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History of the Poppy Appeal
With 90 years of history, the Poppy Day Appeal is one of the oldest nationwide appeals conducted by a voluntary welfare organisation in New Zealand. The RSA Poppy is truly a national icon.
French Poppy Lady’s representative visits the RSA
It was a French woman, Madame E. Guérin, who conceived the idea of widows and orphans manufacturing artificial poppies in the devastated areas of Northern France that could be sold by veterans’ organisations overseas for the benefit of veterans as well as the destitute children of northern France.
One of Guérin’s representatives, Colonel Alfred S. Moffatt, came to put the case to the Dominion Executive Sub-Committee of the New Zealand Returned Solders’ Association in September 1921 and an order for some 350,000 small and 16,000 large silk poppies was duly placed with Madame Guérin’s French Children’s League.
New Zealand unique
In contrast to the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, however, the RSA did not hold its inaugural Poppy Appeal in association with Armistice Day 1921 (11 November 1921), but instead chose the day prior to Anzac Day 1922. The reason is one of those quirks of history: the ship carrying the poppies from France arrived in New Zealand too late for the scheme to be properly publicised prior to Armistice Day, thereby forcing the Association to postpone its Poppy campaign until the day prior to Anzac Day 1922. The decision nonetheless established an historic precedence whereby Poppy Day – as the day was known from the outset – became forever associated with Anzac Day in New Zealand, thus setting it apart from the rest of the world where it is largely associated with Armistice Day.
1922: The First Poppy Day
The first Poppy Day in New Zealand, 24 April 1922, was met with great public enthusiasm, with many centres selling out of their supply of poppies early in the day. The NZRSA declared the inaugural Poppy Day a ‘brilliant success’. In all, 245,059 small poppies were sold for 1 shilling each and 15,157 larger versions of the flower attracted two shillings each, netting the national association, after all expenses, £13,166. Of that sum, £3,695 was sent to French Children’s League to help alleviate distress in the war-ravaged areas of Northern France. The remainder was used by the RSA to assist unemployed returned soldiers in need, and their families, during the winter of 1922. So began a tradition of the Poppy Day Appeal as the RSA’s primary means of raising funds for the welfare of returned service personnel and their dependants.
Over the following years the RSA experienced difficulties with the supply of poppies from France. When the contract expired with the French Children’s League in 1927, the NZRSA secured poppies from the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey.
It renewed a debate that had first been raised back in 1922 over whether the NZRSA should not be manufacturing its own poppies to enable local RSAs to retain a greater proportion of the funds collected as well as providing much-needed employment for disabled returned soldiers in New Zealand.
1931: Made in New Zealand
It was not until 1931 that the NZRSA finally producing its own poppies, made by disabled returned men at Auckland and Christchurch RSA. By the end of the 1930s, Christchurch RSA was even making an oversized Poppy for motor vehicles.
Second World War
During the Second World War patriotism and public interest to remember the recent war dead resulted in record-breaking collections on Poppy Day. By 1945, 750,000 poppies were being distributed nationwide, which equates to one in every two New Zealanders wearing the familiar red symbol of remembrance. So important was the Appeal deemed that the Government expressed no qualms about granting the necessary wartime permit for the imported British cloth.
Calls for a portion of the proceeds to be reserved for returned soldiers of the present war were rejected by the NZRSA on the grounds that the funds would be distributed fairly to the most needy, irrespective of whether one was a ‘Digger’ of the First World War or a ‘Kiwi’ of the Second World War. Poppy Day was set to serve the welfare needs of another generation of returned service personnel and their dependants.
Postwar Poppy Days
Since the Second World War, Poppy Day has consolidated it position on the national calendar.
The Rehabilitation League in Auckland and Christchurch RSA continued to produce the poppies which changed to a cylinder shape during this period.
1978: Time for a Change
In 1978 the NZRSA changed the design of the Poppy to the present flat or ‘Earl Haig’ design.
By this time, Christchurch RSA was the sole producer of the Poppy and actually contracted out the work to the IHC.
Poppy Day Today
At 90, few appeals can claim the history and public recognition as that of the RSA’s Poppy Day Appeal. The Poppy is not only visible on Poppy Day and Anzac Day but at funerals of returned servicemen and women. It is also taken on pilgrimages to be laid at New Zealand war memorials and war graves around the world. The RSA Poppy is truly a national icon.
Source: RNZRSA Historian Dr Stephen Clarke