Tag Archives: Social History

Object of the Month – December 2021

1914 Christmas Gift Box for the Troops

The Museum’s ‘Object of the Month’ provides an opportunity to  explore interesting and unusual objects from our stores.

December’s Object of the Month chosen by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer (Human History) is a Princess Mary Christmas gift box, an embossed and monogrammed tin which was intended to be distributed to all members of the armed forces of the British Empire on Christmas day 1914, during World War I.

Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to the Western Front and was soon joined by troops from the Empire, those from India arriving before the end of the year.  In October 1914, George V’s 17-year-old daughter, Mary, Princess Royal, launched a public appeal to fund every member of the armed forces receiving a Christmas gift.  Shortly before Christmas 1914, advertisements were placed in the British press seeking donations for the “Soldiers and Sailors Christmas fund” and £513,000 was quickly raised.

The funding was used to manufacture small boxes made of silver for officers and brass for all others.  However, there were metal shortages.  Supplies of 45 tons of brass strip, destined to make more boxes, was lost in May 1915 when RMS Lusitania was sunk off Ireland on passage from the USA.  In the latter stages of the war when metal became even more scarce, some of the tins were made from plated base metals or alloys. 

Each tin was decorated with an image of Mary and other military and imperial symbols.  They were typically filled with an ounce of pipe tobacco, a packet of cigarettes in a yellow monogrammed wrapper, a pipe, a tinder cigarette lighter, and a Christmas card and photograph from Princess Mary.  Some contained sweets, chocolates, and lemon drops.   There were also variations on the contents of the boxes for non-smokers, who received a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing set comprising a case with pencil, paper and envelopes. 

The Committee was also obliged to consider the tastes of other minority groups and it was recognised that if the dietary rules of various religious groups were to be respected, changes would have to be made in the gifts intended for Indian troops. It was decided that The Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; Sikhs the box filled with sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the Christmas card; all other Indian troops, the box with a packet of cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card. Authorised camp followers, grouped under the title of ‘Bhistis’ were to receive a tin box of spices and the card.

The smokers’ and non-smokers’ gifts were both deemed unacceptable by the committee for nurses at the front in France who were instead offered the box, a packet of chocolate and the card.

However, suppliers of the content items had trouble and it was realised that there were still not enough to go round. The Committee resolved the problem by hurriedly buying in an assortment of substitute gifts: bullet pencil cases, tobacco pouches, shaving brushes, combs, pencil cases with packets of postcards, knives, scissors, cigarette cases and purses.  Those sailors who should also have received the lighter as part of their gift, were given instead, a handsome bullet pencil in a silver cartridge case which bore Princess Mary’s monogram. The ‘pencil bullet’ was not fashioned out of real bullet parts – it was simply a pencil with a rounded white metal end that looked like an unfired round when stored inside a brass tube resembling a cartridge case.   

The boxes were originally intended for “every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front” on Christmas day 1914, but with the charity fun in surplus and some feeling that they had been left out, eligibility was soon extended to everyone “wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas day”, later prisoners of war were included, as well as the next of kin of 1914 casualties.  It is estimated that 400,000 were delivered by Christmas 1914, with full distribution completed in 1920, by which time approximately 2.5 million had been delivered.

A 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 air-tight, and made a useful container for money, tobacco, papers and photographs, so was often carried through subsequent service.  Some troops repacked their tins and sent them home to their wives and families.

Further information and acknowledged sources  here:

Object of the Month – November 2018

2nd Standard of the Royal British Legion by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer, Human History.

To mark the commemoration of the Centenary of the end of the First World War (1914-1918), November’s Object of the Month is a poignant one.

The Royal British Legion is a charity which provides financial, social and emotional care and support to members and veterans of the British Armed Forces, their families and dependants. The Legion is also the national Custodian of Remembrance and safeguards the Military Covenant between the nation and its Armed Forces and is best known for the annual Poppy Appeal and its emblem the red poppy.  Founded in 1921, the Legion is not just about those who fought in the two World Wars of the last century, but also about those involved in the many conflicts since 1945 and those who are still fighting for the freedom we enjoy today.

The 2nd Saffron Walden Royal British Legion Branch Standard was first sworn in at the Eastern Area Golden Jubilee Rally, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the British Legion on the 26th June 1971 at Newmarket’s July Racecourse.

Over the years it has featured at many local, national and international events, helping to commemorate those who have given military service. It has featured at annual carol services, the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, the Last Royal Tournament at Earls Court in 1999 and many times for Burma Star Association events, Poppy Race Days at Newmarket Racecourse, and HMS Lapwing Association parades.  It took pride of place at the 80th Anniversary of the Saffron Walden Branch celebrations and played a key role in the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1939-1945) commemorations in 2005. 

Parading these standards for many years, can leave them liable to damage as they feature detailed embroidery and brocade, so new ones are established and sworn in, when this is the case. The retired 2nd Standard has now been donated to the Museum, and features as our Object of the Month for November, whilst a new 3rd standard has been sworn in.  On Sunday 11th November, the new standard will form part of the town’s annual Remembrance Sunday Parade and Church service

For more information on the Saffron Walden branch of the Royal British Legion  http://branches.britishlegion.org.uk/branches/saffron-walden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Standard is on display at the Museum until the 1st December, where you can learn more about this object, the role played by the Royal British Legion and the Centenary of the end of the First World War.