The Royal British Legion was founded in 1921 with the aim of supporting the survivors (and their families) who had fought in World War One but were unable to look after themselves once the war had ended. The first Legion Poppy Day was held on November 11th 1921 and the sale of poppies has continued in the lead up to Armistice Day each year to raise money to ensure that the Royal British Legion continues with its work.
An American, Moina Michael, first started the sale of poppies made from red silk, as she wanted a method of raising money to help former US servicemen who could no longer look after themselves. In 1920 the poppy was adopted as America’s national emblem of remembrance. Michael was inspired by John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders’ Field". Madame Guerin, a Frenchwoman working in America to raise money to help the war disabled of France, persuaded Earl Haig to adopt the poppy for the British Legion.
In the UK poppies were (and still are) made at the Poppy Factory in Richmond, which had been opened by Major George Howson, MC, in 1922. Howson had formed the Disabled Society to help former servicemen from World War One. It was Howson who suggested to the Royal British Legion that disabled former soldiers of the Disabled Society could make poppies that could then be sold to the public to raise money for the British Legion. The original poppies were simple in design so that anyone with a disability could assemble them – the principle remains to this day. Howson himself was not convinced that his idea would work. He wrote to this parents that:
“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 original Poppy Factory was based just off the Old Kent Road and employed just 5 people. It was funded by a grant of £2000 from the Unity Relief Fund. However, within months the work force had grown to 50 and in 1925 Howson moved the factory to a former brewery in Richmond. A new factory was built in Richmond in 1933. Flats were also built for the workforce there.
In 1926 a similar factory had been built in Scotland by the wife of Earl Haig and the Lady Haig Poppy Factory continues to produce poppies – but with four petal lobes as opposed to the two-lobed poppies made in Richmond.
The venture that Major Howson believed was less than likely to succeed became a huge success. However, the sheer work involved exhausted Howson and he died in 1933 aged just 50. In recognition of what he started, the Poppy Factory still sends a special poppy wreath to his surviving family on the anniversary of his death.
In 2008, 38 million poppies have been ordered.