Origins of the poppy movement
The satirical magazine Punch published for the first time In Flanders fields the poppies blow on 8 December 1915. The now-famous poem was written in honour of the men who died in the First World War by a Canadian officer and doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae:
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.
In response to the poem, an American woman, Moina Michael, wrote a poem of her own, We Shall Keep the Faith. That poem first voiced the idea of keeping the poppy as a symbol for the dead:
We cherish, too, the Poppy red,
That grows on fields where valour led:
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in Honour of our dead.
Anna Guerin, War Secretary of the French YMCA, suggested to Field Marshal Earl Haig that artificial poppies be sold in Britain and that the proceeds go towards helping needy WW1 ex-servicemen and their families. The first Poppy Day was held in Britain on 11 November 1921 using French-made poppies. It was a great success and the British Legion decided to make poppies in England.
Major George Howson (1886-1936) worked to improve the lives of disabled ex-servicemen, particularly those who had lost a limb. In 1922 he met with Earl Haig and they agreed to found a factory, with £2000 Haig gave to Howson. On 5 June 1922, five workers began making poppies in Mitchell’s Collar Factory in South East London. By 1925, the number of employees had grown to 50 and larger premises were required.
An old brewery in the Petersham Road, Richmond, was purchased and converted into a factory. Adjoining land was used to build fifty-eight flats for employees of the factory and their families. Edward, Prince of Wales, laid the foundation stone for the first block on 9 November 1926. The factory in Richmond continues to make poppies and help disabled veterans back into employment to this day.
A film showing veterans making poppies in 1941 can be watched for free on the British Pathé website.