Poppies from a lady in 2011

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by Laura Gibson

It’s that time of year again, when our thoughts and minds go to those who went to fight for our freedoms and never made it home.  This year, with the date falling on 11/11/11 that small detail seems to add something even more poignant, if that’s possible.

The Scottish Poppy Appeal is marking its 90th anniversary this year, and no one is more aware of the significance of this than those who work at the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh.  The factory itself is staffed by around 40 disabled ex-servicemen who work to bring together the poppy appeal each year.

by Laura Gibson

It’s that time of year again, when our thoughts and minds go to those who went to fight for our freedoms and never made it home.  This year, with the date falling on 11/11/11 that small detail seems to add something even more poignant, if that’s possible.

The Scottish Poppy Appeal is marking its 90th anniversary this year, and no one is more aware of the significance of this than those who work at the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh.  The factory itself is staffed by around 40 disabled ex-servicemen who work to bring together the poppy appeal each year.

Five million poppies are hand-made every year here, as well as the 10,000 wreaths used for private and public remembrance services.  The factory staff also prepare the 25,000 collection tins which are seen on high streets up and down the British Isles, and offer a unique picture-framing service.

But who was Lady Haig and why did she get involved in all this?  Dorothy Maud Vivian (pictured right) married Earl Haig who had been the Commander of the British Forces in the First World War.  Earl Haig had previously started the Earl Haig Fund which centred around a poppy appeal for England.  Lady Haig felt that the same should be done in Scotland and thus the project was born in 1926.  The austere beginnings, described famously as “two workers, a pair of scissors and a piece of paper” soon gave way to a waiting list of 117 men who all wanted to work there.

In 1928, alongside the poppies and wreaths, stuffed toys and jigsaw puzzles were also sold to raise much-needed funds.  The wreaths themselves were made with locally grown laurel leaves, wax poppy seeds and moss gathered by the Girl Guides.

By 1934 that waiting list had grown to 338, with 117 employed.  The Poppy Factory was not seen as a charity in those days but as “a self help movement run on strict business lines. No doles are given, the employees being paid by results”.  At various times, as well as the factory which was in the Canonmills area of Edinburgh, there were also 3 shops dotted around the Capital, plus a travelling shop.  This toured the whole of Scotland raising money for the Appeal and averaged £100 per week in sales of goods including dolls’ houses, tin soldiers, black rose bowls and (for a while) woven goods.

Even during the Second World War, the massive fundraising effort continued with Lady Haig working tirelessly to advertise sales of work along Princes Street and chairing the Ladies’ Committee of the Factory.  By the end of the war, the factory employment records showed a growing number of casualties of that war coming to work there.

The introduction of purchase tax on raw materials in 1950 saw the start of the decline in non-core manufacturing.  The factory, determined as ever, carried on producing one-off items and even introduced new lines in puppets and jewelry.  Throughout the fifties, the factory was still largely self-supporting, supplemented by grants from the Earl Haig Fund.

By the 1960s and through the 1970s however, fiscal changes imposed by the government meant that the self-funding status of the factory was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.  By 1981 the situation was extremely uncertain – employment numbers had fallen to just 35 with no reserves.  The changes to the welfare system meant that fewer could work in the factory.

It was one Major Simon Campbell who turned the situation around when in 1984 after sustained lobbying, he secured the backing of the Manpower Services Commission meaning that the factory was now entitled to grants and could take on more ex-service personnel again.

Through the 80s the factory flourished once more and a poppy making machine was installed so that, in case of an emergency, the poppies could still be produced.

In 1992, Countess Haig (the daughter in law of Earl and Lady Haig) retired from the management side and became the patron of the organisation.  She still does a lot of work on behalf of the factory.

After a period of turbulence in the mid to late 90s arising from a change in management structure, the Lady Haig Poppy Factory re-emerged as an independent charity and grew from strength to strength.  They still work closely with poppyscotland, which was the new name given to the The Earl Haig Fund Scotland in 2006.

Disaster very nearly struck in 1999/2000 when the factory was flooded and a million poppies destroyed.  In a testament to the dedication and perseverance of the workers, the order for the Year 2000 appeal was fulfilled once more, and on time.

Today, efforts at the factory, which is now based in the Warriston area, are concentrated on production of poppies, wreaths, remembrance crosses, picture framing and the maintenance of collection tins (this maintenance alone can take up to four months as each of the 25,000 tins is cleaned and re-strung and the label replaced).  This work is supplemented by an online merchandising outlet, all funds from which also go towards the poppy appeals.  The group also have a Facebook page, twitter feed and run a school visit programme to educate young people about what they do and why they do it. The factory is also open to the public on weekdays, and tours include a presentation about the history of the factory, as well as seeing the process of poppies being made.

The 2010 appeal raised a total of £36 million and it is hoped that this year that figure will be matched or exceeded. More information about this wonderful organisation and the work they do throughout the year can be found at:

http://www.ladyhaigspoppyfactory.org.uk

http://www.poppyscotland.org.uk