A gift from Princess Mary

Princess Mary Gift Box

Amy Savage, a volunteer at The National Museum of the Royal Navy returns with another insightful blog on her work at the trophies and relics store at the Royal Marines Museum. Her festive-inspired article looks at the history of the Princess Mary Gift Box as well as today's modern day equivalent. 

During my work auditing in the trophies & relics store at the Royal Marines Museum, I have come across a collection of Princess Mary Gift Fund 1914 Boxes, also known as Princess Mary’s Gift Tins. I have explored this topic to give myself some interesting background material and a better understanding of the attitudes of the era. These boxes are particularly topical at this time of year.

Princess Mary Gift Fund 1914
Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, was concerned about the soldiers and sailors fighting in the First World War and wanted to provide a Christmas gift for each of them. Initially, Princess Mary wanted to pay for the gifts from her private allowance but this was deemed impractical. It was decided that Princess Mary would lend her name to a public fund instead.

Princess Mary’s personal appeal to the nation
Princess Mary saw this project as not only providing a gift for service personnel, but also providing employment at home. The appeal read:

“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 … 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. On Christmas Eve … doubtless their thoughts will turn to home and loved ones left behind … 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 … Please will you help me? Mary.”

This personal appeal to the nation appears to have resonated with the public, raising a fund of £162,591 12s 5d, the equivalent of approximately £17 million in today’s money. This was a phenomenal amount of money to have been donated during such a dark and difficult time. In fact, more money was raised than was required, so the surplus was donated to Queen Mary’s Maternity Home which looked after the wives and infants of soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Princess Mary appointed two committees to operate the fund. Committee members included the Duke of Devonshire, Prime Minister H H Asquith, Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War Earle Kitchener and the High Commissioners for the Dominions. The gifts were initially intended for those who were serving overseas or at sea at Christmas in 1914, but distribution was widened to include all those who were serving at home or abroad, prisoners of war (held until they were repatriated) and the next of kin of casualties. Distribution continued beyond the Armistice in 1918 with over 2.6 million boxes being issued over a 5-year period.

The committees decided the gifts would be placed in an embossed brass box with the contents being tailored to the recipient. Surprisingly for the time, minority groups were catered for. In common, most boxes contained a Christmas card, later a New Year card, and a photograph of Princess Mary, all within an envelope. Smokers received 1 ounce of pipe tobacco, 20 cigarettes, a pipe and a tinder lighter. The tobacco and cigarettes were packaged in yellow wrappers, complete with Princess Mary’s monogram. Each cigarette was also emblazoned with HRH’s monogram.

The detail in the packaging was surprising to me and gave a personal touch to the gift. Non-smokers received a packet of acid tablets and a khaki writing case containing a ‘bullet pencil’, paper and envelopes. The ‘bullet pencil’ comprised a metal casing which housed a small pencil inside. The metal casing was shaped to look like an unfired cartridge round and came complete with all the markings that would be expected on a real round. The cartridge was also stamped with Princess Mary’s monogram. Sikhs received sugar candy and a tin box of spices.

These gifts were also given to other Indian troops with the addition of a packet of cigarettes. Bhishtis, a Muslim tribe found in the Indian subcontinent, were given a tin box of spices. Spices are an important part of Indian culture so these would have provided a small comforting taste of home. However, Gurkhas received the same gifts as the British troops. It was determined that nurses should be given a packet of chocolate.

It was not only the contents but also the box itself that provided a valuable gift. The box seals tightly meaning it could be used to keep personal items safe throughout the war but some packaged the boxes up and sent them home to family. Some of the boxes in the collection are framed along with the card and photograph of Princess Mary indicating the value given to these simple gifts.

Supply issues
The boxes have an unlikely connection to the tragedy of the sinking of RMS Lusitania in May 1915. Brass was in short supply during the war due to the volume required to manufacture weapons and munitions, and, as a result, brass was shipped from America. Some 45 tons destined to produce these boxes was lost in the disaster.

There were also supply issues when it came to some of the gifts within the boxes, for example, the demand for tinder lighters outweighed supply so a ‘bullet pencil’ was given instead. Other items were also in short supply and were replaced with items such as tobacco pouches, shaving brushes, combs and purses.

Modern day gift boxes
The concept is still used today. Individuals, and since 2005 a British charity, have been sending Christmas boxes filled with gifts to our troops away from home at Christmas. The charity boxes include simple things such as a Christmas hat, but also useful gifts such as a wind-up torches and razors. These gifts continue the tradition of providing a boost to morale for our troops, as they would have done all those years ago in the First World War.

HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands