The next few weeks will see the re-emergence of those familiar red paper poppies, adorning coats and jackets everywhere from our TV screens to workplaces, schools and the High street.
Originally designed to be worn just on November 11th, remembrance poppies are now widely worn from late October until mid-November, and more than 40 million of them will be made for sale in the UK this year.
But how many of us actually know the origin of this tradition? Most will grasp the connection with the poppies that sprang up on European battlefields after the bloody horrors of the First World War – but perhaps not so many are aware that the wearing of poppies can be attributed to a century-old poem.
Penned in 1915 by Canadian physician John McCrae, the poem, “In Flanders Fields” was inspired by his witnessing of the death of his friend, and describes the humble field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders.
When the poppy was first adopted as a remembrance symbol in 1921, the artificial poppies for Britain’s first appeal had to be imported from France – but by the following year, the Disabled Society was awarded a grant of £2,000 from the British Legion for the employment of disabled ex-service people to make the symbolic red paper flowers here in England.
The Poppy Factory was set up to make them, at a former collar factory on London’s Old Kent Road, and before long, it was employing 50 disabled veterans.
By 1926, demand for the poppies had increased so much that the factory outgrew its original premises and moved on to a disused brewery in Richmond, Surrey. Housing for the workforce and their families was built on adjacent land and in 1932 the present factory was built, and continues to this day to offer work all year round for disabled veterans and dependants.
As well as making some 36 million poppies each year (a further 5 million being made at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Scotland), the operation also creates wreaths, symbols and remembrance products for the Royal Family and the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal.
In recent years, celebrities have taken to wearing somewhat showy and expensive crystal-clad poppy brooches instead of the simple paper variety – and in fact the British Legion has introduced its own range of ‘bling’ poppies.
It’s a move that some might argue, goes against the whole essence of the poppy, whose delicate form remains such a powerful symbol of the fragile beauty of life.