In 1916 It was decided that some form of memorial would be established for presentation to the next of kin of those who had died during the Great War and it was determined that it would take the form of a bronze medallion, the design of which would be decided by a public competition with a prize of £250.
The winner was Edward Carter Preston, whose coaster-sized medallion is illustrated and shows Britannia with trident offering a wreath, with the British lion at her feet. Over a million were produced, commemorating the sacrifice of men and women who died between the 4th August 1914 and 30th April 1920. With so many in existence, I wondered if a detectorist had ever found one. Perhaps you can let me know.
The medallion was nicknamed the dead man’s penny because, unlike others that represented bravery and honour, this one represented loss. I remember my father telling me that it was even seen by some as an insult. How could this be?
He had known a lady whose husband was killed during the First World War and she was sent a next-of-kin memorial plaque (medallion) as a token of gratitude ‘for her sacrifice’. The gesture wasn’t appreciated because it resembled a coin. I suppose it seemed to some recipients that the government saw a soldier’s life as worth only a penny. Some families even returned the item to the king.
Strange. With over a million distributed, I’ve never seen one!
Information below courtesy of the Museum of Manchester Regiment
Where were the Plaques made?
The ‘Memorial plaque factory’ was established in Acton, North London to manufacture the plaques. Production later changed to various munitions factory premises, including Woolwich Arsenal. The ‘WA’ initials in a circle on the rear of a plaque identify these.
What do the symbols on the plaque mean?
Each element of the design has a special meaning.
- Britannia is shown respectfully bowing to the named individual, her left hand is granting a wreath of leaves, symbolic of triumph, onto a rectangular tablet bearing the full name of the dead person.
- No rank is shown in the named tablet as it was intended that no distinction be made between the sacrifice made by officers and other ranks. At the very base of the plaque a lion, a symbol of British power, is shown defeating the eagle, a symbol of central powers.
- Two dolphins represent Britain’s naval power.
- The stylised oak leaves are symbolic of the distinction of the fallen individual.
- He ‘Died for freedom and honour’ was a compulsory element of the design competition.
- A lion is shown ‘Striding forward in a menacing attitude’, symbolising British strength.
Did you know?
- 1,355,000 plaques were issued using 450 tonnes of bronze.
- Only 600 plaques were issued to women. These plaques bear the wording, ‘She died for freedom and honour’.
- A memorial plaque is also known as ‘ Dead man’s penny’ ‘Next of kin’ plaque or ‘Death plaque’.
- Many plaques were secured to the headstone of the individual named, although some were stolen. Other plaques were mounted in frames and still remain on family mantelpieces to this day.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2012
As stated above I had never seen a detectorist find … until now! Nick of the Australian Metal Detecting and Relic Hunting Forum was detecting in his backyard yesterday when he discovered what he described as a large brass penny. He went on to describe his find:
On the back it is blank but on the front there is a lion and what looks like a Roman god with a trident and the words, “he died for freedom and honovr” and the name John Akers. I was guessing at this point that it was something to do with one of the wars.
I double checked the hole and … and could see a shiny chrome surface that seemed to be quite large … I removed the object which was made of thin chromed brass plate that had been rolled up … I gently tried to unroll it but feared that it would crack so took it to the shed and carefully applied some heat to anneal the brass. That made it easy to unroll. The plaque reads, ‘In honoured memory of pte John Akers. Enlisted 16th oct 1916. Fought in Polygon Wood with 52nd battalion. Died 26 sept 1917, Aged 32. Presented to his parents by the federal Red Cross society.
Further research has located John Akers’s name on Panel 154 in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial.
Private Akers died in Belgium and his memorial details can be seen on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.
Isn’t it rather sad- and ironic – that an award dedicated to a young man for freedom and honour should be found buried in a backyard! Was this a case of the award not being appreciated, as I suggested earlier. We shall never know.
UPDATE MARCH 2013
Another detectorist find has been reported in the April edition of the UK Searcher detecting magazine:
Barry Peplow and 68-year-old detectorist from Shrewsbury has found a Dead Man’s Penny. On it was inscribed the name of William Claude Edwards. Research showed that he died on 1 July 1916 and had served in the Sherwood Forersters Regiment. Arrangements were made to return the plaque to a surviving relative. The full account is in The Searcher magazine.
Update 23 May 2013
I received an interesting email yesterday from Kerry Langford. She (or is it “He”?) came across one of the plaques whilst assisting a friend identify a few items that had been passed down to him. After a little research it was found that the recipient of the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ was born 1878 in India and died as part of the British Indian Military in 1917. Kerry says:
Tudor Henry’s last known rank was that of a Major and out of wartime he was involved in the political side of things. The family tree shows that the Tucker family had quite a history in the public service departments, including Chairman of East India Co and Rear Admirals. Quite a few Tuckers have Order of Bath positions in all the honorary fields as well as a long list of prestigious medals from the Royal Family … I’ve included a new picture of the penny as well as a medal from the India war 1987/8.
Memorial Plaque, not Dead Man’s Penny, please!
I have had an interesting comment from Dave (aka Rmcsandhurst on the MLO forum) that I’d like to share with you … with his kind permission. He says:
Maybe rare to dig one of these up but very common in medal collecting circles. I know of two collectors who have in excess of 1000 (yes, one thousand) examples.
I have a few to officers (including the uniquely named “Beaufoi John Warwick Montressor Moore” a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps who was awarded the Military Cross prior to losing his life at the age of 31 in 1917 while giving instructions in the manoeuvring of the latest types of aircraft.
I also have an example to a lady. I should have bought one years ago that I saw on a dealers table for £100 but thought that it was too expensive. They now command prices that make a CTX3030 look cheap.
I wish to point out that many medal collectors hate the use of “Dead Man’s Penny” or “Death Plaque” preferring to use the correct title of “Memorial Plaque”
This is not intended to be a criticism of any part of your most interesting and informative blog.
Flog It! is a television programme broadcast by the BBC in the UK. An episode first broadcast from Ipswich in 2008 was shown again in May 2013. Keen-eyed viewer newseeker from the MLO detecting forum pointed out that a Memorial Plaque was one of the items valued … at between £25 and £30 if you must know.
Not much point in posting a link to the programme for it will have expired by the time you read this … and it isn’t available to overseas readers anyway. What I have done is taken a couple of screen shots for you.
May 24 2013
See today’s report from the Daily Mail …