The 1914 Christmas tin

In the back of a cupboard in Plimmerton was an old dusty brass box, a souvenir of Christmas 1914 brought back to New Zealand by one of our servicemen who had sailed overseas for service to the Empire.

The story of the brass box started in November 1914 when an advertisement was placed in United Kingdom and Colonial newspapers inviting people to give money to a ‘Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund.’ The fund had been started by Princess Mary, the seventeen year old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. The aim was to provide all servicemen and women serving overseas on Christmas Day 1914 with ‘a gift from the nation.’



The response was overwhelming and it was decided to spend the money raised on an embossed brass box, based on a design by Messers Adshead and Ramsey. The contents of the boxes varied considerably for officers and men on active service at sea or at the front were to receive a box containing a combination of pipe, lighter, one oz of tobacco and twenty cigarettes wrapped in distinctive yellow monogrammed wrappers. Non-smokers and boys were to receive a bullet pencil and a packet of sweets instead of the tobacco products. Troops from the Indian sub-continent often received sweets and spices and nurses were treated to chocolate. To complete the contents a Christmas greeting card and a photo of the Princess were enclosed.



The brass box is approximaelty 130mm long by 95mm wide and 30mm deep with a double-skinned, hinged, lid. The top of the lid depicts the head of Princess Mary in the centre, surrounded by a laurel wreath and flanked on either side by the M monogram. Above the head is a cartouche containing the words “Imperium Britannicum’ with a sword and scabbard on either side. Below the head is another cartouche with ‘Christmas 1914’ flanked by the bows of battleships forging through a heavy sea. At the corners are small roundels with the names of the Allies: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro, and Servia. France and Russia are at the edges, each superimposed on three furled flags or standards.


Great efforts were made to distribute the gifts in time for Christmas but with over 2,620,019 British, Colonial and Indian servicemen and women ‘wearing the Kings uniform’ it was realised that not everyone could be suppied. There were three classes established:

Class A (to receive the gift on or near Christmas Day) the navy, including minesweepers and dockyard officials, troops at the front in France, the wounded in hospitals, men on furlough, prisoners and men interned (for whom the gift was reserved), members of the French Mission with the Expeditionary Force, nurses at the Front in France and the widows or parents of those who had been killed. 

Class B: all British, Colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles, who were not provided for in Class A. 

Class C: all troops in the British Isles.

Class B and C gifts were not sent out until January 1915, they contained a Happy New Year card that wished all a 'Victorious New Year'. The New Zealand Expeditionary Forces (NZEF) stationed in Egypt would have received their gift at this stage. After the contents of the boxes were consumed they may have been sent the boxes back to relatives in New Zealand or carried them, as part of a soldier’s kit, into battle on Gallipoli. Our servicemen and women on duty in what had been German Samoa would have also received their gift later in 1916.

During and after the war the boxes provided a useful container for items and even today they contain badges, insignia and other keepsakes from WW1 and often WW2. The contents of the brass box will be discussed in next month’s article.


The majority of this article is based on information on items housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. 


Allan Dodson – April 2013



Last Updated: 22/04/2013 3:20pm