In 1914 there was a popular view that the First World War, which had started on 4 August of that year, would ‘be over by Christmas’. As December rapidly approached however it was clear that the war would last considerably longer. It was in this atmosphere that Princess Mary, the only daughter of George V, expressed her wish to send a Christmas present to ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’. To help achieve this, a Christmas Gift Fund was established on 14 October 1914, taking Princess Mary’s name. The public were immediately receptive to the idea agreeing with the Princess that ‘we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning’.
The form the gift would take was finally agreed on as a box containing tobacco and cigarettes along with the accoutrements such as a pipe and lighter. The box also contained a photo of the young Princess and a Christmas card with the message ‘With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from The Princess Mary and Friends at Home’. Only a month after the fund had opened and with one month still to go until Christmas there was enough money left over to extend the gift scheme to every man ‘wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day 1914’. A non-smoker’s version of the gift was developed with a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes as well as the Christmas card and photograph mentioned above. Religion was also taken into account so that everyone received a suitable present with tobacco being replaced by sweets and spices for Indian troops.
Many of the tins were kept as souvenirs and survive in families to this day. We are lucky enough to have two in the BPMA’s collection. One doesn’t have any of the contents remaining but the tin itself is a lovely item decorated with relief patterns including a side portrait of Princess Mary in the centre with a wreath with decorative ‘M’ either side. On six sides of the lid is lettering in vignettes showing the names of the allied forces: ‘Belgium'; ‘Japan'; ‘Russia'; ‘Montenegro'; ‘Servia'; ‘France’. The other is a new acquisition into our collection and includes the contents of tobacco and cigarettes. It belonged to Alfred Greenwood who served with the Royal Engineers and can be seen at our Last Post exhibition in Coalbrookdale until March 2015.
In all almost 500,000 men received a gift from the Princess Mary fund and they have become treasured possessions and heirlooms for many families throughout the country and a reminder of the sacrifice that was being given at the time.
-Emma Harper, Curator