Story of Princess Mary and her gifts to British troops in WW1

Princess Mary, then 17 years old, decided to send tin boxes containing tiny Christmas gifts to British Empire troops fighting on the front lines during WW1 in 1914. After failing to raise enough money from her personal allowance, she established a fund, made a public appeal, and raised the equivalent of £17 million today.

Amy Savage, a volunteer at The National Museum of the Royal Navy, has written another fascinating blog on her work at the Royal Marines Museum’s trophies and relics store. Her holiday-themed piece delves into the history of the Princess Mary Gift Box as well as its modern-day counterpart.

I came upon a collection of Princess Mary Gift Fund 1914 Boxes, commonly known as Princess Mary’s Gift Tins, while auditing in the Royal Marines Museum’s trophies and relics store. I researched this topic in order to gain some intriguing background information and a better grasp of the views prevalent at the time. This time of year, these boxes are especially relevant.

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1914: Princess Mary Gift Fund

Princess Mary, the daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, was concerned about the soldiers and sailors serving in the First World War and wanted to give each of them a Christmas present.

Princess Mary originally intended to pay for the gifts with her personal allowance, but this was deemed impractical. Instead, Princess Mary agreed to donate her name to a public charity.

Princess Mary’s Personal Appeal

Princess Mary saw this effort as a way to not only give back to the military, but also to create jobs at home. The following was the text of the appeal:

“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 struck a chord with the public, with a total raised of £162,591 12s 5d, or £17 million in today’s money. This was an incredible sum of money to be donated during such a dark and trying period. The surplus was presented to Queen Mary’s Maternity Home, which cared for the wives and infants of soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

What are the contents inside Princess Mary Gift box?

The fund will be managed by two committees chosen by Princess Mary. 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 were among the members of the committee.

The gifts were originally meant for individuals serving overseas or at sea during Christmas 1914, but the distribution was expanded to include all personnel serving at home or abroad, as well as prisoners of war (kept until repatriation) and casualty relatives. Over 2.6 million boxes were distributed over a 5-year period after the Armistice was signed in 1918.

The committees determined that the gifts would be presented in an embossed brass box with personalised contents for each recipient. Minority groups were accommodated, which was unusual at the time. In most cases, a Christmas card, later a New Year card, and a photograph of Princess Mary were enclosed in an envelope.

1 ounce of pipe tobacco, 20 cigarettes, a pipe, and a tinder lighter were given to smokers. The cigarettes and tobacco were wrapped in yellow wrappers with Princess Mary’s monogram. HRH’s monogram was likewise engraved on each cigarette.

The attention to detail in the wrapping surprised me and gave the present a personal touch. Nonsmokers were given an acid tablet package and a khaki writing case with a ‘bullet pencil,’ paper, and envelopes. The ‘bullet pencil’ was made up of a metal case with a miniature pencil inside.

The metal casing was designed to resemble an unfired cartridge round, replete with all of the indications found on a genuine round. Princess Mary’s monogram was also imprinted on the cartridge. Sikhs were given sugar candies and a spice tin box.

Other Indian troops were also given these gifts, along with a packet of cigarettes. A tin box of spices was handed to the Bhishtis, a Muslim tribe from the Indian subcontinent. Spices are a big part of Indian culture, so these would have given you a little flavour of home. Gurkhas, on the other hand, received the same presents as British forces. Nurses should be given a chocolate packet, it was decided.

Not only did the contents of the box constitute a significant present, but so did the box itself. Although the box seals tightly, it could be used to keep personal goods safe throughout the war, some soldiers wrapped the boxes and returned them home to their families.

Supply Chain Issues

The boxes have an improbable relation to the tragedy of the RMS Lusitania’s sinking in May 1915. Due to the quantities required to create weapons and explosives, brass was in short supply throughout the war, thus it was transported from America. The accident resulted in the loss of 45 tonnes of material that was supposed to be used to make these boxes.

When it came to some of the gifts inside the boxes, there were also supply issues. For example, demand for tinder lighters outweighed supply, so a ‘bullet pencil’ was given instead. Other products were in short supply as well, so tobacco pouches, shaving brushes, combs, and handbags were substituted.

Gifting in Modern Times

The idea is still in use today. Individuals and a British charity have been delivering Christmas boxes full of presents to our military stationed overseas since 2005.

Simple items like a Christmas cap are included in the donation boxes, as well as practical items like wind-up lamps and razors. These gifts maintain the practise of boosting morale among our troops, as they would have done in the First World War all those years ago.