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Shrine Stories: The Chocolate Box

A brass tin with a face engraved. The face is surrounded by a wreath and on either side are the letters 'M'.

The Shrine Stories podcast takes you on a deep dive behind the objects on our gallery floor.

In this episode, we get festive by exploring two Christmas tins that were sent to soldiers in the Boer War and the First World War. 

Join Exhibitions and Grants Coordinator at the Shrine Katrina Nicolson as she uncovers the contents of these boxes and how they were sent to the troops. 


Across the Line - Lone Canyon


LAURA THOMAS: The Shrine of Remembrance embraces the diversity of our community and acknowledges the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was recorded. We pay our respects to elder's past and present.

KATRINA NICOLSON: And chocolate was seen in those times, particularly, not even so much as the treat that we regard it as. but even as a beneficial medical aid.

LAURA THOMAS: Oh, okay. I wish it was like that now. I would like an excuse to have my bar of chocolate a day.

KATRINA NICOLSON: Well, I'm sure self medication is to be advocated in this matter. 

LAURA THOMAS: Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast, a place where we take you on a deep dive into the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor. My name is Laura Thomas. And in this episode of the podcast, we're getting festive. And we're looking at two Christmas tinsthat we have on display here at the Shrine. These tins were sent over to troops who were serving during the Christmas period and contain goodies as a thank you and as a means to lift spirits. With me to get into the Christmas spirit is Exhibitions and Grants Coordinator at the Shrine Katrina Nicolson. Welcome, Katrina. 

KATRINA NICOLSON: Pleasure to be here. 

LAURA THOMAS: Now, as I mentioned, we have two Christmas tins on display here at the Shrine. So I thought we could start off with the one on display in the pre Federation gallery. So that one there dates back to the Boer War. Katrina, who was the brains behind this gift?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Well, it goes right to the very highest levels because Queen Victoria came up with the idea of providing a gift to all active personnel who were fighting at that time in South Africa. And she wanted every soldier and every officer to receive a gift. So she decided that she thought chocolate was a good idea. And she went out to three British manufacturers of chocolate to scope it and those manufacturers were J. S Fry, Cadbury and Brothers limited and Roundtree limited.

LAURA THOMAS: And why did she have to go to three? Why couldn't she have just gone to one?

KATRINA NICOLSON: They provided 123,000 tins. So even with the high volumes that chocolate manufacturers have, that's a lot to provide. And in point of fact, those three manufacturers actually donated the chocolate for the tins. And they did that because they're all members of the Quaker religion. And it is against the principles to profit from war.

LAURA THOMAS: Why then did these people who are against war and Queen Victoria herself think it was important to have these gifts sent out to the troops?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Well, I think there was a couple of things in play. One was it was the turn of the century. So if we remember ourselves back to the year 2000, there was huge celebrations all around the world. And I think that was an element in the discussion. Because here are these mainly men fighting overseas during the important period, but also just an acknowledgement that at Christmas men are fighting away from home. I think that was part of it. And for the Quakers, they are against war, on principle. They're a religious organisation. Their formal name is the Religious Society of Friends. They were formed as an out shoot from the Church of England in the 1600s. They'd faced many periods of persecution over time, but during the 19th century had become a much more mainstream religion, widely accepted and many of them went into business. So acknowledged to be very good business people, worked very hard, treated their workers very well. And some of the businesses that they went into with things like banking, but particularly something like chocolate because they were anti alcohol, they promoted teetotalism, so they wouldn't be into, you know, manufacturing beer or anything like that. And chocolate was seen in those times, particularly, not even so much as the treat that we regarded as, but even as a beneficial medical aid.

LAURA THOMAS: Oh, okay. I wish it was like that now. I would like an excuse to have my bar of chocolate a day.

KATRINA NICOLSON: Well, I'm sure self medication is to be advocated in this matter.

LAURA THOMAS: Now, this is a very important question. I think, what kind of chocolate were in these these boxes?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Well, they call it vanilla chocolate. And when we hear vanilla chocolate, we think that means white chocolate, but it wasn't. And it was closer to the milk chocolate of today, but not exactly like it. Not as sweet as what we would currently have as a chocolate bar today. It was about half a pound of chocolate. And to put that into today's money. That's 227 grams, which is about the same as a standard Cadbury's bar that you would buy in the supermarket today. 

LAURA THOMAS: One of the bigger ones, right. 

KATRINA NICOLSON: Yeah, not the huge family family large family one, but the ordinary, you know, ordinary big one. 

LAURA THOMAS: Yeah, yeah. They're not skimping out on them. That's, that's lovely to hear. Can you explain to me the boxes themselves? What were these chocolates carried in?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Sure. So the box from the Boer War is particularly beautiful. It's quite highly coloured. So it's a brass tin. And they chose brass because of for its durability. And also they created a an airtight seal. So the tins can be used later for other things, but it's blue and red on the gold background of the brass. And there's a profile image of Queen Victoria embossed into it. And inscribed on the tin in the Queen's handwriting is a personal message to the soldiers. And so it says, 'I wish you a Happy New Year Kind regards, Victoria Regina'. And that means Queen Victoria.

LAURA THOMAS: So talk to me specifically about the chocolate box that we have here on the Shrine because I believe that there is still chocolate in it.

KATRINA NICOLSON: That is right. We haven't tasted it

LAURA THOMAS: Probably wise

KATRINA NICOLSON: Probably wise. But yes, it still does have its chocolate in it and we know who it belonged to. His name was Sergeant Edward Geary, and he fought during the Boer War for the Victorian mounted rifles, who served in South Africa during that period. And he actually comes from my hometown of Warnambool. 

LAURA THOMAS: That's a nice connection

KATRINA NICOLSON: Little personal connection there. And he was mentioned in dispatches by Colonel Tom Price for his bravery under fire. And he rescued several of his comrades under fire. So he was a, you know, a well respected man. And he sent this box home to his family. And it appears he didn't taste the chocolate either.

LAURA THOMAS: Right, right. So he didn't taste the chocolate. His family didn't taste the chocolate. It's a totally foreign concept to me. But why? Why do you think that they didn't eat the chocolate?

KATRINA NICOLSON: But I think there's a section of people, and he was obviously one of them, that would regard a gift from the queen, the head of state of our country, and she was the direct head of state then, we still weren't a Commonwealth in 1900, as being a really important and valuable gift and something to cherish and hold onto and not eat in this instance.

LAURA THOMAS: It's a lot of self control that I probably wouldn't exercise, but it means that we have a pretty incredible artefact here at the Shrine. But we have another one that we've mentioned, a second tin. And this tin dates back to the First World War. So Katrina talk me through it, was it inspired by the first? Does it have similar items?

KATRINA NICOLSON: I think it was definitely inspired by the first. This tin is known as the Princess Mary Christmas tin. And Princess Mary was the great granddaughter of Queen Victoria. And she was 17 years old in 1914. And she was doing things like hospital visiting, seing sick and injured men firsthand. And she wanted to do something for the war effort. Now initially, she wanted to sponsor the tins out of her own pocket as Queen Victoria had done. But wiser heads prevailed. I think already in 1914, they were realising there was this was a bigger war. And so a public fund was set up with her as the patron and the British public put in money to provide comforts for the troops. And it was enormously oversubscribed. They ended up with something like in today's money, 18 million dollars.

LAURA THOMAS: 18 million dollars?

KATRINA NICOLSON:  Yep, which in those days was a bit over 162,000 pounds.

LAURA THOMAS: So there was obviously a big desire to provide, I guess, a sense of home and a sense of connection to the troops around Christmas time.

KATRINA NICOLSON: Definitely. Princess Mary said in her call out to the public 'I want you now to help me send a Christmas present from the whole nation'. And that is what the nation did. And the initial idea was she wanted to give a gift to every soldier and sailor who was serving overseas at Christmas time, not forgetting there were no airmen at that stage because the Royal Flying Corps had not yet been formed. But because it was so oversubscribed, they then decided that they would give a present to every person who was serving. And they really thought through what the contents of this tin should be. The initial idea was that there would be a portrait card of the princess. There was a Christmas card from her parents, the king and queen. And then there was things like little writing booklets, cigarettes, tobacco, lighters, and they went out to manufacturers to provide these things and quickly realised that again, there's so many of the things being manufactured, that no one manufacturer could keep up. So it started to extend out to shaving paraphernalia, chocolates, sweets, various things, but they'd also taken into consideration different cultural requirements and different dietary requirements. So pretty early on, they decided that they needed a non smokers tin as well as the smokers tin. So the non smokers got sweets and also particularly with some of the Colonial troops, in particular the troops from India, Sikhs, for example, forbidden to use tobacco. So their tins had sugar candy. And also spices. And the regular Indian troops also got spices as well as smoking paraphernalia, or sweets depending on their requirements. So they had thought through some of these issues. And it became an enormous thing. And they ended up providing over two and a half million of these tins during the course of the war. 

Now supply for such an enormous amount became a real issue. And certainly not everybody got them in time for Christmas 1914. That was the first thing. And what happened after that is they substituted the Christmas card for a best wishes for the New Year card, which would be relevant at any time. 

LAURA THOMAS: At anytime,  you get that in August

KATRINA NICOLSON: That's right. But some people didn't receive the tin until after the Armistice in 1918. 


KATRINA NICOLSON: So it was a big logistics thing. And it wasn't helped because, again, they went to the brass tins. Now, in one way, these were a plainer tin than Queen Victoria's tin because it was plain brass. There was no coloration. But it was still decorative because it was embossed with a picture of Princess Mary on the lid, and also had like these swags of wreaths around the outside, and the names of the principal allies. And of course, the thing that often surprises people. It's engraved Christmas 1914. It says Imperium Britannica, which is Imperial Britain. But the names of some of the combatants. It's Belgium, Japan, Russia, Montenegro, Serbia, and France. And the one that particularly surprises people, of course, is Japan, because people forget that in the First World War, Japan were our allies and they were very strong allies. And that has been subsumed, of course, by what happened in the events of the Second World War when we were on opposing sides. But in this first war, we were allies. And the same with those other countries. 

KATRINA NICOLSON: So it was a different looking tin, but it had some of the same qualities that it was, that was the brass, and it was a reusable tin because it was air tight, but that brass is an enormous impost for a nation at war, because brass is used in making munitions. And they were importing brass from America. And they lost many 1000s of tonnes of it when the Lusitania was sunk by German U boats, German submarines. So it became a logistical nightmare getting these tins out, which is why it took so long for them to come. And we have a lovely letter that had been loaned to us from Alexander Borthwick who fought for Australia during the First World War. And in August 1915, he was on Gallipoli. And he writes, 'This feels like Christmas to me as we've just been doled out with presents, I got a knife and fork, an envelope and a sheet of paper and half a lead pencil. Princess Mary sent us out a parcel last week, we got a pen knife, a tobacco pouch and some paint and arrangements for lighting a pipe all to be divided amongst 25 men'. And you can see that he's a long way past Christmas night. But also, they'd obviously received an allotment to be shared, not an individual one for each person as well. So that was an interesting thing to discover in his letters when I was going back through searching for material,

LAURA THOMAS: Did that happen quite often? Do you know? Is it something that they didn't all get individual or?

KATRINA NICOLSON: I can't say for sure. I can only speak for this example, because we have it in his writing that that's what happened. But I suspect that that's possibly true.

LAURA THOMAS: Can you tell me about who donated the tin that we have on display here at the Shrine?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Yes. So this tin belonged to a man called Jules Gascard. He was only 19 years of age when he joined up in August 1914. And he served with the Australian artillery, and he was awarded the Military Medal with Bar and that means he was awarded the Military Medal twice, which means he was a very brave man. And he came home to Australia and his descendants donated the team to the Shrine, along with many other artefacts that belong to him.

LAURA THOMAS: Did this tradition of giving Christmas gifts continuing to the Second World War and into present day terms of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and peacekeeping missions?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Not in quite the same way, not in a government provided gift or a gift from the reigning monarch. But what we do see, and this started even in the First World War, Australia has a long tradition of providing comforts to her troops, but it has been through the auspices of charitable organisations and grassroots community donations So in the First World War for Christmas, Australians got together and created a Christmas Billy, which was a tin bucket basically with a lid and they would fill it with all sorts of similar things that were in the Princess Mary tin, it might be tobacco might be shaving equipment, note paper socks, you know, a nice piece of fruitcake well wrapped. So that was the beginning of that sort of thing. In the Second World War, the Australian comforts fund provided all sorts of things, we still have the playing cards that my father was provided with during the Second World War. But similar things shaving materials, notepaper, new socks, you know, hand knitted socks that people had made. So that sort of tradition continues, where charitable organisations provide gifts for the troops. And also many of our young people, their schools aligned with various elements of the Defence Force, and they send comfort packs to the troops. And I interviewed recently, a gentleman who is in the SAS, and he was in charge of collecting those comforts for his troops when they were in Afghanistan. And he told me that he made it a rule that if you took a parcel, you had to write back to whoever had donated the parcel, because the tradition with these things is that you put in a note, you know, and if you're lucky, you get a letter back from the person that received your parcel, because you don't know who's going to receive it. And he had the lovely experience of opening his parcel and finding a note from two young boys from a school just down the road from his hometown.

LAURA THOMAS: What a coincidence. 

KATRINA NICOLSON: So when he came back to Australia, he went and visited them at their school, surprised them mightily.

LAURA THOMAS: And they're thinking, who's this soldier coming towards us? What have we done wrong?

KATRINA NICOLSON: Who is this man mountain come into? He's well over six foot, a very broad gentleman.

LAURA THOMAS: And I guess because Christmas is such a time, traditionally, for family and for these kinds of things. It continues to mean a lot when people are deployed abroad to have these kinds of things sent over.

KATRINA NICOLSON: Absolutely, I think, for our troops serving overseas, in whatever, you know, context or conflict that they are in, it's enormously important to understand that people at home, know that they're there and recognise their service. Because the one thing we really need to remember is, anybody who serves in defence has joined up to serve their country, they don't have a choice where they're sent to serve, they may deploy at a moment's notice. And it's often their family and their friends who suffer and miss them, but they miss those things as well. So it's incredibly important that we recognise that service and a small thing, you know, to provide some of those comforts, I think is so well received by those serving people.

LAURA THOMAS: Katrina, thank you so much for chatting with us today. And Merry Christmas.

KATRINA NICOLSON: Thank you and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to the Shrine Stories podcast and we wish you a safe and happy festive season.