121-year-old Royal chocolate discovery at Oxburgh Hall
A 121-year-old tin of chocolate commissioned by Queen Victoria to boost wartime morale has been discovered in a Boer War helmet case at Oxburgh Hall.
Still in its original tin and wrapper, the chocolate was discovered in an attic among the belongings of the eighth baronet, Sir Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfeld's belongings.
Anna Forrest, the National Trust’s cultural heritage curator said: “Although it no longer looks appetising and is well past its use by date – you wouldn’t want it as your Easter treat – it is still complete and a remarkable find."
The chocolate and helmet belonged to the baronet, who fought in the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902. The discovery was made during the cataloguing of belongings of his daughter, Frances Greathead, who died in 2020.
Part of a batch commissioned by Queen Victoria, the chocolate was issued to troops in South Africa in 1900 to boost morale with the intention for every soldier and officer to receive a box inscribed with 'South Africa 1900' and 'I wish you a happy New Year' in the Queen's handwriting.
Queen Victoria commissioned the country's three principal chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree, to make the order. As pacifist Quakers that opposed the war, all three manufacturers refused to accept payment for the order and originally donated the chocolate in unbranded tins.
However, the Queen insisted the troops knew they were getting British chocolate and the firms backed down, marking some bars. The tins themselves were never branded. It’s unclear which of the three manufacturers made the chocolate discovered at Oxburgh.
More than 100,000 tins were produced, each containing a half-pound of plain chocolate. As a gift from the Queen, many soldiers preserved their tins, with some posting them back home for safekeeping.
While some tins survive, few can be traced to their original recipient, and fewer still contain the chocolate more than 120 years later.
Anna said: "We can only assume that the 8th Baronet kept the chocolate with the helmet as a memento of his time in the Boer War.
“By the turn of the century, Henry was a Major in the militia of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and fought in the Boer War. He was still in South Africa when his father died in 1902, which is when he returned to England and to Oxburgh Hall, aged 42."
She added: “We know his return to Oxburgh was mentioned in family memoirs. It’s said that one night while in his tent, Henry heard a woman crying, followed by his father’s voice saying 'It’s your mother Henry. I’m dying'. In the morning he met the Adjutant who wrote his story down and dated it. But it was two weeks before they got a telegram confirming his father’s death.
"Henry’s uncle was a friend of the 5th Duke of Wellington and arranged for Henry to be sent back to England. We believe that’s when he returned home to Oxburgh, with the chocolate, his helmet and a new title."
Henry's daughter, Frances, died at the age of 100 last year. Frances, along with her mother Sybil and cousin Violet, were instrumental in saving Oxburgh Hall from being sold at auction in 1951.
After selling their houses to raise the necessary funds, all three women moved back to live at Oxburgh before donating it to the National Trust. Frances moved to South Africa in 1956, but still returned to her apartment at Oxburgh every summer.
Although the items are not currently on display, the hope is that they will be at some point in the future.