Could National Museum of the Royal Navy have found the world's oldest Christmas pudding?

By Culture24 Reporter | 03 November 2011
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A photo of an ancient pudding tin against a red background
A Christmas collector's piece at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Of all the luxury memorabilia The National Museum of the Royal Navy has ever been offered, a 111-year-old plum pudding sent to the Naval Brigade during the Boer War must be right up there.

"We received a call from a lady wanting to know if we would be interested in a tinned Christmas pudding," explains Victoria Ingles, the Collections Manager at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard venue.

"It had been in her kitchen cupboard since her husband’s death, but she knew little else about it other than it had been in his family for many years so this sparked our interest to try and find out more."

Encased in a decorative tin, the delectable delivery carries the message "For the Naval Brigade, In the Front, With Miss Weston's Best Christmas & New Year, 1900, Wishes", still clearly decipherable in the detail.

The Miss Weston in question is almost certainly Miss Agnes Weston, a figure known as the Mother of the Navy and nicknamed Aggie.

Weston was renowned for her hospital visits and parish work, striking up a correspondence with a sailor who asked her to write to him and ultimately becoming founder of the Royal Naval Sailors' Rests at Devonport and Portsmouth.

She was made a Dame shortly before her death in 1918 and was buried with full naval honours, but her legacy lives on in the quality of the cake, with a label assuring connoisseurs of "High Class Ingredients Only".

It is embellished with an Oliver Twist-style illustration of children holding out plates on the other side of the tin, as well as cooking instructions.

"As Christmas drew near it occurred to one of us that a Christmas pudding for each man of the Naval Brigade would be a nice little present," Weston wrote in her book, My Life Among the Bluejackets, describing her attempt to provide a pudding for each man in a frontline estimated to number between 600 and 1,000 combatants.

"Messrs. Peek, Frean & Co. carried out the order, and the puddings went off, each in its tin."

Curators are now planning conservation work on the pudding before it stars alongside navy rations from both World Wars – including an orange, chocolate and a recent festive box sent to the Navy in Iraq – in the Dockyard’s upcoming Victorian Festival of Christmas.

"It is quite remarkable that the pudding has survived for over 100 years," adds Ingles.

"It is the only example we know of issued to the Naval Brigade still in existence –  and quite possibly the oldest surviving Christmas pudding."
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