121-year-old chocolate bar found in Boer War helmet case
- Credit: National Trust / Victoria McKeown
A 121-year-old bar of chocolate that is still in its original wrapper and tin has been discovered in the attic of a National Trust site in Norfolk.
The chocolate, which was commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1900, has been discovered in a Boer War helmet case at Oxburgh Hall near Swaffham.
It was part of a batch commissioned by the Queen that was given to troops in South Africa in 1900 to "boost morale", with the intention 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.
The chocolate and helmet belonged to the 8th Baronet Sir Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfeld, who fought in the Second Boer War (1899-1902).
The recent discovery was made among the belongings of his daughter Frances Greathead, which are being catalogued following her death in 2020 at the age of 100.
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Information from the National Trust has revealed Queen Victoria commissioned the country's three main chocolate manufacturers - Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree - to undertake the order.
But as pacifist Quakers who opposed the war, all three manufacturers refused to accept payment for the order and originally donated the chocolate in unbranded tins.
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The Queen insisted the troops knew they were getting British chocolate and the firms then backed down marking some bars, but the tins themselves are said to have never been branded.
The National Trust said it was unclear which of the three manufacturers made the chocolate discovered at Oxburgh Hall.
A statement added: "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 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.
"We can only assume that the 8th Baronet kept the chocolate with the helmet as a memento of his time in the Boer War."
The chocolate was discovered when staff and the family of Frances began cataloguing items following her death.
The cultural heritage curator said: “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.”
Frances, her mother Sybil and cousin Violet are said to be "instrumental" in saving Oxburgh Hall, which has been home to the Bedingfield family for 500 years, 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.
The National Trust said that although the items were not currently on display, it hoped that they would be at "some point in the future".