The Story of my Four Branches
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Princess Mary’s 1914 Christmas Gift

Actual gift tin belonging to James McTurk Drain

The photo on the left is the actual gift tin belonging to my Great Grandfather James McTurk Drain.

One of the most common artefacts of The Great War is the Princess Mary’s Gift Fund Box. These embossed brass boxes were originally intended as a Christmas present, given to those serving at Christmas in 1914 and typically contained a variety of items such as tobacco and chocolate. Originally Princess Mary wanted to pay for the gifts out of her private allowance, however, this was deemed impracticable and in the end, she lent her name to a public fund instead, which raised the necessary monies to make, and distribute the gift.

In a letter issued by Buckingham Palace the next day, and signed by the Princess herself, she appealed for public support, saying:

“I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present … 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 out little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning…”    

In November 1914, an advert was placed in the national press asking for donations.

The ‘Sailors & Soldiers Christmas Fund’ was created by Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, with the purpose of providing everyone wearing the King’s uniform and serving overseas on Christmas Day 1914 with a ‘gift from the nation’.

The result was the production of an embossed brass box containing gifts, which would also go to the wounded on leave or in hospital, to nurses, and to the widows or parents of those killed. Prisoners of war at the time had theirs reserved until they were repatriated.

The tin itself was approximately 13cm (5″) long by 8cm (3¼”) wide by 3cm (1¼”) deep with a hinged lid. The surface of the lid is decorated with a portrait of Princess Mary, surrounded by a laurel wreath and with an ‘M’ either side.

At the top are the words ‘Imperium Britannicum’ with a sword and scabbard either side, and at the bottom are the words ‘Christmas 1914’, flanked by the bows of battleships forging through a heavy sea. In the corners are the names of the Allies: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro and Servia, with France and Russia either side.

Contents of the tin

Inside the tins were a variety of gifts according to which group of people they were being sent to. Many were actually sent separately as not all the items would fit into one tin! Gifts for servicemen at the front or at sea (‘Class A’) received the following: the famous embossed brass box, a pipe and one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a tinderbox-type lighter (thought to be safer to send through the post than matches), a Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess – The King and Queen also sent their own Christmas card out to the services. Even 100 years ago there was a vocal anti-smoking lobby, so non-smoking soldiers received the brass box, a packet of acid tablets, a writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes, and of course the Christmas card and photograph. Indian troops were also catered for: the Gurkhas received an identical gift to the other British troops but Sikhs were given sugar candy and a tin box of spices instead of the tobacco and cigarettes. All other Indian troops received cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card. Nurses also received the box, but it contained chocolates instead of the tobacco and cigarettes. The actual content of the gifts varied much more than this would imply, as shortages of everything meant that a range of substitutions had to be made. Alternative gifts included cigarette cases, combs, knives, pencil cases made from expended bullets, post cards, purses, scissors, shaving brushes, and tobacco pouches.

There were also boxes for Indian troops, who received sweets and spices, and nurses were sent chocolate. A simpler gift was given out to all other servicemen (‘Classes B & C’) which consisted of a bullet pencil.

Every box contained a Christmas card and a picture of the Princess. Those which were not distributed until after Christmas were sent out with a card wishing the recipient a ‘victorious new year’.

Princess Mary, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood

The photo on the left is HRH Princess Mary, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood

Distribution

More than 355,000 tins were successfully delivered by the Christmast deadline, but a shortage of brass meant that many entitled personnel did not receive their gift until as late as the summer of 1916, and in January 1919 it was reported that ‘considerable’ numbers had still not been distributed.

Orders for brass strip were placed with the USA, who were not yet involved in the war, and a large consignment was lost with the ship ‘Lusitania’. As so much brass was being consumed in the production of weapons and munitions, the quality of the boxes which were manufactured later on was poor, as they were made of a plated inferior alloy.

When the fund finally closed in 1920, almost £200,000 had been donated for the provision of more than two and a half million boxes with contents.


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