Death, Disgust and the Dead Man’s Penny

dead man's penny

Every archaeologist will know that objects can rarely be taken at face value. Here’s how an object that was intended to bestow honour upon its recipients was for many a source of offence and disgust.

Not quite as gruesome as it seems;  the “Dead Man’s Penny” has less to do with bodies – or any kind of burial ritual (such as the Greek tradition of placing pennies over the eyes of the deceased in order to pay for transportation into the afterlife),  this story is more to do with the British Government’s attempt to honour the millions who died in world war one.

The government needed something they could give relatives of the war dead, to acknowledge their sacrifice, assure them that it was all in aid of a good cause and to value their loss. And so a committee was set up, dedicated to the creation of a commemorative memorial plaque that would later earn the nickname of the Dead Man’s Penny.

The Grand Competition

On 13th August 1917, the Times Newspaper announced a competition to design a memorial plaque for the British Government, for a grand prize of £250.  Originally set to end 1st November 1917, the competition gained so much interest from all over the British Empire that the deadline had to be extended until 31st December to allow soldiers serving all over the world to get involved too. The competition rallied support and enthusiasm from those at home, unable to comprehend the horrors of war. The Times announced the winner on the 20th March 1918 as Mr E. Carter Preston from Liverpool.

Grand Designs

The winning design was a 12cm disk, created from bronze gunmetal.  It featured the iconic imperial image of Britannia with a lion at her feet; holding a trident in one hand, and a laurel wreath in the other, hovering over a box where the name of the deceased would be inscribed.
The rank of the soldier was not given, so as to make no form of distinction of the level of sacrifice made – each death was to receive the same honour regardless of regiment or rank.

On the edge of the disk, the words “He died for freedom and honour” can be seen ( “She” for the 600 women who died in active service).
If you look closer, you can see two small dolphins at either side of Britannia, to represent Britain’s power at sea. At the bottom of the plaque, a small lion tears apart a feathered creature, the Imperial German Eagle.

The Value of Life

1,355,000 plaques were issued by the British Government to the families of dead soldiers, requiring a total of 450 tonnes of bronze.  Though this sounds a huge amount, this was still not enough to ensure the family of each soldier across the empire received what was now known as the “Dead Man’s Penny”  due to the similarities with the British penny coin.

In Australia, the penny was met with mixed reaction. Many families returned their pennies to the Australian Government in protest.  A brass medallion did not replace the life of a loved one, and some felt the ‘gift’ was an insult – a poorly thought out reminder of the loss they had experienced – and a sorry price in return for a life.

They died for freedom and honour, but not their own

More than 400 indigenous Australian men fought in World War One – fighting for the freedom of a country that denied them the right to vote, and didn’t even acknowledge them in the census.  In fact, only one indigenous Australian soldier received their plot of land as agreed in the Returned Servicemen’s Settlement Scheme.

The irony of the inscription “He died for freedom and honour” is overwhelming in this context.

Now a valuable collector’s item, the death penny seems little more than token gesture, a symbol of the destruction caused by the world’s first industrialised war. The patriotism of the coin’s imagery could not ease the grief of a nation in mourning. The rather macabre nickname it earned was a more than poignant evaluation of this ‘personalised award’ to the soldiers’ who never made it home.

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Written by Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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