At the start of the First World War, there was a mass outpouring of sympathy and charity for the men fighting for Britain. The Royal family were not immune to this and in October 1914, the young Princess Mary, inspired by her visits to hospitals for injured soldiers, wanted to show her support.
She felt the dangers of war as sharply as many other women did as her two brothers, David (later King Edward VIII) and Bertie, (later King George VI), began active service.
On October 15th 1914, Mary publicly announced her intentions to provide a gift for ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ in a letter sent out from Buckingham Palace.
By the 20th October 1914, the fund had received over £12,000 in donations. The following week this amount had risen to £31,000. By the time the fund was closed in 1920, £162,591 12s 5d had been donated. This money was used to create over 2.5 million gift boxes for soldiers, sailors, nurses and other people involved in the war effort at Christmas 1914.
About the Christmas Gift Fund
The inaugural meeting of the Christmas Gift Fund Committe, which was set up to pursue Princess Mary’s ambitions, was held on the 14th October 1914. The committee comprised of significant and notable personalities from the time. The Chair of the committee was the Duke of Devonshire supported by the British Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, the Treasurer Lord Revelstoke, and the secretary Rowland Berkeley.
Wasting no time, on the 15th October 1914, Buckingham Palace released a statement from Princess Mary:
‘For many weeks we have all been greatly concerned for the welfare of the sailors and soldiers who are so gallantly fighting our battles by sea and land. Our first consideration has been to meet their more pressing needs, and I have delayed making known wish that has long been in my heart for fear of encroaching on other fund, the claims of which have been more urgent, I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every solider at the front. On Christmas Eve, when, like shepherds of old they keep watch, doubtless their thoughts will turn to home and loved ones left behind, and perhaps, too, hey will recall days when, as children themselves, they were wont to hang out their stocking wondering what the morrow had in store. 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, 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? Mary’
The Gift Box and the contents
Things began to progress quickly. The next decision to be taken was what should be included in the boxes, and how they should look.
The final design for the boxes was provided by Messrs Adshead and Ramsay. The boxes were five inches long, 3 and a quarter wide and one and a quarter deep, with a hinged lid. In the centre of the lid is an image of Princess Mary, surrounded by a wreath, with two Princess Mary ‘M’ monograms beside this. Inscribed on a cartouche at the top of the box are the words Imperium Britannicum, a reference to Britain’s imperial power. In other cartouches, around the edge of the box are the names of Britain’s allies in the First World War; Belgium, France, Servia, Montenegro, Russia and Japan. At the bottom is inscribed Christmas 1914.
Most gift boxes contained smoking paraphernalia. The standard box contained a pipe, one ounce of tobacco, a lighter and twenty monogrammed cigarettes, along with a Christmas card from the royal family, and a picture of Princess Mary.
People began to point out that there should also be a gift made available to those who did not smoke, and to Ghurkhas fighting for the British, many of whose religion did not allow smoking.
For non-smokers, an alternative box was arranged. Inside these boxes, instead of cigarettes the men found a pencil, with a case made to look like a bullet, a pack of sweets, and, again, the Royal family Christmas card and picture of Princess Mary.
Indian troops, again, got something different. They received a box with a packet of sugar candy, one packet of cigarettes, if their religion allowed, and a small box of spices. Unlike native British troops Indian Ghurkhas were given an allowance, as opposed to rations, so they could buy their own food. These Indian Ghurkhas could use their spices to cook dishes from India which would normally be unavailable when fighting in Europe.
Another special gift box was made up for nurses serving in frontline hospitals. These still contained the Christmas card and Princess Mary picture, which featured in all variations of the box, but contained chocolate, as opposed to sweets and cigarettes.
|Type of Gift Box||What Was Included?|
|Standard smokers 1914 (inc. Ghurkhas)||Christmas card, Princess Mary picture,Lighter (sometimes replaced by alt. small present), Pipe, One ounce of Tobacco, Twenty monogrammed Cigarettes.|
|Standard non-smokers 1914||Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Bullet casing pencil, Acid tablets, Khaki writing case.|
|Sikh gift box 1914||Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Sugar candy, Box of Spices.|
|Bhistis 1914||Christmas Card, Princess Mary picture, Tin box of spices.|
|Other Indian Troops 1914||Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Sugar candy, Packed of Cigarettes, Box of spices.|
|Nurses 1914||Christmas Card, Princess Mary Picture, Chocolate.|
|Universal box 1915-1918||New Year’s Card, Pencil.|
Manufacture and Distribution
The production and distributing of the Gift Box was a huge task. All industries were under strain during the First World War. Tobacco was becoming harder to come by and more of a luxury, and all metal was being pumped into the armaments industry to make weapons.
It was difficult to obtain the necessary resources to create Princess Mary’s Gift Boxes. The boxes were to be made of brass, a material hard to come by due to its usefulness in weapon and munitions productions. Special sheets of brass had to be ordered in from the USA which took a long time to arrive eventually halting production.
Another twist in this tale comes from an unlikely source; the sinking of the US ship the Lusitania. This famous ship was sailing from the USA to England before it was hit by a German torpedo and sunk on 7th May 1915 just off the Irish coast. This tragedy involved a huge loss of human life, with all 1,195 passengers on board losing their lives. Also lost was a large quantity of brass that was to be made into Princess Mary gift boxes.
Despite these problems the gift boxes were still a success. By Christmas 1914 355,716 gifts had reached members of the British Expeditionary force, 66,168 gift boxes had reached men at home on sick leave, 4,600 had gone to the French Mission, fighting alongside British soldiers in France, and 1,390 boxes had reached nursing staff in the army. This meant that over 426,724 gift boxes had been made and distributed in just two months. Over the next four years another two million boxes would be delivered to people involved in Britain’s war effort.
These boxes were designed to create a feeling of unity under the British Royal Family and to boost morale among those facing front line fighting. Princess Mary received many letters of thanks from serving troops expressing their gratitude at the thoughtful generosity of the young Princess and from the British nation.
The box occasionally had a more specific impact on individuals too. One Private Maynard, who fought in WW1 wrote to the Princess Royal whilst she lived at Harewood to inform her that her gift box had saved his life! Whilst serving, Private Maynard was shot in the chest. The bullet was deflected by the gift box which he was carrying in his pocket at the time.
The Story Continues
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, and to say a heartfelt thank you to the thousands of brave troops currently serving in the armed forces, this December, Fortnum & Mason is sending beautiful, limited-edition Christmas tins to all British servicemen and women on active duty throughout the world. The tins are filled with bespoke, miniature playing cards and a luxury milk chocolate bar.
Called ‘Tommy’s Tin’, after Tommy Atkins, the colloquial term for a common soldier in the British army, Fortnum’s 2014 tins are virtually identical to those sent to the troops by Princess Mary during World War One. They come in the same brushed-gold colour, with the same hinging, and are heavily embossed just like the originals. A few discrete alterations indicate that this tin is a 21st century creation. The Fortnum’s replica includes the badges for the Army, Navy and Air Force, whilst on either side of the head of Britannia, the central design feature, are the letters ‘F’ and ‘M’.
You can see the original Gift Boxes and the 2014 editions at an exhibition at Harewood from 3rd April 2015.