The poppy seller is a vital part of remembrance and every year hundreds of men and women across Sheffield volunteer their precious time to raise awareness – and money – for the men and women who risked life and limb to fight for their country. Star reporter Rachael Clegg hears the stories of two Sheffield poppy sellers.
FOR more than 30 years Margaret Vickers has been selling poppies to the people of Sheffield.
She’s one of around 200 of poppy sellers across the city.
And Margaret - like many of the British Legion poppy campaign volunteers - has a personal reason for her commitment.
Her brother fought in the armed forces during the Second World War and was one of the thousands of soldiers to be part of the Allied’s operation to liberate Caen in Normandy.
Her father, who worked as a garage attendant during the Second World War, was a horseman in the First World War. Margaret’s childhood was one of rations, air raids and battle.
Today, Margaret sits at her perch in the foyer of Tesco on Infirmary Road, selling dozens of poppies to help raise money for the British Royal Legion.
“I’ve always been interested in the Royal British Legion and used to be in charge of collecting all the money and counting it and delivering all the poppy boxes but I stopped doing that in 2007 after having an accident and now just sell poppies.”
Margaret, aged 76, from Stannington, was just a child when her brother, George, fought in the Second World War, but she remembers that period of her life vividly.
“I remember Sheffield during the Blitz,” she says. “We lived in Loxley and I remember on the night of the bombing my mum and grandma had been baking and the dog, Nell, wanted to go out. My mum said ‘take Nell out, will you?’. So I went to the front door with the dog and saw the Germans dropping bombs on the city. It was horrendous. We went over to the school air raid shelter. I was only six years old so I went to sleep.”
When Margaret woke up she was being carried across the street by her brother, who was, at that time, working at Brown Bayleys steel works in Attercliffe.
“He had knelt down to pick up some shrapnel off the floor and that’s when I woke up to see this brilliant red sky and this awful rubbery smell. My brother had joined us after cycling home from work - it took him two-and-a-half hours to cycle just five miles from Attercliffe to Loxley - all the roads were blocked because of the bombing.”
Her brother was only 17 when he volunteered to join the forces. “He was a silly man. He was working in a reserved occupation making munitions at the steel works but he was young and headstrong and joined up. Even though he should have been 18 to join he got away with it. He was desperate to be in the RAF but they wouldn’t let him in because he had an eye defect, so he joined the infantry instead.”
The First World War ended more than 90 years ago and the Second World War ended 66 years ago, but Margaret works hard to keep the memories of those soldiers alive. In the two-week run-up towards Remembrance Sunday, Margaret sells poppies every day.
But her work’s not just about remembering the past.
Margaret is a member of the Stannington branch of the Royal British Legion. The group meet on a monthly basis and raise money to provide essential items such as specially-designed razors and shaving foam for men with serious painful burns and tracksuit bottoms for men whose legs have been amputated.
“It an excellent organisation,” she says. “And now people are more aware with there being media coverage of Afghanistan.”
And over in the south east side of the city Peggy Robinson is beavering away co-ordinating the Sheffield South Poppy Campaign.
Peggy - who is in her 80s but won’t give her exact age - was in the army during the war.
A former Daily Express reporter, she said: “I wanted to go on an anti-aircraft site but because I could read and write they shut me up in an office. I also wanted to be a gunner - during the war women couldn’t have a gun but they could go on a gun site and help with the instrumentation of weapons and radar.”
Peggy joined the forces in the war after her father, a naval captain, had been killed when a cross-channel shell hit his ship. “I wanted to get back at the Germans,” she says.
Peggy has been volunteering for British Legion for 36 years. “I’ve enjoyed it but it has been hard work. You become something of a psychologist doing this job too. I could tell the ones who were going to give money and the ones that won’t.”
And while many believe that young people aren’t interested in the events of World Wars One and Two, Peggy says this isn’t the case.
“There are lots of young people who want to buy the arm bands,” she says. “I think young people are interested, but I think they should know more about it.”
Peggy is not a pacifist, but, having lost her father in the Second World War and witnessing the devastation it caused, she is anti-war. “I’ve always said if the country was invaded there wouldn’t be any pacifists. But as someone who’s been through it, I am against war.”
The experiences of Peggy, Margaret and all those who have lost loved ones in conflict have come to be symbolised by the poppy.
The poppy was the only thing that grew in the aftermath of WWI in the regions of Flanders and Picardy in Belgium and Northern France. But while the simple red marks the loss of lives in the Great War, it has come to represent the men and women who have fought - and still fight - for their country.
Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal factfile
The Royal British Legion formed in 1921 as an organisation to support ex-servicemen from the Great War - ‘the war to end all wars’ - but the organisation continued through the Second World War and today has 350,000 volunteers raising money for its Poppy Appeal.
Proceeds from the Poppy Appeal go towards the support and rehabilitation of armed forces servicemen. Sheffield Poppy Appeal co-ordinator Rory Clayton said: “We are extremely grateful to the people of Sheffield for buying poppies and thank our volunteers for their support.”
The first official Royal Legion Poppy Day was held on November 11, 1921, and was inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae.
The date of Remembrance Day marks the end of the First World War, which was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.
As many as 703,000 British men were killed in the Great War and 382,600 were killed in the Second World War, along with 67,800 British civilians.