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Monday, 1 April 2013

So what is a Dead Man's Penny ?

In preparation for our recent event which returned Henry Oscar Nelson's Dead Man's Penny to his family, members of the Ryde Goes to War project team did some research on exact what is the Dead Man's Penny. [ See previous posts  for event details].

Officially named the World War I Memorial Plaque, it is a commemorative medallion or memorial plaque which was presented to the next-of-kin of the men and women who died during World War I. The plaques were designed and produced in Britain and issued to commemorate all those who died as a result of war service from within the British Commonwealth.
The idea for the plaques was originally conceived mid-way through the war. It was decided that the design of the plaque, about 5 inches (12 cm) in diameter and cast in bronze, was to be picked from submissions made in a public competition. There were over 800 entries. The winner, Mr E Carter Preston of Liverpool, England, was chosen in 1918 and was awarded a prize of £250. The plaques were manufactured in London. 
Elizabeth Nelson ( Henry's mother) of Parkes St Ryde signed a receipt
 for the Memorial Scroll and King’s Message for her son, Henry Oscar Nelson, on 1 November 1921
and for his Memorial Plaque ( the above Dead Man's Penny) on 9 August 1922.
The medallion features an image of Britannia surrounded by two dolphins (representing Britain’s sea power) and a lion (representing Britain) standing over a defeated eagle (symbolising Germany). Britannia is holding an oak spray with leaves and acorns above the rectangular tablet bearing the deceased’s name cast in raised letters. The name does not include the soldier’s rank, to show equality in sacrifice. Around the outer edge of the medallion are the words ‘He [she] died for freedom and honour’.

Production of the plaques, which was supposed to be financed by German reparation money, began in 1919 with approximately 1,150,000 issued. Unfortunately, the production and delivery of the plaques was not a complete success and the scheme ended before all the families or next-of-kin of the deceased received the official recognition they should have.

The first plaques were distributed in Australia in 1922. Each plaque was sent out by mail from Base Records Office at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. Approximately 60,000 plaques were issued in Australia. There were some relatives who returned their pennies to the Australian Government in protest as they felt it was insulting and it did not replace their loved one’s life.

 A scroll of thick parchment was designed to accompany each of the plaques. Officially named the World War I Memorial Scroll. The scroll, headed by the royal coat-of-arms, bore the following message:
He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who,
at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them,
endured hardness, faced danger,
and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice,
giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.
Let those that come after see that his name is not forgotten.
 Underneath the message, the serviceman’s or servicewoman’s name, rank, honours and unit were written by hand in red ink.

Because of the late arrival of the plaques in Australia, many scrolls were sent out separately, with a message from the King (George V):
I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial
of a brave life given for others in the Great War.


Military History Online,


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