With Christmas fast approaching, our December object of the month is a golden brass box, over a century old, issued as a Christmas gift to Britain’s WWI troops. In October 1914, Princess Mary expressed her wish to grant ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ a personal present straight from home to ‘hearten them in their struggle’. After a lot of thought, it was decided that the gift would be a gold lacquered box with an embossed lid containing one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, a Christmas card and a photograph of the princess (non-smokers instead received a pencil, paper and envelopes).
Her original intention was to pay for the boxes herself, using her private allowance, but after this was deemed unrealistic, she set up a public fund under her name. The scheme was immediately successful, with the ‘Sunday Times’ even publishing a long list of well-known figures who had donated to the cause just two weeks after it was introduced. Overall, the fund raised an impressive £162,591- more money than was needed even after the eligibility of the gift was extended! This was enough to send gifts not only to those overseas or at sea, but also to soldiers at home, prisoners of war and to the next of kin of 1914 casualties. In total, it is estimated that 2,620,019 military men received the gift by Christmas 1914, although a great many carefully repacked their presents and sent them home to their wives and families. The box was, and remains, a treasured possession of many veterans of the war.
This particular box was gifted to a Mr Thompson- a member of the East Surrey Regiment-during World War One. However, it was his father, Robert Thompson, who ended up with the golden gift; he was born in Norfolk and joined the army in 1888 at the age of 18. He fought for the Coldstream Guards, whose motto was ‘second to none’, in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, but spent most of his life living in Gander Green Lane in North Cheam. Robert used his son’s brass box as a safe for his own war tokens, along with those of his sons. These include Egyptian currency, army passes and a small South African bible, giving us an insight into life serving for the British Army.
Various piastre notes were found in the box; these were used as money in Egypt until 1834, when they were replaced by the pound, or ginieh (Arabic). This currency is still currently used as a subdivision of the pound in Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Syria, where it forms a 100th part of a pound. In September 1906, Robert was sent to Egypt with the Coldstream Guards, and would have used these notes to purchase various items, for example tobacco.
The Christmas Card given with the box reads ‘With best wishes for a victorious new year, from the Princess Mary and friends at home’. In a letter released by Buckingham Palace and signed by the Princess, she expresses her desire for the gift to act as a ‘token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning’. From the very outset, Mary took a deep personal interest in the work, and hoped the box would be something ‘useful and of permanent value’.
Clearly, Robert and his son viewed the box as very precious, proven by their care and preservation of the gift for all this time. Within the box, Robert stored his own and his son’s army passes, which were used to give permission for soldiers and sailors to be dismissed from their military quarters for a certain period of time. During war, the longest pass available was for three days, and was often only granted in recognition of special achievement or as a reward.
Amongst the army passes, Robert kept a small 1900 South African Bible, most likely from his time fighting for the Coldstream Guards in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). He was awarded the Queen’s South Africa medal, which was given to everyone who served in the war, and three clasps, each of which indicate an action or campaign in the war. One of these clasps was rewarded for Robert’s involvement in the Battle of Driefontein on March 10th 1900, which resulted in the capture of Bloemfontein; to the British, this was when it began to look as if the war would soon be won.
This blog was written and researched by Nonsuch High School for Girls students and Whitehall volunteers, Natasha and Yasmin Truelove. You can see the December Object of the Month and the contents of the Christmas Box in their accompanying display currently on at Cheam Library (Church Rd, Sutton, SM3 8QH) during regular library opening times.