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As the Royal British Legion marks its 100th anniversary, we take a look back at how it has supported Suffolk and its veterans since 1921 and what its future holds



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For 100 years the Royal British Legion has worked to ensure the nation never forgets the service and sacrifice of its armed forces.

Since 1921 it has tirelessly supported veterans and their dependants, and led the remembrance of British and Commonwealth troops killed in conflict.

Today it is the country’s largest armed forces charity with branches in towns, cities, and villages including 43 in Suffolk.

Newmarket poppy collectors in 2019
Newmarket poppy collectors in 2019

Every autumn the iconic red poppy emblem of its fund-raising campaign, also marking its centenary this year, is seen far and wide.

This year’s Poppy Appeal is celebrating the army of collectors – some with decades of service – who are returning to the streets after last year’s enforced Covid break.

In Suffolk, one of those volunteers is Pam Turnball, who has organised the collection for the same district for more than 60 years.

Pam Turnball who has been a poppy collector in Gosbeck in mid-Suffolk for over 60 years. Photo: Royal British Legion website
Pam Turnball who has been a poppy collector in Gosbeck in mid-Suffolk for over 60 years. Photo: Royal British Legion website

Pam was still in her teens when the appeal organiser for Gosbeck, in mid-Suffolk, asked if she would take over the job. The only reason given was that she was young.

When Pam started aged 19 in 1960, the total amount collected in her district was £6.15.2d with most donations a shilling or less.

After marrying and having two children she would collect in the evenings, carrying her trusty torch, and knocking on doors.

As one of the Legion’s longest-serving collectors, Pam has seen donations for Gosbeck increase to over £500 in 2019.

Poppies on the Pavement at St Peter's in Sudbury - Teresa Elford with Colin Smith, chair of Sudbury RBL, and Bradley Smith community warden. Picture by Mark Westley
Poppies on the Pavement at St Peter's in Sudbury - Teresa Elford with Colin Smith, chair of Sudbury RBL, and Bradley Smith community warden. Picture by Mark Westley

She said: “I have found the experience rewarding and enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who is able to give a few hours of their time to a very worthy cause”.

Pam has a team of three to help her, and has seen the process change from emptying the collection tin on the kitchen table to count the proceeds, to paying the donations in at the Post Office with a plastic card.

Mandi Cox-Osbourne, Suffolk RBL’s community fund-raiser, said: “Our volunteers are the heart of the Poppy Appeal.

“Without them we would not be able to collect those all-important donations to ensure we can still provide our vital support services to our armed forces community.”

In normal years the national appeal raises around £50 million. This year, as it strives to rebuild after the challenges of 2020, a key message is ‘every poppy counts’.

The Haverhill RBL and Local History Groups worked with local schools in 2018 to make 144 poppies, one for each of the town's WWI soldiers that died. Picture: Mecha Morton
The Haverhill RBL and Local History Groups worked with local schools in 2018 to make 144 poppies, one for each of the town's WWI soldiers that died. Picture: Mecha Morton

The British Legion – it was granted the ‘Royal’ title in 1971 – was founded to support wounded veterans of the First World War, their families, and the dependants of those who had died.

It was formed as the country plunged into economic crisis. Two million people were unemployed making life even harder for disabled ex-servicemen to find work.

Suffolk was quick to rally round. Fifteen Legion branches – Bury St Edmunds, Sudbury, Newmarket, Hadleigh, Stowmarket, Ipswich, Aldeburgh, Beccles, Felixstowe, Hopton, Leiston, Lowestoft, Saxmundham, Stradbroke and Witnesham – were set up in 1921. Nayland, Southwold and Woodbridge followed in 1922.

Sudbury British Legion founded in 1921
Sudbury British Legion founded in 1921

In all the ups and downs of the years that followed there can have been few more difficult than 2020 when Covid brought the country to a standstill.

Ken Rowbottom, chairman of Suffolk RBL, describes the year as ‘catastrophic’.

“When Covid started in Suffolk it was a very worrying time. Everything just stopped so any plans we had made were just quashed straight away,” he said.

“In company with everyone else we suffered because of the lockdowns because we couldn’t do anything, but we learned very quickly how to use Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

“The learning curve was very steep indeed – but the work had to go on. We were still supporting people and keeping in touch.

“We had our ‘Suffolk mardle’ every Tuesday which was an open house for all branches.

A wreath laying ceremony at Bury’s war memorial soon after it was built in 1921
A wreath laying ceremony at Bury’s war memorial soon after it was built in 1921

“We have scaled back on it now and hopefully are going more for face to face and attending branch meetings as and where possible.”

But they also took the opportunity to plan for the future. “It was a good point to put our thinking caps on and think, what do we want to do next year?

“It gave us the opportunity to brainstorm as to how to take the county forward.”

One result was plans for a youth policy committee to engage with youth in the county.

“Sadly over the years the RBL has acquired the reputation that it is an old man’s organisation,” said Ken.

Dedication of Sudbury's war memorial in 1921
Dedication of Sudbury's war memorial in 1921

“If a person leaves the forces at age 38 to 40 the first thing they want to do is settle down and buy a property. It’s only later from age 50 to 55 they might think, there’s a British Legion branch and I wouldn’t mind joining them.

“The other misconception is that you have to have served in the forces. Anyone can now join. There are members of our county committee who have never served in the forces at all.

“In Suffolk we pride ourselves on being a very proactive county. Last year we made increased use of technology to enhance communications.

“That’s why we have produced our new newsletter Suffolk Buzz. It goes all round the county so everyone is in the picture, and it’s all free.

“Branches have been encouraged to keep active and a lot have produced their own newsletters, too. The great thing we have stressed is communications. We have to have it upwards, downwards, left and right.”

Covid restrictions meant events planned for 2020 were dramatically scaled back.

Mark Brennan, Hadleigh RBL chairman, pictured with a mural paying tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore was painted by the Hadleigh Royal British Legion, outside the town's Ipswich Building Society branch, in early 2021. Picture by Mecha Morton
Mark Brennan, Hadleigh RBL chairman, pictured with a mural paying tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore was painted by the Hadleigh Royal British Legion, outside the town's Ipswich Building Society branch, in early 2021. Picture by Mecha Morton

“In 2020 remembrance services didn’t really take place because we were in lockdown.

“There were small acts of remembrance at war memorials. Branches would have just laid a wreath and presented their standard. There was no hymn singing, Last Post, or Reveille.

“A massive service was planned for the 75th anniversary of VJ (Victory over Japan) Day last year in St Edmundsbury Cathedral but sadly it was all cancelled.

“But we did hold a small service at St Mary’s Church, in Bury. Even the Australian defence attache came up from London.”

This year, though, a service in the cathedral to mark the Legion’s centenary was held in September. Bury branch also celebrated its own 100th anniversary with a service in St Mary’s Church.

Ken has chaired Suffolk RBL for three years and has just been elected for another three, as has vice-chair Sue Verow.

“I thoroughly enjoy the job. We have a very good team and I’m honoured to be county chairman,” he said.

The British Legion on parade in Newmarket High Street in the 1930s. Photo: The Peter Norman Collection
The British Legion on parade in Newmarket High Street in the 1930s. Photo: The Peter Norman Collection

After serving in the Army for 21 years, including as an officer with the Brigade of Ghurkas, he spent 22 years as a Queen’s Messenger – a diplomatic courier – for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

He said last year’s Poppy Appeal proceeds in Suffolk had been badly impacted by Covid.

“Money raised in Suffolk goes into a central pot, and we always do well. But last year our sum was down from £800,000 in 2019, to £365,000 which, in view of the pandemic, was a pretty good effort.

“We used our old collection boxes and placed them in strategic points like shops and schools.”

Alternative ways to contribute, like contactless payments, are being introduced, and point-of-sale donations at supermarket tills are also being trialled. “There is a huge bedrock of support all around the county,” he said.

“We also raise money for the County Welfare Fund. We have three big fund-raisers a year including stalls at the Suffolk Show and Ipswich Maritime Festival.

“In 2019 we had a big gazebo at Suffolk Pride in Ipswich. That made us a lot of money for our welfare fund and we hope to be back next year.

“Suffolk deals with its own welfare cases initially. They come to us then are passed up the line to a case officer nationally.

“Welfare cases by and large used to be much simpler. In the 21st century they are much more complex.

“We have had the Iraq war, the Balkans conflict, and Afghanistan which have led to a variety of horrendous injuries.

“Thirty years ago those people could not have survived. Now they are able to live. We have to think about things like housing and disability aids.

“There are also cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which is a very complex problem.”

A wreath-laying ceremony at Bury's Garland Street Chapel in 1940
A wreath-laying ceremony at Bury's Garland Street Chapel in 1940

He said every branch of the RBL tried to have its own commemoration on Remembrance Sunday, which is November 14 this year.

“In Suffolk they range from the very big commemoration in Christchurch Park in Ipswich to the very small ones around the county in the villages.

“When you look at these villages with memorials it brings it home to you the enormous price paid in both world wars.

“Covid hit us all and we have lost a few branches in the county, and some have had difficulty in recruiting.

“We now have a new system where they can become a county-supported branch if a branch is small and its members are of advancing years.

“We take them under our wing, and they can still exist and become fully active again at any time if new people come in.”

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk