A visit to the Poppy Factory is a unique and rewarding experience, providing a chance to step briefly into the world of poppy making and remembrance that dominates the national consciousness in November of every year. A registered charity, they provide employment and raise funds for military veterans from their historic site in Richmond, south-west London.
The wreaths that you see laid at the Cenotaph and at war memorials around the country are made at the Poppy Factory with a great sense of pride and satisfaction. A visit to the factory and learning its history pays tribute not only to those who died in war, but helps to support those who have survived the physical and emotional trauma of military service.
A Brief History of the Poppy Factory
The horrors of World War I are forever etched into the national memory of not just the UK, but the other countries who fought alongside them. It was a brutal war and the early promises of, 'It'll be over by Christmas' soon changed, with men spending days on end, knee deep in mud and filth as the endless pattern of trench warfare was developed and they were risking their lives for little more than a few metres of land each time. The once peaceful French countryside became a pock-marked landscape of mud, death and disease.
In the first spring of the war, 1915, the artillery shelling of the Western Front in France and Belgium had disturbed the ground to such an extent that poppy seeds, which had lain dormant for years in the soil and fertilised by the nitrogen from the bombs, burst into spectacular colour. Soldiers who had spent the winter in the damp and cold trenches marvelled at the sight, picked the poppies and sent them home in letters to their families or stuck them between the pages of their diaries. It was in that year also that the Canadian physician, John McCrae, serving in dressing stations in Belgium, wrote his poem In Flanders Field:
In Flanders Field, the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row
The words resonated with so many who were left bereaved or severely affected by the carnage of the conflict, and the poppy began to represent lives lost, remembrance, and the hope for a peaceful future.
The creation of poppies came out of the work of two women. An American professor, Moina Belle Michael, conceived the idea of selling red poppies to show support and gratitude for the troops after reading John McCrae's poem and vowed to, "always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping the faith with all who died." She was the first person to make and sell red poppies.
Simultaneously, French school teacher Anna Guerin who was living in the USA, held poppy days in several states and wanted to spread the concept further afield. She decided to mass produce poppies from silk, employing women and children in war-ravaged France to make them. She tried to persuade the American Legion to adopt the symbol of the red poppy but was unsuccessful, so in 1921 she appealed to the newly formed British Legion and won the support of Earl Haig. The poppies were sold in return for a donation and that year, 9 million poppies were made and sold. Earl Haig saw the huge potential for raising money for those under his command who had suffered so much, and he now wanted a British supplier.
Major George Howson, a survivor of the Western Front, had formed The Disabled Society in 1920 and was desperate to find help for members; ex-servicemen who had been so severely physically or mentally wounded that they could not return to their pre-war jobs.
He proposed to Haig that a factory should be founded to make the poppies and that the employees should be disabled veterans. Haig agreed, Howson was given £2000, and within a few weeks a factory was established in the Old Kent Road with just five disabled servicemen. By 1924 the workforce had expanded hugely and the factory that year made 27 million poppies. In 1926 it moved to its larger, still existing premises at Richmond.
In 1928 Howson instituted the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, and the factory also began the manufacture of crosses and wreaths as well as buttonhole poppies. From these early beginnings, the factory expanded to become a vibrant community, with flats built for the workers and their families, and a thriving “estate”, providing much needed income for those who otherwise would have struggled to find occupation and purpose in their lives. Women were allowed to become employees from 1959.
The factory still employs ex-servicemen and although they no longer make the individual poppies, they still make the wreaths, including those you see placed on the Cenotaph every November.
A Visit to the Poppy Factory
In 2021, the Poppy Factory opened its doors to visitors, mostly in large groups but with some days reserved for individuals. The Visitor Centre was revamped and it now welcomes an increasing number of people each year who are keen to find out more about poppies and learn about the charitable work which takes place in this historic and pretty corner of west London.
A visit begins with a short presentation about the origin of the poppy itself as a powerful and nationally recognised symbol of remembrance and of the circumstances which led to the foundation of the factory in 1922, four years after the ending of the Great War in 1918. Our tour guide vividly depicted the horrors of the trenches and the simple joy which would have been found in the bright red poppies growing amongst the bleak, war torn mud. She told us how poppies were placed in with letters and sent home, how they were something the soldiers actually could write about without fear of the censor's black pen.
The visitors are then allowed to wander around the visitor centre which incorporates a museum and displays as well as more hands-on activities, including trying their hands at making poppies themselves. The original wooden block design devised by George Howson is used and you are encouraged to make them one-handed as so many of those early veterans were compelled through loss of limb to do. You are provided with stems, leaves, red flowers and black centres and given simple instruction by the kindly volunteers. You may keep a couple of your poppies and put any more in the box, ready for shipping to the British Legion who will sell them in the future.
You can also make the wreaths that are laid on town and village war memorials every year. You leave your enthusiastic – but somewhat imperfect – efforts for the veterans to reshape later, and they too will be used when November comes around. The buttonhole poppies are no longer made here at Richmond as inevitably machines have taken over and they are now produced at a modern factory in Aylesford in Kent, but the veterans here continue to make the wreaths by hand, and some still live in those early flats in a nearby building.
The Poppy Factory has always had royal patronage and today’s patron is now Queen Camilla. The Visitors Centre has many photographs of royal visits and also displays the wreaths laid at the Cenotaph. A new wreath had to be hastily made for King Charles III in November 2022 just two months after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The King himself was closely involved in its design. It features the outer ring of laurel leaves to symbolise bravery, honour and victory and the bow is similar to that of his grandfather King George VI. The wreath of the Prince of Wales also had to be remade for Prince William, and Queen Camilla also has a wreath made to her own specification. After the Remembrance Service each year these wreaths are collected, cleaned, dried and repaired so that they can be reused.
Today the Poppy Factory’s role main charitable role is the support offered to survivors of more recent conflicts, and you can read some of their stories in the displays. Since 2001 it has helped over 1500 veterans with complex health and social needs, setting those with physical disabilities and those with PTSD on the road to employment and continuing to support them as long as the help is needed. One area of the Centre is devoted to the kind of assistance offered, with many letters and photos showing the gratitude that many feel.
The visitor centre has a café which makes excellent coffee and delicate cakes, served in some very beautiful poppy crockery, which we just couldn't resist buying from the small gift shop on the way out.
All of the entrance fee for the visit is donated to the charitable work finding employment for ex-service personnel. You leave with a strong sense that George Howson’s vision of 1922, that “disabled men should be given their chance”, is flourishing still over 100 years later.
It is a fascinating and highly informative visit and one which is well worth making.
Visiting the Poppy Factory
Book your tickets: Poppy Factory website
Nearest tube station: Richmond