Throughout this anniversary year, we’re featuring some the people who have contributed in different ways to the rich 100-year story of The Poppy Factory. There is no better person to launch the Centenary Stories series than our founder, Major George Howson MC, whose vision of employment support for veterans continues to shape our modern mission.
In a letter to his parents in May 1922, George Howson wrote: “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 disabled men. I do not think it can be a great success but it is worth trying.”
This statement by the then 35-year-old Army veteran may have been modest in its tone, but it also shows the scale of his ambition. Having witnessed first-hand the appalling tragedy of the First World War, Major Howson was determined to do something to improve the prospects of the many former soldiers who had returned from the conflict with life-changing injuries.
Within weeks of writing that letter, a team of veterans, all with physical disabilities, had been recruited and pressed into action. Howson had identified an opportunity to make Remembrance poppies and wreaths for the Royal British Legion. And as the Poppy Appeal quickly took off, Howson expanded the workforce and sought to relocate to a bigger factory in Richmond-upon-Thames.
Building a community
By 1931 the new factory was making nearly 30 million poppies a year. Over 300 men, women and children lived on the estate in rows of purpose-built flats, with a busy social club and regular sporting contests. In a few short years, they had laid the bedrock of a community that still exists today.
Tim Howson, the great nephew of George, who himself served in the RAF for over 30 years, believes this extraordinary trajectory was only made possible through a combination of factors.
“My great uncle was a very compassionate man and I think there were a number of reasons for that,” said Tim. “He served in the First World War on the Western Front at Passchendaele, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He saw the carnage and lived through it himself. Therefore, after the war, when there were a lot of badly wounded amputees all over the country, he felt a huge sympathy for them because of that shared experience.
“George’s father was a member of the clergy, so he also had a very compassionate Christian upbringing. Additionally, his personal circumstances meant that he wasn’t forced to find a living and could instead devote himself to helping others.”
In September 1918, George had married Jessie Gibson, daughter of William Gibson, the Australian owner of the Foy & Gibson department stores. When William Gibson died two months later, their large inheritance meant the newly married couple could commit to developing The Poppy Factory and later buy the land in Richmond.
Essential to the success of the project was George’s practical understanding, which he developed in part through his work as the assistant manager of a rubber estate in Borneo before the war. And equally vital were his entrepreneurial spirit and ability to capture the attention of influential people. They included the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, who visited the factory in 1924 and ordered a large Royal wreath to lay at the Cenotaph, establishing a tradition and our longstanding connection with the Royal Family.
Tim said: “George was a very practical man who had trained to become an engineer, so he was able to see things from a technical point of view. But he also had great entrepreneurial flair and made some powerful friends, like the MP Jack Cohen. He had credibility and could get things done. He had real leadership, and you can see that in the old photos because he’s always there, front and centre.”
A lasting legacy
In 1928, having established the factory and its community, Major Howson put another idea into action. He suggested using land outside Westminster Abbey as a place where anyone could plant a poppy in memory of a loved one. Initially, he and a group of factory workers gathered around a battlefield cross with a tray of poppies. Over 30,000 were planted in the grass to be replaced in later years by crosses and other symbols. With that same enterprising spirit, the Field of Remembrance was established and another tradition was born.
Tragically, George was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1936. On the way to hospital for an operation, he stopped at The Poppy Factory to hear workers sing wartime songs. Days before his death, aged just 50, Major Howson returned in an ambulance to the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, where he was greeted by King Edward VIII.
George Howson was buried at Hambleden, Henley-on-Thames, close to the home he had shared with Jessie and their four children. The funeral service was conducted by his father, by then an archdeacon and canon emeritus of Liverpool Cathedral. Each year, a representative from The Poppy Factory visits his grave to lay a wreath and pay respects to our founder.
Expanding his vision
In 2005, responding to changing needs among ex-Forces communities, The Poppy Factory began looking beyond Richmond to support veterans into all kinds of employment. In doing so we have stayed true to George Howson’s vision of employment support for veterans with health conditions, helping hundreds of veterans in England and Wales each year to move towards a more positive future.
It is an expansion of our work as a charity that Tim Howson believes would have been embraced by his great uncle.
“I’m sure George would be delighted at the direction The Poppy Factory has taken in recent years, moving beyond poppy and wreath-making to create employment opportunities for veterans wherever they are,” he said. “I think he really enjoyed his work, and it gave him a great sense of purpose. It is such a shame that he died so young.
“Although there aren’t the same number of amputees as there were in the 1920s, there are still a significant number of people who struggle to find employment after their time in the Armed Forces. George would be pleased that The Poppy Factory is working so hard to help them.”