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History of Poppy Day

Dr Stephen Clarke
Making History Ltd.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Poppy Day, we are resharing this article which was written about the History of Poppy Day, for Anzac Day 2020. 
*Updated April 2022*

Due to the impact of COVID-19 the Returned and Services Association (RSA) has made the difficult decision to cancel any public Anzac Day events this year and is postponing its national Poppy Day appeal. It is the first time Poppy Day has been postponed since 1922. We hope that you continue to support the generous and important role that the RSA plays in supporting our veterans and their whānau. Remember, that until you can purchase a poppy, you can always lay a virtual one on Online Cenotaph.

tray, vending, Photographed 18 Mar 2020. Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, \u003ca href =\"\" target= \"_blank\"\u003e2019.62.329\u003c/a\u003e Gift of 21st Battalion Association

tray, vending, Photographed 18 Mar 2020. Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2019.62.329 Gift of 21st Battalion Association

© Auckland Museum CC BY

For nearly 100 years Poppy Day has been an annual event usually held on the Friday before Anzac Day. The Appeal is one of the oldest nationwide appeals conducted by a voluntary welfare organisation in New Zealand.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row ...

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 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 NZRSA in September 1921 and an order for some 350,000 small and 16,000 large silk poppies was duly placed with Guérin's French Children's League.

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), 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 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.

\"The flower of remembrance\". Auckland Weekly News 3 May 1923 p048.

"The flower of remembrance". Auckland Weekly News 3 May 1923 p048.

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19230503-48-5. No known copyright restrictions.

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 it 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 £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.

collection box, Poppy Day. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira.

collection box, Poppy Day. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira.

2015.89.1.Auckland Museum CC BY 4.0.

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 was not until 1931 that the NZRSA finally produced 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.

New Zealand Herald, (1950s). Street Appeal Day. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

New Zealand Herald, (1950s). Street Appeal Day. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

PH-NEG-H1726Auckland Museum has yet to establish the copyright status of this image; restrictions may apply.

During WWII 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.

In 1978 the NZRSA changed the design of the Poppy to the present flat or 'Earl Haig' design.

After close to 100 years, 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, recognising the RSA and its endeavours to care for war veterans as well as remember those who never returned.

While you can't purchase a poppy this year you can leave a virtual poppy on the records of those service personnel who have passed. 

Screen shot from Lay a poppy Online Cenotaph record.

Screen shot from Lay a poppy Online Cenotaph record.

Auckland Museum. CC BY-4.0.2nd Lieut. Stanley Howard

Dr Stephen Clarke is a Historian and Managing Director of Making History; author of After the War: The RSA in New Zealand. His research specialty is the impact of war on veterans and their rehabilitation into society, as well as war commemoration, including the history of ANZAC Day in New Zealand and Australia. He holds a PhD from the University of New South Wales.

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Cite this article

Clarke, Dr Stephen. History of Poppy Day. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 30 March 2020. Updated: 22 April 2022.