Poppies and Pets

By Sally Williams, Keeper of the Inventory

In the quest for new garden sites that might be usefully included on the LPGT Inventory and London Gardens Online, a friend's mention of a secret animal cemetery in Richmond caught my imagination. An added poignancy emerged in its location close to the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory, since, as November approaches in this centenary year, it seems apposite to consider how the practice of buying a poppy to remember those who suffered and died in the First World War came into being.

The sale of remembrance poppies dates back to 1921, originating in America with the sale of real flowers as a means of supporting US ex-servicemen. The tradition was soon brought over to Great Britain by Mme Anna Guérin, who had made and sold flowers in the US to fund work in devastated France. She persuaded Earl Haig to adopt the poppy for the British Legion, which he had founded in 1921, and the production of artificial flowers was instigated by Major George Howson, who had set up the Disabled Society in 1920 to provide work for disabled ex-service personnel. With a grant of £2,000 from the British Legion, the first poppy factory opened in Old Kent Road in 1922, staffed by five disabled war veterans. In 1925, when larger premises were needed to cater for the growing demand, the factory moved to a disused brewery near Richmond Hill, changing its name to the British Legion Poppy Factory, from where it still operates, albeit not in the original building. Housing for the growing workforce was soon required and adjacent land that was part of the Cardigan House estate was purchased in 1925; Cardigan House itself was used for the British Legion clubhouse. This land had once been the site of the Richmond Wells, a place of entertainment from 1690 to 1750, which was demolished in 1755 and replaced by a new house, later named Cardigan House after it was purchased by the 5th Earl of Cardigan. The Poppy Factory workers' estate was built by 1932, an interesting housing scheme that is worth including on the Inventory in its own right, with communal landscaping between the residential blocks and high level washing lines an unusual amenity. At the south extremity a length of old wall forms the boundary with Terrace Gardens, the delightful hillside public garden that opened in 1887, formed from a number of private estates, including that of Lansdowne House, which formerly bordered the Cardigan House estate. In 1925 Richmond Council purchased part of the wooded grounds of Cardigan House, including an ice house, to add to Terrace Gardens.

Eight headstones
The line of eight headstones
(Photo: Sally Williams)

Tucked along this boundary wall, and now within a private garden, is a discreet line of eight headstones, commemorating what were clearly beloved family animals buried between the 1870s and 1910s. Some of the inscriptions refer to Cardigan House as the place of birth or death; their names - Kindo, Fusi, Selim, Tweed, Ching, Stepper - suggest they were dogs, horses or ponies; and where their place of origin is given - Japan, Bombay, China - it suggests their owners were well-acquainted with foreign lands. After the Earls of Cardigan sold the estate in 1837, there were a number of owners, including Captain John or Jock Willis (1817-1899), a well-known and successful ship-owner who had taken over his father's shipping company and ran a fleet of tea clippers. Among his ships was the famous Cutty Sark, which he had built with an eye on winning the annual China Tea Race, although this was never successful.

Eight headstones
Tweed's headstone
(Photo: Cathy Cooper)

Another of his ships was a vessel named the Tweed, a name found on two of the headstones, so it is not presumptuous to surmise that the animals buried here were owned by the Willis family, who lived here until c.1918, although the full story of this tiny graveyard is yet to be uncovered. However, it calls to mind the part played by animals in warfare through the centuries, poignantly commemorated in the Animals in War Memorial at the edge of Hyde Park, which was unveiled by HRH the Princess Royal in November 2004, the 90th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

With grateful thanks to Cathy Cooper for sharing her research, also to Ron McEwan and the Richmond Local History Society, not to mention Kathryn Standing.