Conservators at the National Library of Australia have uncovered one of the world’s oldest chocolate boxes, dating back 120 years during the Boer War. The commemorative chocolate tin was discovered in the bottom of a box of personal documents from the estate of Australian bush poet Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson.
Not only were they unmolested but they also appeared practically edible after more than 100 years. On the chocolate bar, marked into six fingers, there were also traces of ancient straw packaging and silver foil wrapping.
They were not expecting to find a bag of candy buried between a lifetime of poems, diaries, and newspaper clippings.
Jennifer Todd, the conservator at the National Library of Australia (NLA), recalls the scent of the books as they were unwrapped.
In the package were still wrapped chocolates from Banjo’s old tin of chocolates.
Chocolates fit for a Queen
Banjo Paterson didn’t explain why he had the chocolates or, more importantly, why he hadn’t eaten them. A little investigation, however, revealed some interesting facts regarding the tin’s origins. To offer consolation to Boer War troops at the turn of the century, Queen Victoria personally commissioned it.
South Africa, 1900″ and “I wish you a good new year, Victoria RI” were engraved on the tin.
The commemorative chocolate boxes were meant for troops, but they quickly became a hot commodity at the front, as Canadian soldier Private C Jackson wrote home about in December 1899.
It was Her Majesty’s gift to the South African military. As keepsakes, they are in high demand among police officers and everyone else,” he stated.
‘I’ve really been offered five pounds for mine, and ten pounds is being paid at Cape Cod,’ he said. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age sent Banjo Paterson to South Africa in October 1899 as a war correspondent. He returned to Australia over a year later.
Paterson may have acquired the chocolate tin from soldiers stationed in South Africa and, like many of them, shipped it home to keep it cool in the South African sun.
Chocolate company was at loggerheads with Queen Victoria
Banjo Paterson’s chocolates had another twist – they were quite contentious. 70,000 to 80,000-pound tins of cocoa were requested by Buckingham Palace in 1899 for troops in South Africa.
Inside Cadbury, the cocoa paste had to be sweetened to withstand the harsh circumstances of camp life. The tins had to be carefully adorned.
Cadbury’s owners, however, were pacifists and did not wish to provide their products to the Boer war at first. Cadbury initially declined to imprint its name on either the tin or the chocolate within the tin.
A political tug-of-war with Cadbury was won by the Palace, as the Queen insisted that her troops know that the chocolate they were eating was of “high quality”. They are durable enough to survive more than a century with only a little deterioration, it seems.
It was owned by Banjo Paterson himself until his death in 1941, then handed down through generations of his family before being purchased by the National Library of Canada last year. It is now the Library’s mission to conserve and digitise the collection in order to share it with the world.
As befits “The Banjo’s” popularity, the project’s funding came from a crowdsourcing campaign. Ayres said the library raised the $150,000 needed to categorise and maintain the collection quickly.
Ayres said he asks the public every year if they’d want to donate to a project.
This was such an iconic collection that we were certain the audience would come through when we asked for their aid, and they did.
In addition to “Waltzing Matilda,” the Banjo Paterson collection includes a huge silver gelatin picture that was eventually replicated on the Australian $10 note.
Banjo’s chocolates were clearly in better form than the family portrait, which had been damaged by water and ripping while hanging in the home. Once the project is done, the Banjo Paterson collection will be available for viewing online.
Aside from that, they will be preserved in a cold, dry location in the National Library of Australia.