Gift Box

PrincessMary'sBox1A metal box, that’s all it is. Not precious metal either, probably brass, at least that’s how it looks when polished, though bits are silver in colour, so it could possibly be tin or another alloy. Approximately 130 centimetres across, 85 from front edge to back and 30cm/1 inch deep, it would fit in a uniform pocket.

On the lid is a portrait in relief of a young woman’s head, hair swept up , within a wreathe of laurel and flanked by a scrolled letter ‘M’ on each side. This represents Princess Mary, the then seventeen-year-old daughter of King George V who launched an appeal in October 1914 to raise money for the ‘Soldiers and Sailors Christmas Fund’, or so the advertisements in the British press of the time described it.

PrincessMary'sBox3£152, 691 was raised and manufacturing of the boxes began. Although originally meant for ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ on Christmas Day 1914, this was widened to include anyone serving, wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day. About 400,000 were distributed before or at Christmas, though the tally eventually reached 2.5 million, although many of those weren’t distributed until 1920, after the war was over. ‘Serving’ is appropriate, as I remember, as a child, a  ‘christmas box’ was something given to tradespeople, postmen, anyone who had served you well during the year preceding.

The British class system meant that officer’s boxes were made of silver, while other ranks received brass boxes, although, as the numbers grew and the money ran low, later boxes were made from tin or alloys. The design on the lid was the same for all the boxes, featuring military weapons, an axe and a sword across the top, pikes down the sides and, just to prove that Britannia ruled the waves, two gun ships across the bottom. At the four corners and in line with the image of Princess Mary to the side are six shields, each bearing the name of an ally. France and Russia take pride of place with the princess, while Belgium, Japan, Montenegro and Servia (Serbia) are in the four corners. The last two, plus Belgium, probably represented the initial theatres of the war. Above Princess Mary is a shield bearing the words PrincessMary'sBox2‘Imperium Britannicus’ and below her a lozenge bearing the inscription ‘Christmas 1914’.

The tins contained, typically, an ounce of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes in a yellow, monogrammed wrapper, a cigarette lighter, a Christmas card and a photograph from Princess Mary. Some also contained chocolate and sweets. Needless to say the contents has long since disappeared, but it probably brought some pleasure to its recipient.

The box was given to me recently by a friend, a soldier who had served for years at the Embassy in Islamabad. Pakistan is, I am told, full of such remnants of empire, military memorabilia from bygone ages available to buy in the bazaars for very little. It was a very lovely gift, a small piece of history, with many resonances, some tragic and heroic, some less laudible, like Britain’s colonial past, but I was very grateful to receive it.

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