Guest blog: follow the poppies

Our latest guest blog is by Joe Thorogood, a former student in the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module at Exeter University who is in the early stages of a ‘follow the things’ PhD in the Department of Geography at University College London. His research is on poppies. In the post below, he outlines what he’s found out so far about the Remembrance Day variety. As usual with following research, you may be surprised by what he finds.

Royal British Legion poppy: click for source

The Remembrance poppy is a symbol of memorial. In the couple of weeks before November 11th – Remembrance Day – these poppies are available in exchange for a charitable donation to the Royal British Legion, a UK charity that provides services for ex-military personnel and their dependents. It is worn in the UK in memory of service personnel who died in the First World War and in wars since then. It’s a symbol for personal grief and reflection, but also of national loss. Many countries have poppies shipped out to expatriates and families who have relatives who fought on behalf of the British Empire and British army in campaigns abroad.

I’m researching Remembrance poppies for my PhD, using a methodology that studies the lives and issues that are connected through their travels and transformations as things.

It wasn’t hard to find out about how and where Remembrance poppies are made. You could do it yourself by simply visiting the Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey,  where they make about 500,000 of the poppies the public wear. Ex-service personnel and their dependents are crucial to this effort, as they often work in the factory or are supported by factory to find employment after leaving the armed forces.

The poppy factory: click for source

A factory you can visit: click for source

This factory is more symbolic than anything.  Most poppies are now made in another factory in Aylesford, Kent which has specialised machinery that can produce the 50 million poppies needed every year (Graham, 2010). As ever, the switch to mechanised production was deemed to save the costs of manual labour, allowing more money to directly fund the charitable work of the Royal British Legion.

The Remembrance poppy is a fairly simple affair. It’s comprised of four parts. The red paper flower and green leaf are designed and produced by James Cropper plc, a bespoke manufacturer of paper and textiles working for the Royal British Legion since 1978 (White 2014). It’s not just normal paper they produce. It has to be waterproof to stop the colours running into people’s clothes. It has to be biodegradable, since after

Poppy-making paper at the factory (source: author).

Poppy-making paper at the factory (source: author).

November 11th nobody wants the floors littered with poppies. It’s no longer legal to cast wreaths into rivers due to pollution. This affects naval remembrance ceremonies. The materialities of these objects speak back to and influence remembrance practices.

The plastic parts are where it gets really interesting. The black plastic centre and the green plastic stem are produced by injection moulding. The load is split between 2 companies, SB Weston Ltd who produce over a million parts for the RBL each week, and HMP Ford, a former military base now a prison that pays inmates to produce injection moulded plastic stems. .

In what is dubbed the “Rehabilitation Revolution” (Ministry of Justice, 2013) around 10,000 prisoners are now employed to do jobs in textiles, laundry and printing in the UK. The Ministry of Justice hopes to see up to 20,000 prisoners working up to 40 hour weeks (Whitehead, 2012) and has launched ONE3ONE solutions, an organisation charged with increasing the amount of prisoners in paid employment.

HMP Ford, where stems are made: click for source

HMP Ford, where stems are made: click for source

It is argued that the growth of work prisons will reduce re-offending and provide prisoners with useful skills for employment upon release. Penal labour is not without its critics, as the Campaign against Prison Slavery argues that inmates are paid as little as £10 for a 40 hour week, are not allowed to unionise or strike. Black & Bros (2010, p.7) see penal labour as “ostensibly the same as that of Victorian reformists … but ever growing prison population helps provide a steady and compliant workforce”.  What’s interesting is that, in 2012, 20 of HMP Ford’s 521 inmates were believed to be military veterans (NHS Sussex 2012), some of whom may have made those poppy parts.

For me, what’s most important in all of this are the relations between nationalism, remembrance and the logics of economic production. The blending of the symbolic and material. The Daily Mail newspaper often reports on the work undertaken at the poppy factory, helping cement the poppy further into the British psyche. The factory has been visited royalty on numerous occasions (Tweedy, 2012).  In these stories, British poppies are handmade by British service personnel for national British remembrance services. It’s Marx’s commodity fetish masking the conditions of labour and contributing to an imagined community of the British nation.

But there are alternative stories of the poppy to tell about the UK’s nationalistic heritage and geopolitics? What about David Cameron being asked to remove his Poppy on a visit to China because it was a reminder of the British humiliation of China during the Opium Wars (Chapman, 2010)? Where does the plastic for the injection moulding come from? Could it be China? Possibly. And what about the opium trade, then and now, following the ‘real poppies’?

Is Cameron’s visit to China the only time and place where those histories and connections crossed eachother’s paths. We will see.


Black, J. & Bros, B.(2010) The Prison Works: Occasional Texts on The The Roles of Prison and Prison Labour. Brighton: Campaign against Prison Slavery.

Chapman, J. (2010) David Cameron rejects Chinese request to remove ‘offensive’ poppies during visit. Daily Mail 10 November ( last accessed 16/06/2014)

Duell, M. (2014) Red alert! Behind the scenes at British firm which has started producing 155 MILES of paper used to make 50m poppies in time for Remembrance Day (which is only 112 days away). Daily Mail 20 July ( last accessed 22/07/14)

Graham, M. (2012) Video, millions of poppies start life at the Royal British Legion Village in Aylesford. Kent Online 9 November ( last accessed 16/06/14)

Ministry of Justice (2013) Transforming Rehabilitation: A revolution in the way we manage offenders. Consultation paper CP1/2013, The Stationary Office, London.

NHS Sussex (2012) Military Veterans Health Needs Assessment – Sussex 2012. Brighton: NHS Sussex ( last accessed 25 July 2014)

Tweedy, J. (2012) Secrets of the Poppy Factory: A tour of the site where these potent symbols are made. Daily Mail 1 November ( last accessed 16/06/2014)

White, A. (2014) Meet the company behind our remembrance poppies. The Telegraph 24 May ( last accessed 16/06/2014)

Whitehead, T. (2012) Ken Clarke to double number of prisoners working full time. The Telegraph 3 January (  last accessed 17/06/14)

Follow the progress of Joe’s research on twitter and 


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