The evolution of The Poppy Factory
Nearly a century ago, when Major George Howson MC opened his factory in 1922, he had but one dream: “to give the disabled their chance.” Thousands of wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen were returning from The Great War without the means of earning a living and Howson was sure he could do something about it.
Poppies had become popular as an icon of public Remembrance through the work of Anna Guerin of France and Moina Michael of the USA, who took Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and devised a practical way of raising vital funds for wartime charities. The British Legion had been set up the year before and the very first Poppy Appeal – using silk poppies made by widows in France – had raised £106,000.
Scroll down for a timeline of our history.
Howson saw his chance and asked Earl Haig (founder of the British Legion) if he could make the poppies for their next Poppy Appeal. Howson had been given a cheque for £2,000 and used it to set up The Disabled Society with just 6 staff. Within 10 years, the name had changed to The Poppy Factory and Howson was employing over 350 disabled veterans to make the poppies. The factory moved to Richmond in 1925 and in 1928 Howson founded the annual Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey. Towards the end of the century, the needs of veterans started to change. They wanted to work in their local communities, to be closer to their families, and to utilise the wide variety of skills that they learned during their time in HM Armed Forces. This was the cue to innovate. In 2010, The Poppy Factory embarked upon a hopeful venture – much like Howson did in 1922 – and took their expertise for employing disabled ex-Service personnel on the road to help veterans find the work they wanted in the places they wanted to be. The Poppy Factory has now built upon its strong historical foundations to provide an exceptional employability service that supports hundreds of ex-Service personnel with health challenges into rewarding employment with businesses across the country every year.
In Flanders Fields written13 May 1915
After presiding over the funeral of a friend who died in the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was inspired to write the famous war poem, In Flanders Fields. The poem contains the famous lines, “If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields”.
Moina Michael9 November 1918
An American Professor and humanitarian named Moina Michael wrote a response to McCrae’s poem entitled We Shall Keep The Faith in 1918. She vowed to always wear a poppy as a symbol of Remembrance for those who served in the war. Michael realised the need to provide financial and occupational support for ex-Servicemen after teaching a class of disabled veterans at the University of Georgia, and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for them.
The Disabled Society founded1 January 1920
The Disabled Society (later to become The Poppy Factory) was founded shortly after the end of WW1 by Major George Howson MC and Jack Cohen MP in response to the growing need for employment support amongst wounded Servicemen returning from the Great War.
Earl Haig’s fund15 May 1921
Moina Michael’s efforts inspired Frenchwoman, Madame Anna Guérin, to suggest to the newly-formed British Legion to take on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ in 1921 used artificial poppies made by women and children in devastated areas of France.
Anna Guerin1 September 1921
Because the money already raised for widows and orphans could not be spent on buying poppies until after distributioon to the public, Madame Guerin agreed with the British Legion’s treasury to take responsibility for the poppy order from France on the understanding that they would reimburse her afterwards. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ ended up raising £106,000.
The Disabled Society makes poppies1 April 1922
George Howson persuaded Earl Haig that the Disabled Society should supply the appeal’s poppies to provide paid work for British veterans wounded in the war. Haig accepted and Howson was given a grant of £2,000 with which he set up a small factory off the Old Kent Road with five ex-Servicemen. It was here that the first British poppies were made.
Howson’s letter home14 May 1922
Howson wrote a moving letter to his parents of the news; “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 early years1 August 1922
The workforce quickly grew to over 40 men and they made over a million poppies in 2 months.
Prince of Wales visit1 November 1924
The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited The Disabled Society’s Poppy Factory in November 1924. The factory made 27 million poppies that year. Most of the employees were disabled, and by then there was a long waiting list for prospective employees.
The Poppy Factory moves to Richmond1 January 1925
Within just three years, the The British Legion Poppy Factory (as it had become known) had outgrown the former collar factory premises in Bermondsey as the demand for poppies increased, so it moved to the Lansdown Brewery site in Richmond on the Petersham Road using funds donated by Howson. The charity is still based in Richmond to this day.
The new building1 January 1926
First annual Field of Remembrance1 January 1928
George Howson founded the first annual Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1928 with a small band of disabled factory workers. They grouped around two battlefield crosses, familiar to those who had served in Flanders and the Western Front, with a tray of poppies and they invited passers-by to plant a poppy in the vicinity of the crosses. In the first year, there were only two memorials – one dedicated to “Tommy Atkins” – a nickname for a rank-and-file soldier in the British Army – and one to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, who had died in January that year.
The new factory1 January 1932
Housing for the workers and their families was built on adjacent land and in 1932 the present factory was built. In its heyday, The Poppy Factory was employing over 350 people – as seen in this photo from the same period.
Workers in Richmond1 January 1936
Howson’s death1 June 1936
After George Howson’s death from pancreatic cancer in 1936, his coffin was taken to The Poppy Factory and surrounded by colourful wreaths and poppies. Every worker then took his turn to hold an hour of silent vigil in memorium.
Original Bermondsey factory demolished1 January 1972
Poppy Appeal raised over £3.5m1 January 1978
Poppy centre name change1 January 1994
The centre of the remembrance poppy had always read “Haig Fund”, the name for the early poppy appeal. In 1994 it was changed to “Poppy Appeal”. Here is the old factory foreman, Bill Williams, with the biggest silk poppy ever made at the time in 1933.
Veterans’ needs change1 January 2000
Come the turn of the century, it became apparent that people were leaving the Armed Forces with a range of transferable skills, and veterans wanted to work closer to their families in their own communities across the country. As the factory workforce began to decline, automation took up the slack as the demand for remembrance products was still high.
First veterans supported into external work1 January 2005
The Poppy Factory had often been used as a stepping-stone from conflict or rehabilitation into other employment. In 2005, The Poppy Factory started supporting disabled veterans into employment within civilian businesses around the country.
Getting You Back to Work programme launched1 January 2010
After a few successful experiments, The Poppy Factory launched a formal programme to support veterans with health challenges into paid employment not just in the factory, but around the whole country – furthering George Howsons’s original vision. Employability and occupational health experts were recruited regionally and partnerships with employers were forged to provide opportunities for veterans.
The Queen visits TPF1 November 2012
Her Majesty The Queen visited The Poppy Factory herself in 2012, to see first-hand how Howson’s mission to help disabled ex-Service personnel is still alive to this day.
Duchess of Cornwall becomes Patron1 October 2013
Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall became The Poppy Factory’s sole Patron in 2013 in an effort to boost awareness of The Poppy Factory as an independent charity. The Duchess visited the factory and met some of the disabled veterans that TPF has helped into civilian employment elsewhere.
Biggest-ever Poppy Appeal1 November 2014
The annual order for poppies and wreaths was the largest ever from The Royal British Legion, and the 2014 Poppy Appeal raised a record £44m for the charity. Whereas The Poppy Factory has to fundraise itself to support disabled veterans into the wider world of work, the cost of producing the poppies is recovered from The Royal British Legion.
Biggest-ever Field of Remembrance1 November 2014
The Poppy Factory’s annual Field of Remembrance was opened in 2014 by HRH Prince Harry, and raised a record £35,000. The money raised at the Field is traditionally donated to The Royal British Legion.
500 people helped through Getting You Back to Work1 September 2015
When the GYBTW service was launched, a target was set to support 500 disabled ex-Serivce personnel into sustainable work by 2016. In the summer of 2015 this ambitious milestone was reached – proving that there is a national requirement for The Poppy Factory’s life-changing work.
The Poppy Factory helps 1000 people into work6 September 2018
Since 2015, we have helped a further 500 veterans find civilian employment. This brings our overall figure to 1000 veterans helped by our Getting You Back to Work programme since it was launched in 2010. The public were instrumental in helping us reach our target in 2018 with the #1000messages campaign. However, it is vitally important we continue working hard to support more veterans, as we estimate there are at least 20,000 more who need our help.