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. On October 14th 1914 a meeting at the Ritz Hotel in London resulted in H.R.H. Princess Mary appointing a General Committee and an Executive Committee and officers to administer the fund. The General Committee, under the chairmanship of The Duke of Devonshire, included such illustrious people such as Asquith, Churchill and Kitchener, as well as a host of representatives from Parliament and the Commonwealth. It was the Executive Committee however who managed the scheme. During this initial meeting, it was decided that an embossed brass box, designed by Adshead & Ramsey, containing goods would form the basis of the gift. The lid would feature, in relief, the head of Princess Mary, inside a laurel leaf circle.
Who were they for?
It was Princess Mary's express wish that “every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front” should have the present. The tins were made in October 1914 ready for distribution to all who were serving in time for Christmas of that year. Afterwards, with the funds still available, and with many feeling they had been ‘left out’, distribution was extended more widely – to all who were serving, whether at home or abroad, and to prisoners of war and the next of kin of 1914 casualties. This widened eligibility to an estimated figure of 2,620,019, and took until 1920 to complete delivery of them all. The then young Princess was deeply interested in the work of the Fund and in a letter released by Buckingham Palace, signed by the Princess, she explained with great sincerity, 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?"
What went in the box?
The contents varied according to the nature of the recipient, and the supplies that were available, but the majority of boxes contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, a Christmas card and photograph of Princess Mary. The card carried the message “With best wishes for a happy Christmas and a victorious New Year”, followed by “from The Princess Mary and friends at home”. However quite early on the committee in charge decided that an alternative gift should be made available for non-smokers and agreed that they should receive instead a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes together with the Christmas card and photograph of the Princess inside the box.
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. The Gurkhas received the same gift as the British troops, but Sikhs received the box filled with sugar candy. A tin box of spices and the Christmas card were given to all other Indian troops. 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, supplies ran out before all of the boxes could be distributed, and so 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 final numbers of boxes distributed were:
- France & Belgium 355,716
- Wounded given in France and at home 89,165
- Next of kin 5,000
- French mission 4,600
- Troops at home including Commonwealth 1,337,889
- India 294,000
- Canada 70,000
- Australia 53,3000
- South Africa 42,647
- New Zealand 19,915
- Colonies 72,086
Fund raising and distribution
A long list of well-known names donated money to the Fund, which eventually totalled to £162,591 12s 5d, most of this coming from thousands of small gifts sent by ordinary people from all parts of the United Kingdom. In fact, more money was raised than was needed, and so the remaining monies were transferred to Queen Mary's Maternity Home, founded by the Queen for the benefit of the wives and infants of sailors, soldiers and airmen of the newly formed Royal Air Force.
With difficulties in distribution, and with sourcing both the brass and the contents during the on-going war, it took a lot longer than anticipated to deliver all of the boxes. Not helped when 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. Distribution dragged on even beyond the Armistice in 1918.
A treasured gift
A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box was a treasured possession of many veteran soldiers of the First World War, even when the original contents had long been used. Being airtight, the box made a useful container for money, tobacco, papers and photographs, so was often carried throughout the duration of service, and a great many men carefully repacked their presents and sent them home to their wives and families. Many original boxes are still available from military fairs and online, and continue to be seen as a treasured item.