond. Visitors to the Factory are reminded that the year 1968 was the only one in which not a single serviceman or woman was lost in battle.
A presentation and discussion with an incredibly knowledgeable guide is followed by a tour of the working Factory. Across rows of tables, Factory staff – once serving personnel – diligently work on wreaths and individual poppies. More than 100,000 wreaths are to be made for November, including those laid by Her Majesty the Queen and other members of the Royal Family. At a small table, visitors are invited to have a go at making their own poppy, with one crucial instruction. The poppy must be made using either only the one hand, or with eyes closed. A small and cleverly shaped wood block allows disabled employees to quickly put together a poppy – a tool used even in the early days of the Factory. In the second half of the tour, visitors are able to see the towers of boxes containing just some of the thousands of Remembrance wreaths, amongst which machines swiftly cut the poppy petals from giant rolls of bright red paper.
With Remembrance Sunday fast approaching, it is an opportunity to not only remember loved ones lost, but to reflect upon the great work done by charities to provide support and assurance for the armed forces community – as Major Howson intended to do when he opened his first factory in 1922.
A visit to the Poppy Factory is an excellent way to explore Richmond’s First World War heritage. Tours take place Monday – Thursday. For more information on attending a tour, please click here.
With thanks to Ian Tyson, for informing this blog.