Remembrance Sunday: Inside The Poppy Factory

Originally founded by Major Howson MC in 1922 off The Old Kent Road, The Poppy Factory not only produces the product but also helps ex-service personnel back into work...
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Originally founded by Major Howson MC in 1922 off The Old Kent Road, The Poppy Factory not only produces the product but also helps ex-service personnel back into work...

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“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row”

So observed the Canadian soldier and poet John McCrae in his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ penned whilst fighting on the Western Front in May 1915. Of the many great poems written during the Great War few had such a lasting effect and significance than McCrae’s. His poignant words were read by an American woman Moina Michael who personally took up the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Her idea spread through her role in the American YMCA and in 1920 the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. Anna E Guérin, a French member of the YMCA shared a similar belief and before long the initiative had spread across the Atlantic. A war ravaged Europe was in need of a focal point to remember the lost generation but also to provide much needed funds for the many affected by the horrors of war. The Royal British Legion soon followed their American and French cousins and on 11 November 1921 it hosted its first official poppy day. 90 years on the poppy is as important now as it’s ever been, you only have to witness the column inches dedicated to the FA/FIFA dispute about whether the English football team can wear them on their shirts in the match against Spain to see its continued importance. This year The Poppy Factory in Richmond has made 1.7m crosses, 130,000 wreaths and a share of the 49m poppies for The Royal British Legion to distribute in their anniversary appeal.

The Poppy Factory has been based in Richmond since 1925 when it moved from its original headquarters off the Old Kent Road. The organisation originally known as The Disabled Society had been set up in 1922 by a Major George Howson MC to produce poppies for the Legion all with the express aim to employ wounded, sick and injured ex-Service personnel. The Society soon outgrew its small premises in the East End, but the move to Richmond saw no change in the ethos and ever since has been primarily staffed by those from the Armed Forces.

The Poppy Factory employs around 50 people and the majority of staff assist in the making of the products for The Royal British Legion. The Remembrance Poppy’ is the one that millions of us will be adorning. In recent times automated production of these has been introduced at the Poppy Appeal Headquarters in Aylesford, Kent. In previous years the majority of these were produced by ex-Service men and women at home with The Poppy Factory distributing the materials and collecting the finished poppies. Some years ago it was recognised that it was proving difficult to recruit Service related homeworkers and the decision was taken to introduce machines in order to guarantee the supply of an increasing numbers of poppies. That said 9m nearly 1/5 of the poppies for the 2012 appeal will still be made through the homeworkers – a phenomenal amount considering there will be around only 50 people doing the work. The General Manager of The Poppy Factory Bill Kay is keen to stress “There will always be a place for hand making some poppies on site” and the introduction of machines “has absolutely no impact on the people working at the Factory or the existing Service related homeworkers”

“Without the opportunity The Poppy Factory gave me, I would still be on the streets or in jail.”

There are many other products that the Factory has to provide that are handmade on site and none are more impressive than the Wreaths. The painstaking detail applied to the 130,000 standard ceremonial wreaths used in Services up and down the country is dwarfed by the attention paid to those used by the Royal Family at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. These can take up to 3 weeks to make, each stamen inside the poppy is handmade from brush bristles and is expertly and carefully put together by the proud and dedicated staff. The final result fit for a King…or Queen.

The Remembrance crosses are another important product that the Factory has to produce. A feature of many gardens of Remembrance the crosses don’t just cater for those of the Christian Faith. There are wooden symbols for those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths and even those with no faith at all, the plain non-denominational stick. John a long term employee at the Factory is keen to point out the new addition of the Sikh Khanda. This has been introduced this year after a member of the Sikh community got in touch and asked for a symbol of remembrance for the members of their religion.

The crosses are also a feature of the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey that the Poppy Factory set up and organise every year. The Factory’s founder Major Howson MC started the Field in 1928 with a few disabled ex-Service men from The Poppy Factory. They grouped around a battlefield cross, familiar to those who had served in Flanders and the Western Front. With a tray of poppies, they invited passers-by to plant a poppy in the vicinity of the cross. It has grown to this day with over 370 plots for regimental and other associations to organise. It’s an event that gives a very public face to the work the charity does and something that those who work there are extremely proud of.

All the work undertaken by The Poppy Factory is a job in itself which requires full attention all year round and not just in the run up to the Remembrance events in November. There is now though a second and just as important strand to the organisation’s efforts that is crucial in meeting the changing demands of the modern world. The nature and location of the work in Richmond doesn’t suit everyone particularly those who rely heavily on a support network of family and friends to overcome the difficulties any former member of the Armed Forces may be suffering. In June this year, The Poppy Factory announced its intention to assist over 500 wounded, injured and sick ex-Service men and women get back to work across the UK over the next 5 years. So far over 80 wounded, sick and injured veterans of all ages have been helped get jobs. The Poppy Factory has found and matched employers with ex-Service personnel and even part funded their first year’s salary in a number of cases.

The Poppy Factory announced its intention to assist over 500 wounded, injured and sick ex-Service men and women get back to work across the UK over the next 5 years.

One of those helped by The Poppy Factory was Nigel Berry who was in Coldstream Guards before being injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. This resulted in nine months hospitalisation only for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to seriously affect him, his marriage broke down and he eventually ended up homeless. The Poppy Factory helped Nigel get back to work, and get a full time job. In his own words “Without the opportunity The Poppy Factory gave me, I would still be on the streets or in jail.” Service in the Armed Forces whether it be in the current theatres of war such as Iraq and Afghanistan or even those further back in time like the tours in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands can have a devastating effect on people but thanks to the initiative hundreds of ex-service personnel have much needed assistance in ‘getting back to work’. The fact that this stays true to the ethos of the organisation and its founder Major Howson MC who was determined to help those affected makes this new emphasis even more relevant.

It’s not just Sabotage Times contributors who get the opportunity to see the great work of the Factory, there are twice daily tours of the site which includes an excellent 30 minute presentation on all things ‘Poppy’. The tour of the actual site is very interactive, you even get to make your own poppy. It’s free and the organisation is keen to see more of those of an age in between the most welcome school children and old age pensioners to give an insight into the Factory. If that wasn’t enough you even get complimentary tea and biscuits from the in-house canteen.

Major Howson MC very much the ‘founding father’ of The Poppy Factory didn’t get many things wrong in his distinguished life but he wrote a letter to his family days after he was assigned the task of getting things started back in 1922 “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 many that have benefited and continue to benefit as result of the Factory’s work are pleased that he gave it a try. The Major would no doubt be extremely proud of his work and the legacy he left in a little corner of West London that has and will continue to assist the brave men that serve our country, at the same time helping us all to remember and pay our respects to the fallen.

Have a look at www.poppyfactory.org for further details of the tours and the Factory.

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