Queen Victoria gift chocolate box, 1900.
In 1899, during the Boer War, Queen Victoria decided to send a gift out to all the troops serving in South Africa. The idea was that every serving soldier would receive a thoughtful and personal New Year’s gift from the Queen to keep their spirits up.
The Queen commissioned Britain’s three main confectionery manufacturers; Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry & Sons to supply the chocolate for a total of 123,000 tins. However, as the chocolate manufacturers were Quakers and did not want to profit from the war, each company refused to accept payment for the order and donated the chocolate instead.
The queen personally funded the manufacture of the tin boxes herself, the style of which was based on a design by Barclay and Fry Limited of Southwark.
At first glance each box seems identical with ‘South Africa 1900’ and a personal inscription in her own handwriting of: ‘I wish you a happy new year’ from the Queen. However, since each of the chocolate manufacturers used different firms to supply the tins, there are slight variations in their dimensions and the shade of colouring and also, the printing of the portrait medallion of the Queen.
The tins had rounded corners so they would slip neatly into the soldier’s knapsack and each contained a half-pound of vanilla chocolate.
The tins were extremely well-received by the soldiers and were such an esteemed gift that many soldiers didn’t even eat their chocolate, some choosing to post the tin back home for safe-keeping.
We have an example of just such a tin in the museum collection where the chocolates are still intact… a surprise find by our Collections Manager some years ago.
From the close-up image you can just make out the ‘Rowntree’ makers stamp pressed into the chocolate, giving away the confectioner of this particular tin.
The 1914 Christmas Tin from Queen Mary
A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box was another treasured possession of veteran soldiers. These were issued during the First World War.
In October 1914, George V’s 17-year-old daughter, Mary Princess Royal, launched an appeal to raise funds so that every member of the armed forces could receive a special Christmas gift. It was Princess Mary’s express wish that every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front should receive one.
Her original intention was to pay for a present for every soldier and sailor from her private allowance, but this was deemed impractical and a proposal was made that she lend her name to a public fund which would raise the money needed to provide the gift.
So, shortly before Christmas 1914, advertisements were placed in the British press seeking donations for the “Soldiers and Sailors Christmas fund” and the money needed was soon raised. The total was over £163,000, most of this coming from thousands of small donations sent by ordinary people from all parts of the United Kingdom, as a mark of respect and gratitude to those fighting in The Great War.
The Princess took a deep personal interest in the work of the fund and in a letter released by Buckingham Palace, signed by the princess herself, she explained the purpose of the fund.
“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?
Please will you help me?”
The Princess Mary Gift Fund Box was a treasured possession of many veteran soldiers of the First World War, even when the original contents – usually cigarettes and rolling tobacco, had long been used. The embossed brass box was beautiful yet extremely practical. Being air-tight it made a useful container for money, papers and photographs.
The contents of the boxes varied; thought was taken for smokers, non-smokers, different faith and minority groups such as the Gurkhas, Sikhs, and Indian recipients, and the nurses on the front line. Contents varied according to these different groups and included: bullet pencil cases, sugar candy, chocolate, tobacco pouches, shaving brushes, postcards, envelopes and cards, knives, scissors, purses, the ‘Pencil Bullet’.
All tins came with a card from the princess with the words:
With Best Wishes for a Victorious New Year, from The Princess Mary and friends at home
The distribution of the boxes to all the troops went on beyond the Armistice in 1918 and the final number produced was over 2.6 million.