Crafted from the killing fields

Stephen Allen designed this year’s poppy pin for the Royal British Legion, drawing on his own family’s history for inspiration. Chris Bond talked to the Harrogate-based sculptor.

Stephen Allen looks at his cufflink of 'Bill', in his workshop in Harrogate. Pictures by Simon Hulme

MOST sculptors are used to working on a large scale. Think of Barbara Hepworth’s flowing works of art, or Henry Moore’s beguiling, semi-abstract creations. But Stephen Allen’s latest works are measured in millimetres and centimetres.

Allen, who works from his home in Harrogate, designed the centenary poppy pin for the Royal British Legion. The brass lapel pins, based on a poppy sent back from No Man’s land in 1915, went on sale in June and have proved hugely popular with the public.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He teamed up with Chris Bennett who runs TMB Art Metal, a London-based firm that specialises in creating jewellery and works of art from the parts of cars, trains and aircraft. “Because of my family connections I’ve been fascinated with the First World War for a long time and as an artist I’ve always wanted to do a war memorial of some kind,” says Allen.

Stephen Allen looks at his cufflink of 'Bill', in his workshop in Harrogate. Pictures by Simon Hulme

What makes these poppy pins particularly poignant is the fact that they have been created using shells fired from the guns of the Great War. Thousands of brass fuse caps, which were primed to detonate on impact with enemy targets, lie scattered along the 450-mile former Western Front.

But now these objects, which once killed and maimed, have found a new lease of life as commemorative poppies. “It was Chris’s idea,” says Allen. “He felt all this stuff that’s lying on the battlefield should be turned from a terrible, murdering piece of metal into something that can actually help people.”

Bennett contacted the Royal British Legion about the possibility of transforming the conical 1lb fuses. “They thought it was a good idea and they wanted to use an artist who had some links to the war. So when Chris mentioned my name they were happy for me to do it,” adds Allen.

He spent countless hours working on six different designs before a delicate final design, the size of a fingernail, was agreed upon.

All the proceeds from the sale of the poppy pins go to the Royal British Legion, and for Allen there is a strong personal connection, with both his grandfather and great-grandfather having fought in the First World War.

His great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Ernest Smith, came from Bradford and joined the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding Infantry) as a private in 1916. He saw action at the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Cambrai, before being wounded at Le Cateau in October 1918, just a month before the war ended.

It was an incident that changed his life. “While in hospital recovering from his wounds having been gassed and bayoneted he met and fell in love with a nurse called Olive May,” Allen explains. “He left his wife, my great-grandmother, and moved in with Olive. They spent the rest of their lives together and only married in extreme old age following the death of my great-grandma Evelyn.”

Allen remembers visiting his great-grandfather when he was a little boy. “He was an artist and painter who used to make music boxes and he’s always been a hero to me.”

His grandfather Alfred Stead was also a soldier. He was a lance corporal in the West Yorkshire Regiment and he, too, was wounded during the conflict. He was among the first wave of volunteers to sign up in August 1914 and headed over to France in October that year. He fought for his country in the battles of La Bassée, Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme and Cambrai, but in March 1918 was severely wounded in action at Lys by shrapnel to his left leg.

After lying in a shell hole in No Man’s Land for several days he was eventually rescued. Unfortunately his leg had to be amputated and he was invalided home and discharged in June 1918.

Allen is a self-taught artist who started out working as a Ministry of Defence engineering apprentice. He spent nearly five years in different factories helping to make everything from tanks to sniper rifles. “It was a very comprehensive apprenticeship because you learnt everything from an engineering point of view.”

For the past 25 years he has been a professional sculptor and has worked on a variety of projects and commissions.

As well as creating the commemorative poppy pin he has worked with TMB Art Metal to create a series of limited edition cufflinks based on caricatures of British and German soldiers. Entitled “Bill & Fritz”, the miniature figures have also been painstakingly designed using the remnants of brass shell fuses recovered from the battlefields of northern Europe.

Allen drew inspiration from the artist Bruce Bairnsfather who created the Fragments From France magazine and the character “Old Bill”, both of which were familiar to troops in the trenches. “Old Bill is a scruffy, unshaven chap with a tin hat and a big walrus moustache. He was always depicted with a tin helmet, but in 1914 the Tommies only had cloth caps, they didn’t have tin helmets until the middle of 1915.”

So Allen added his own personal touch in homage to his grandfather. “I’ve put his West Yorkshire Regiment cap badge, featuring the famous white horse, on the hat.” He has dedicated “Bill & Fritz” to his grandfather. “I never knew him because he was only 54 when he died. His house was burgled and a clock that had been given to him by his work colleagues, because he worked in a mill, was stolen. They took his war medals and even the piece of steel taken from his thigh that he used to keep in a box on the mantelpiece. So after all he went through I wanted to dedicate these to him.”

Allen also wanted to commemorate the German soldiers, too, and again used Bairnsfather’s wartime magazine as a template for Fritz. “I didn’t think it was fair to just do the British side because the Germans went through the same hell as our lads.”

He wanted the characters to offer a counter-balance to the horrors of war. “They’re both caricatures because we felt that the poppies covered the sombre side of the war and we wanted to do something that captured the humour of the soldiers, too.”

Working on both projects has been deeply personal for him because of his family links to the conflict. “My great-grandfather was at Beaumont-Hamel, on the Somme, and we’ve used some of the metal from shell fuses that landed on this particular battlefield.”

It’s also been a moving experience that has taken him back through his own memories. “I remember as a little boy going to a Remembrance Day event at a cenotaph. I was with my great-grandfather and my dad and when they played The Last Post they both wept and that really affected me.”

For Allen it has been important not to glorify war in any way. “There wasn’t a family left untouched by the First World War in some way, certainly not in England or Germany, which is hard for us to imagine today.” He is proud that his handcrafted work will help such a worthy cause. “Doing the poppies has been brilliant and even though I’ve never been able to do a war memorial, this is even better because as well as being a 
great example of recycling they’re tangibly going to make a difference to people’s lives.”

• The First World War poppy pin costs £39.99, with the proceeds going to The Royal British Legion. They are available from the Poppy Shop, or call 0300 123 9110. The limited edition “Bill and Fritz” cufflinks cost £395 a pair and are available from TMB Art Metal. Visit or call 0208 810 9997.