121-year-old chocolate commissioned by Queen Victoria discovered in Boer War helmet case

Press release
A tin of 121-year-old chocolate found at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk
Published : 30 Mar 2021

Chocolate commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1900, still within its original wrapper and tin, has been discovered in a Boer War helmet case in the attic of the National Trust’s Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

The chocolate and helmet belonged to the 8th Baronet, Sir Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfeld, who fought in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The discovery was made among the belongings of his daughter, Frances, which are being catalogued following her death in 2020. Further research and recent conversations with the family, have shed more light on the discovery.

The chocolate was part of a batch commissioned by Queen Victoria, which was issued to troops in South Africa in 1900 to boost morale. It was intended that every soldier and officer would receive a box with the inscription '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 undertake 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 Forrest, the National Trust’s Cultural Heritage Curator says: “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. 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.

“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.”

The chocolate was discovered when staff and the family of Henry’s daughter, Frances Greathead, began cataloguing items following her death in 2020 at the age of 100. 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.