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The poppy: you know why, but do you know how?

Are you aware of the part Bermondsey plays in the poppy story?

Ask any adult why the poppy is used as a symbol of remembrance and most will have reasonable idea of its significance. But when it comes to the history of who came up with the idea I believe you will encounter some blank stares.

I didn’t realise who was behind the poppy emblem we now instantly recognise and, had you asked me, I would have said I thought it was the idea of a Brit.

No arrogance, it just feels a very British thing. But, I would be wrong. It was actually the idea of an American woman. And it wasn’t until a few years after she had the inspiration that war veterans were taken on in Bermondsey to produce the poppy badges. Borough High Street is still the HQ of the Royal British Legion although production of the poppies has now moved to Aylesford Village near Maidstone in Kent.

The iconic poppy badge: a history

In a time of incredible destruction, Flanders Fields was a battleground in Belgium during the 1914-18 World War I conflict. It was an area tarnished by some of the most devastating battles, a million soldiers were wounded or lost their lives there from more than 50 different countries.

It was a Canadian surgeon, John McCrae, who created the iconic war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1915 after noticing a marvel in nature. Thousands of scarlet poppies bloomed in the war-torn area. Interestingly, poppies are one of the few flowers the that blossom naturally when the earth is ruined. A beautiful red flower flourishing among such tragic events didn’t go unnoticed.

McCrae wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
 Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
 In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Poppy lady

A lot of people, not just me, believe the popularity of the poppy originated in the UK. However, it was American war secretary Moina Michael, now known as the Poppy Lady, who conceived the idea. In 1918, two days before the Armistice was announced, Moina came across McCrae’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal. The war secretary was moved by the significance of the poppy and decided to use it as a powerful tribute to the fallen. Moina used money she earned at a conference in New York in 1918 to buy and sell 25 silk poppies to her colleagues to pin to their coat breasts.

Subsequently, Moina pledged ‘to keep the faith and always wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping faith with all who died’. Moina later campaigned for the poppy to become a national remembrance symbol which was adopted two years afterwards by the National American Legion.

The last scene morphing into a field of poppies will stay in the memory for a long time.

Poppy Day

After the high numbers of poppy sales in the States, poppy sellers travelled to London to spread the emblem. On the third anniversary of Armistice Day, the Royal British Legion marked 11-11-11, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1921 as the first UK Poppy Day – nine million poppies were sold out, raising £106,000. The next year, disabled veterans were hired in Bermondsey to make silk poppies all year round for sales in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday.

So the tradition began.

In present day, 50 veterans are hired to make a variety of poppies in different materials, such as paper and metal pin badges. The British Legion aims to reach a profit of £25 million each year. The proceedings are put towards providing help for those affected by war. Last year, £50 million was raised to support veterans of the Armed Forces.

Although poppies are naturally red that hasn’t stopped a host of other colours and materials being introduced for differing reasons. Here we list most of them.

White Poppy: The Women’s Co-operative Guild created the white poppy in 1933 to represent the loss of all life during the war, not just soldiers who fought for Britain. It started as a campaign for peace and to oppose the arms trade. The Royal British Legion was against its concept and believed it was controversial. Even though this version of the poppy was not intended to cause offence, many veterans believed this undermined the red one’s significance and their experiences. The white poppy was so controversial that many women became unemployed for wearing it. Today, it is produced by the Peace Pledge Union. Some 122,385 white poppies were sold in 2018 – the highest number to date. Proceeds go towards supporting victims of war.

Purple Poppy: The purple poppy commemorates the eight million animals who served and lost their lives during the war. This was introduced in 2006 by Animal Aid, the oldest and largest animal rights group in the UK. This poppy is intended to be worn alongside the other colours. The purple poppy badge was redesigned in 2015 to be a purple paw to show the animals as victims rather than heroes.

Black Poppy: Selena Carty, a cultural and ancestral consultant, created the black poppy in 2010 as a symbol to remember the lost lives of black, African and Caribbean soldiers. More than 350,000 black, African and Caribbean soldiers fought for the British Empire in World War I.

Khadi Poppy: Introduced by a joint effort between Lord Jitesh Gadhia and The Royal British Legion in 2018, the khadi poppy recognises the WWI contribution of more than 1.5 million people from India. The poppy is made from khadi, a cotton cloth, the same material as Gandhi’s iconic clothes. Around 40,000 are produced each year.

Digital Poppy: The poppy has also evolved with the times. In 2018, the Royal Canadian Legion introduced the digital poppy to help provide another way to donate. People who donate will be sent an image of a poppy online with a veteran’s name on. As a result, an additional 18,000 donations were made online last year.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the iconic poppy has become a successful campaign to raise money for charity. Throughout the years, additional options such as poppies alongside football crests have become increasingly popular. This style of button badge has risen in prominence thanks to its sturdiness compared with the paper poppy.

Whatever it is made from, wear your poppy with pride!

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past publications worked for include the South-East London Mercury*, Kent Messenger, Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor for an East Midlands-based publishing group.

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