The Poppy Factory in Richmond - lest we forget
PUBLISHED: 00:07 11 November 2011 | UPDATED: 18:49 29 April 2014
As thoughts turn to Remembrance Sunday, people all over the country will be wearing their poppy with pride. But did you know that every single one of the 49 million poppies we’ll be pinning to our lapels was made here in Surrey? Tracy Cook pays a visit to the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory in Richmond where they have been producing the nation’s poppies for over 75 years
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2011
Everybody will be wearing one: from the Queen to David Cameron, from newsreaders to shop assistants. But as you slip your coins in that collection box and pin that poppy to your lapel, have you ever wondered where all those poppies actually come from?
Here, among the piles of red petals and boxes of green stems, amid the low hum of the radio and the chatter of a visiting Rotary group, it seems extraordinary to think that every single poppy any of us wears has passed through this one large room in Surrey.
For this is the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory in Richmond. And this year they are making an astonishing 49 million poppies – their largest amount ever.
“Our target has increased significantly year on year,” says Melanie Waters, the Poppy Factory’s chief executive. “And, in addition to that, we are also making 1.7 million crosses and 130,000 wreaths.
“There’s more awareness of conflict now and that encourages people to be more thoughtful and to donate more.”
A Surrey contribution
Certainly, Surrey has taken the Poppy Appeal to heart, raising over £1 million last year. In fact, the county is now the fifth highest ranked region in the country for donating.
And Surrey’s contribution to the appeal doesn’t end there. “There are 46 people working here,” says Melanie. “We employ wounded, sick or injured ex-service people, alongside disabled people with a service connection, and we have homeworkers who make a high volume for us too.”
The Poppy Factory is a charity in its own right, but makes all the poppies at cost price for the Royal British Legion’s annual appeal.
Today, there is a Fifties style atmosphere, with the staff calmly sitting at tables assembling poppies in the traditional way, boxes at their feet overflowing with the hundreds they have already made this morning. When the 12.30 lunch bell goes, everyone downs tools and heads for the canteen or whips out a Thermos of tea and sandwiches.
Next door are heavy drums of the special colourfast red paper, like giant loo rolls. Dave Brown, from Ham, who damaged his spine while serving as an electrical mechanic in the Navy, is feeding the paper into machines. They cut 10,000 petals in just two-and-a-half minutes and the poppies are designed so that someone who has lost the use of an arm can assemble them with just one hand.
Sitting nearby, Bill Sellick is proud to be making wreaths. Formerly a Corporal in the Royal Green Jackets for six years and having served four tours in Northern Ireland, he now suffers from combat stress. Across the room, Ian Lindsay, a disabled dependant of an ex-service person, is assembling poppies. He is one of the two husband and wife teams at the factory – and after 25 years working together they still want to sit next to each other! “I have to keep an eye on him!” laughs his wife Gillian. “We enjoy working together here.”
Every week, lorry loads of poppies are taken from the Richmond factory to be stored at the British Legion’s Poppy Appeal headquarters in Kent, ready to be distributed in the lead-up to Remembrance Sunday.
“They give us our order in June, 15 months before they want the poppies, and we then set production targets of how many hundreds of thousands to make each week,” explains Bill Kay, general manager. “We plan very carefully, so there are no big surprises. We don’t do pressure here, because of the nature of the workforce.
“We deliver our final batch at the end of September. We have a small celebration in the canteen – a buffet and a drink – to thank everyone for their contribution and give ourselves a small pat on the back. Then, the next day, we start work on next year’s order!”
A Royal warrant
The Poppy Factory even makes the wreaths that the Queen and the Royal Family lay on Remembrance Day. “They are very ornate and can take two or three weeks to make each one, but every one has been made by hand, by someone here,” says Melanie.
“The flowers look almost real, but the stamens are bristles cut off a broom! Then they are dipped in glue and green dyed sawdust, before being wrapped in red silk to make each flower.” The Queen has visited the factory several times and the photos of each occasion are proudly on display.
The Poppy Factory also plants crosses in the 250 regimental plots in the Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. The Duke of Edinburgh holds a service there on the Thursday before Remembrance Day.
“He is very supportive and always walks round the Field of Remembrance,” explains Melanie. “From early November, we spend a week placing 80,000 crosses, each representing the fallen men and women from the armed services. We put on wellies and gloves, as it’s always wet and we’re always on our knees, but it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to plant crosses on behalf of other people.”
Art deco building
The Poppy Factory has been producing the nation’s poppies here since 1933. Tucked away behind Richmond’s Petersham Road, it’s a beautiful art deco building, the poppy flag flying proudly on the roof. The first ‘official’ poppy went on sale in 1922, after Major George Howson MC, a First World War veteran, founded the original poppy factory off the Old Kent Road to provide work for five injured servicemen.
Ironically, he said in a letter, now displayed at the factory, “I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth trying… if only to give the disabled their chance.” Little could he have guessed how the symbol of the remembrance poppy, originally based on a 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, would capture the public’s imagination.
Today, the Poppy Factory is developing Howson’s idea of assisting injured servicemen in finding work. It has recently launched an appeal to raise £4 million to help 500 disabled former service people find jobs in the wider community and has successfully placed 60 veterans in companies across the UK.
Meanwhile, visitors are welcome to the factory, which offers daily group tours. Brian Love, a former Kingston University professor, now turned guide, explains: “Whatever age the groups that visit – and I’ve had Chelsea Pensioners, WI ladies and schoolchildren – it is a real privilege to give meaning to remembrance. There was one little girl who told me her Daddy had died in Iraq. We were able to go straight into the factory and all her friends helped make a wreath for her.”
So wear your poppy with pride and spare a thought for those dedicated men and women at Richmond’s Poppy Factory, who, whatever the time of year, just keep making poppies. All 49 million of them.
NEED TO KNOW:
The Royal British Legion Poppy Factory, 20 Petersham Road, Richmond TW10 6UR. Guided tours take place from Monday to Thursday starting at 10.30am and at 1.30pm. The tour takes about one hour and 30 minutes and includes a cup of tea and biscuits. Numbers are limited to 42 people at a time so please book in advance. Donations welcome. Tel: 0208 940 3305 / e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / website: www.poppyfactory.org.
Poppies by numbers
This year, the Poppy Factory in Richmond has made for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal…
- 49 million poppies
- 1.7 million crosses
- 130,000 wreaths