It’s not every day you meet someone who believes his family’s destiny was changed by a box of chocolates from Queen Victoria – and, even more striking, it still has the chocolates in it almost 120 years later.
But that’s the story for Upper Hutt man, Joe Whitton, to tell.
The tin – still containing three of the six Cadbury’s chocolate fingers – came to New Zealand with his grandfather, Harry Pottle, who fought in the Boer War 118 year ago.
Joe remembers Harry showing his children and grandchildren the chocolates and explaining how they were a personal gift from Queen Victoria who wanted to cheer up her soldiers when things weren’t going too well in the war in South Africa. However, he understands the chocolates played a part in Harry’s decision to move to New Zealand.
According to the Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum it is the most famous tin from the Boer War.
Queen Victoria, at her own expense, had thousands of tins of chocolates produced for her soldiers serving at the war.
Printed on the front, in her handwriting was, “I wish you a happy New Year, Victoria R.”
Many soldiers sent the tins, sometimes still including their contents, home to their families.
The museum says tins in mint condition with their contents still inside are a rare find.
Harry used to entertain his children and grandchildren on Sunday afternoons with reminiscences of his early years as a chorister at Winchester Cathedral in England and then going off to the Boer War in South Africa.
He would bring out the chocolates and show them to his grandchildren.
The chocolates were more than 40 years old, “and too old looking then to eat,” Joe says. He’s never tried to eat one either.
Harry said they were given to him by Queen Victoria.
“As a child, I assumed this meant in person.”
What is known is that they were described as a “personal gift” from the queen and it was believed to be the first time a reigning monarch had given a “personal gift” to serving soldiers.
So when Harry described them as a personal gift from the queen, it could be interpreted two ways.
Harry came from a line of choristers at the cathedral, the most famous. his great-grandfather Henry Pottle, who was verger from 1861 to 1866 and bellringer from 1866 until his death in 1897.
Joe understands they were entitled to join the choir because they lived within two miles of the cathedral. But he understands it also included a military role, which is why Harry went to fight in the Boer War.
According to notes written by Joe’s mother, Nell, her father, Harry, was a carpenter and worked in that field at the war.
Joe remembers his grandfather saying he was so unimpressed with chocolates as the sole thanks for his efforts, that he resigned from the cathedral and migrated to New Zealand.
My impression has always been . . . he was disillusioned with the extent of appreciation and came to New Zealand.”
Queen Victoria died in January 1901 and so didn’t live to see the war end.
Te Papa has a similar chocolate tin, also with some of the chocolates inside. Its source is unknown.
The Silky Oak Chocolate Museum in Hawke’s Bay has a tin and there is one in the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
In New Zealand, Harry Pottle married wife, Cecilia, in Havelock North in 1909.
He became prominent in the Manchester Unity Lodge in New Zealand.
The couple had three daughters and six grandchildren.
A definite pattern among those grandchildren has been serving their communities.
Joe worked at the DSIR Soil Bureau at Taita and has given many years to his local community.
He served about 10 years on Upper Hutt City Council and is, currently, chairman of the Upper Hutt Uniting Parish Council.