A scarlet reminder

Poppy sellers in Sheffield City Centre: Chelsea Pensioner John Hellewell
Poppy sellers in Sheffield City Centre: Chelsea Pensioner John Hellewell

“HELLO love. Two is it? Do you want pins?”

John Hellewell is very busy, as ever, outside John Lewis in Barkers Pool.

“It’s the scarlet that does it,” he confides. “Especially with the ladies.”

John, aged 67, has been a poppy seller in Sheffield for many years, particularly since retiring from his job as a machinist in the 1990s due to ill health. Just over a year ago, he became a Chelsea Pensioner and moved to the Royal Hospital in London.

He was determined to return to Sheffield to continue his poppy-selling duties, however, complete with official scarlet coat.

“We do it to keep everybody aware of what happened. If we don’t know our history we don’t know where we’re going, do we? Hitler found that out and he came unstuck, just like Napoleon did. You’ve got to remind young people of their history and to remember that wars are still going on too. I think it was only 1969 when no British serviceman was killed in action.”

Among the steady stream of poppy buyers is police officer and former light infantryman Chris Eyre. Chris’s son is currently on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“We can’t forget about what people have sacrificed for us,” he says. “I think now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought it to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Chris recently took part in a Help for Heroes bike ride around the Somme battlefields.

“It’s very moving to go to those places and to realise what happened. At one cemetery there was a huge monument and a padre told me to go and try and find someone with my name on it. So I had a look and found two brothers called Eyre who died on the same day, and it made me think what that family had gone through. It makes it more poignant to think of someone like that and I’m still moved by it.”

This is the 90th year of the Royal British Legion, which hopes to raise £40m from its appeal to support people of all ages who have been affected by conflict.

The Legion spends over £1m a week supporting and helping service personnel and their families, and in the weeks up to Remembrance Sunday around 350,000 volunteers will be out selling over 40m poppies to the British public. A special emphasis is being placed this year on what the Legion calls ‘the Afghanistan generation’ and their families.

Karen Plummer and her team from the Girls Venture Corps of the Air Cadets were at their usual spot outside WH Smith. Every year she and her colleagues bring a team of girls into Sheffield city centre for the first two Saturdays in November and Karen’s sellers always aim to win the trophy for the highest total in Sheffield.

“Our highest so far was over £1,900 but this year we’re aiming for £2,000,” she says.

Karen has been poppy-selling with her team for 12 years and took part as an air cadet for 20 years before that.

“We want to help people who’ve been injured, to provide food clothes and medical aid, to help all service people from any wars. I think because of what’s happening in the news more people are interested and want to do their bit and help out, and this is our way of doing our bit.”

“It makes you feel proud that you’ve helped someone who needs it,” adds Karen’s colleague, Fern Davis.

Despite the cold and rain over the years, Karen is always keen to take part in the appeal. “I enjoy it,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it otherwise. I enjoy meeting people, who often come looking for us and say thank you to us for being here.”

John Hellewell was in the army air corps and he says when stationed in Germany in the 1960s he was struck down by severe leg pains after work clearing runways for several nights at temperature of minus 17 degrees. The condition got steadily worse until he had to retire from work and his injury and pension made him eligible to become a Chelsea Pensioner.

He’s now very busy doing charity work in London and elsewhere but, despite his difficulty walking and standing, he insists on taking up his regular post in Barkers Pool, where he can sell up to 500 poppies in one afternoon.

“I’m very passionate about it,” he says, adding that the old idea that the Poppy Appeal is for old men is no longer in people’s minds.

He lists conflicts from two world wars through the Suez Crisis and Egypt to the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

Public interest in the appeal remains very strong. “What you see on the news is reflected in the takings,” he says, rattling his collecting box.

lPast and present members of the armed forces will be joined by civic dignitaries for a remembrance service at the war memorial in Barkers Pool on Sunday at 11am.