International Woman’s Day Special – The Women Behind The Poppy

8th March 2017

As early as 1918, the year the First World War ended, poppies became popular as an icon of public Remembrance due to the work of Anna Guerin of France and Moina Michael of the USA. They 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.

Anna Guérin, Sept 1921

Moina Micheal, 1918

Original Remembrance Poppy, 15 May 1921

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.

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.

Because the money already raised for widows and orphans could not be spent on buying poppies until after distribution 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.

Lady Dorothy Haig (Countess Haig), 1928

From its establishment in 1923, The Earl Haig Fund acquired its poppies from England. In 1926, Countess Haig, wife of the Field Marshal, suggested that a factory, employing those men disabled by war, should be started to make poppies for Scotland. The suggestion was taken up by Earl Haig’s “Appeal Organisation” and premises, in the form of an old wood-chopping factory in the grounds of Whiteford House, were acquired. From a humble start, in March 1926, of “two workers, a pair of scissors and a piece of paper”, numbers soon rose to twenty eight by which time, the bulk of the poppies required for Scotland had been made. And there was a waiting list of 117 men who wished to be employed by the factory.

It was February 1926 before Earl Haig and his wife, Lady Doris, convinced the Earl Haig Fund that Scotland needed a poppy factory of its own. A site was identified in Edinburgh’s Canongate and in the run-up to November’s Poppy Appeal 28 men were employed, most of which were classified by the pension authorities as disabled.  The Lady Haig Poppy Factory employed disabled ex-servicemen to make poppies for Scotland so that it didn’t have to buy English poppies.

During the run up to the end of the decade, the demand for poppies and wreaths was met while, in 1928, the introduction of “stuffed toys and jigsaw puzzles” heralded an expansion of activity into a wide range of hand-crafted goods. Wreaths were made with locally grown laurel leaves, wax poppy seeds and moss which was gathered by Girl Guides.

Today the Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Edinburgh hand makes over 5 million poppies each year as well as producing over 10,000 wreaths to order. They also process over 25,000 collection tins and make up and dispatch orders to Poppy Appeal Area Organisers all over Scotland.