'Poppy Man' raises over £100,000 for The Royal British Legion after 70 years of volunteering

More than £100,000 has been raised for the Royal British Legion by a proud Yorkshireman who has been volunteering for the charity for over 70 years. Chris Burn reports.

Thursday, 22nd June 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:30 am
Eric Atkin

He started selling poppies as a schoolboy shortly after the Second World War, cycling door-to-door through Yorkshire villages to raise money for military veterans and their families.

Now aged 85, Eric Atkin is one of the longest-serving volunteers for the Royal British Legion and has raised more than £100,000 for the charity in that time.

Known locally as the ‘Poppy Man’, Mr Atkin is still involved in selling poppies to communities and businesses near his home in Wath-Upon-Dearne in South Yorkshire.

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Eric, who is president of the Mexborough, Swinton and Kilnhurst branch of the British Legion after retiring from his area coordinator role in 2015, has kept his diary free for later this year to help out with this autumn's appeal.

His parents were both founder members of the British Legion and their example inspired a young Eric to get involved with fundraising around his childhood home of Bolton Percy, near Tadcaster, in North Yorkshire.

“When I was 12, I sold my first poppy. The village was surrounded by farmland and I used to travel to a farm three miles away on my bike. The farms in those days had lots of workers and their own cottages and were almost like little hamlets,” he says.

Mr Atkin went on to serve as a private in the army and was a driver for medical officers in Kenya in the early 1950s. After ten weeks of training in York, he was stationed with the Yorkshire Light Infantry at the foot of Mount Kenya.

He says he had many adventures during his time in the military, including one occasion where he got stranded in the jungle for two days. After going out to look for an injured soldier in heavy rain, the Land Rover he was in got stuck miles away from the camp.

“We shouted until we were hoarse for help. The medical officer said ‘Atkin, we ought to sing something to keep our morale up’. I used to write to the Bishop of Selby and had just received some Christmas hymns for him as there was no air mail. It was June but we ended up signing ‘Away in a Manger’.

“I knew we had to start a fire to keep animals away from watching Tarzan films. So we tore up the hymn sheet and the officer sacrificed a silk handkerchief and we used some petrol and a spark from the ignition to get it going.”

They were eventually rescued at 9pm the following night - returning to camp to find letters had been written ready to send to their families to say they were missing on patrol.

After returning to civilian life and moving to Wath for work, Mr Atkin got involved with the British Legion again and helped for decades with their fundraising efforts with the help of his family.

He hasn’t just been involved in selling poppies, but also allowed his home to be used as a base to distribute thousands to local shops in the Rotherham area.

“They would be piled up in the house. They would come in boxes of 10,000 and we must have had hundreds of boxes to send out to factories and shops.”

On Saturday, Mr Atkin is one of the specially-invited guests at Rotherham’s largest-ever Armed Forces Day events. A parade of military veterans and serving men and women will pass through the town centre, while highlights of the day will include a flypast from the Lancaster Bomber from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

The former steelworker says he has no plans to stop his charity work and is proud to carry on the family tradition, with his mother, sister and himself all being given gold badges by the Legion in recognition of their service. “It has been in my blood since I was born.”