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Last Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006, 01:04 GMT 02:04 UK
Poppy factory passes test of time
By Jane Mower
BBC News, London

Poppy in production
Wooden blocks, designed for use with one hand, are still used
Tucked away in one of London's most desirable postcodes, dozens of ex-service men and women work all year round producing millions of poppies for Remembrance Sunday.

Despite the mammoth task there have been only a few changes since the first poppy factory was set up in 1922, with age-old techniques still used by the workers.

Women and dependants of those who served in the forces have since been allowed to join the team, earning what is described as a highly competitive wage producing poppies all year round.

General manager Bill Kay, 52, the driving force behind the operation in Richmond for the past seven years, said some developments in technology had helped make the factory more cost effective.

"Originally soldiers made wreaths using wire frames stuffed with straw and each poppy was individually stitched into it. Now poppies are clipped into pre-formed plastic moulds."

However, some workers still use a small wooden block, originally designed to allow amputees and soldiers who had lost the use of one hand, to construct the poppies.

2006 PRODUCTION
36m remembrance poppies (650,000 for button-holes)
105,000 wreaths
750,000 crosses
5m remembrance petals

The only modification to this simple but effective tool was to make the head flat in order to accommodate the introduction of a leaf to the poppy.

In its heyday 365 people were employed at the factory churning out a staggering 45 million poppies. Now the factory makes about 36 million of the paper and plastic flowers.

A total of 44 people are employed at the factory, backed up by a further 90 home workers living within a 10-mile radius of the hub.

As production grew, bigger premises were needed, so in 1925 the factory moved to an old brewery in Petersham Road, Richmond, south-west London

Same ethos

In 1933 the factory was rebuilt and, more than 70 years on, remains the heart of poppy production for the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mr Kay said that despite present-day demands, they uphold the principles established by Major George Howson at the first poppy factory in Old Kent Road.

"We have the same ethos here as when Major Howson started out and that is we expect people to work to the best of their ability.

Wreath-making

"Some are making 600 a day whilst others can make up to 4,000 in one day," he said.

Iris Kellett, 57, recalls being able to make a staggering 8,000 poppies a day in her younger days.

"I started making poppies 23 years ago, you get used to doing it and form a rhythm. Everyone has their own way of doing it."

Although there is only one vacant position Mr Kay said finding workers to fit their criteria and who want to do the work on offer provides a challenge.

"There are fewer people serving in the armed forces and those who are serving, or who have served, are much better looked after by the government and charities so are less likely to need the work," he said.




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