A Chance Discovery - A Death Penny

by Lorraine Evans - 11:24 on 22 November 2022

I have often commented on my various social media accounts that Tomnahurich Cemetery in Inverness, Scotland, is the cemetery that just keeps on giving. My latest venture through its gates reinforced my view, when I happened to stumble across this rather crude stone cross below, inscribed with members of the Johansen family, complete with a Death Penny cemented within its framework. In all honesty, bar the odd antiques auction, where such an item can sell for quite a hefty price, this is the first time I have set eyes upon a Death Penny in  situ. Which begs the question, I hear some of you ask, what is a Death Penny?


Grave Marker of John George Johansen, Tomnahurich Cemetery, Inverness


Death Penny Commemorating John George Johansen


Sometimes referred to as a Death Plaque or Widows plaque, a Death Penny was a commemorative plaque that was presented to the next of the kin of loved ones who had fallen during World War One, specifically those killed during the dates of 4th August 1914 to the 10th January 1920,  on the Western Front, whilst the final date for other theatres of war was the 30th April 1920. Approximately 1,150,000 Death Penny’s were issued, accompanied by a separate scroll inscribed with the ‘King’s Message’ complete with a facsimile signature. Printed on the highest quality paper, and measuring 11 x 7 inches (27cm x 17cm), it was intended to be a record of an individual's sacrifice. Sadly, the families of the 306 British and Commonwealth military personnel who were Court Martialed, and subsequently executed, did not receive either. 


Death Plaque and Memorial Scroll 


Approximately 5 inches, (122cm), in diameter, the original plaque was cast in bronze gunmetal, its design included an image of Britannia holding a laurel wreath in her left hand, beneath which was a rectangular tablet where the name of the deceased serviceman or woman was engraved. No rank was given, as the intent was to show equality in death. In her right hand, Britannia holds a trident, adjacent to which are two dolphins,  a representation of Britain’s unequalled sea power. Beside her are two lions, the smaller of which is depicted biting the German Imperial eagle, whilst around the edge of the plaque the words ‘He died for freedom and honour’ are inscribed. 


Death Penny


The design was the result of a competition, commencing in 1917, when the British Government announced their intent to commemorate those killed in action. Rules and application forms were available via the Admiralty or the War Office, whilst entry instructions were printed in The Times newspaper. They were as follows:

  • the plaque design could be either round or rectangular  
  • size specifications approximately 18 square inches
  • circular design: the diameter was to be 4 1/2 inches (equivalent to 11.43cm)
  • rectangular: 5 inches x 3 3/5 inches (equivalent to 12.7cm x 8.8cm)

Prototypes were to be presented in either wax or plaster complete with some form of symbolic figure incorporated into the finished design. An inscription would be added, the wording of which would be agreed by a committee of Government representatives at a later date. If the plaque was submitted as a circular design the wording  was to be inscribed in a margin around the diameter. If the plaque was rectangular in design the inscription was to be positioned at the base of the plaque. Each outline also required enough space for the name, initials and military unit of the deceased serviceman. Furthermore, the name of the winning artist would also be incorporated into the finished design, although copyright would remain the property of the British Government. All submitted designs would be put on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Kensington, for the public to view.


The closing date for entries was originally set for the 1st November 1917, but due to its popularity this date was extended by a couple of months to the 31st December 1917. Interestingly, entries were not to be submitted with a name on them. Instead they were to be marked with a pseudonym, with the competitors real name and address sealed in an accompanying envelope. Entries were to be sent to the Director of the National Gallery where a judging panel, comprising the Directors of London's National Gallery, the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, and the Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the Victoria & Albert Museum, would choose the winning design. Altogether the committee received over eight hundred entries, the results of the competition were finally announced on the 20th of March 1918, again in The Times newspaper. A small number of entries were given special recognition. For instance, a prize of fifty pounds was awarded to three entries, namely ‘Sculpengro (two designs submitted by Mr William McMillan), ‘Weary’ (a design submitted by Sapper G D Macdougall) and ‘Zero (a design produced by Miss A F Whiteside), together with a further sum of one hundred pounds awarded to two entries under the pseudonym ‘Woolie’, which had been submitted by a Mr Charles Wheeler of Justice Well Studios, Chelsea. Two hundred and fifty pounds was awarded to two entries submitted under the pseudonym ‘Pyramus’, aka Mr Edward Carter Preston, founder of the Sandon Studies Society, Liverpool. From his two representations, the overall winning design was chosen. Interestingly, Preston had also been responsible for designing the gallantry medals for the newly formed Royal Air Force. On the 23rd March 1918, his winning design was printed in The Times newspaper.


Manufacture of the plaque, and scroll, was not exactly a smooth running affair. Problems of supply were an immediate issue. After all, requirements of metal and paper in large amounts were not easy to obtain during wartime, it was estimated that 450 tonnes of metal would be needed for the manufacture of the plaque alone. As such, the production line did not fully come into operation until late autumn 1918, at the Government's Memorial Plaque Factory in Acton, West London. Further set-backs arose at this particular location, thus production was later moved to the Woolwich Arsenal munitions factory, located in south London. Plaques manufactured here are easily distinguishable from the earlier ones as they have a capital letter 'W' with a line embedded across its centre to form a 'W' and an 'A', denoting its place of origin, namely Woolwich Arsenal. A specimen of this particular design is currently held in the vaults of the Victoria & Albert museum, where the serviceman's name plate has been replaced with the words ‘VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM SPECIMEN MCMXIX.’ The finished cast also bears the letters E CR P, near the lion's right paw, this being the initials of the designer Mr E Carter Preston. A few manufactured plaques also include a stamped batch number in front of the lion's rear left paw.


Initials of the Death Penny's Designer Edward Carter Preston Engraved in the Bottom Corner


It should be said that a smaller version of the plaque (approximately 2 inches/5 cm diameter) was also produced around this time, predominantly by private companies. A large number of replicas can also be found on the open market, as shown below. A quick search on eBay will reveal a number of such items. All appear to be in excellent condition, albeit there is a blank space where the deceased serviceman’s name would normally be inscribed.


Replica Death Penny


With regards to the accompanying commemorative scroll, the London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts was tasked with its production. Manufacture began in January 1919, the scroll printed en masse upon wooden blocks. It was around this same time that the British Army Records Office began to send out an official form to the next of kin for completion, namely Army Form W.5080. On one side of the form it read: 


‘In order that I may be enabled to dispose of the plaque and scroll in commemoration of the soldier named overleaf in accordance with the wishes of His Majesty the King, I have to request that the requisite information regarding the soldier's relatives now living may be furnished on the form overleaf in strict accordance with the instructions printed thereon.’ 


On the reverse side the next of kin was required to provide accurate details of all family memebers, including widow, children, father, mother, full blood and half blood brothers and sisters, after which Form W.5080 was forwarded to either a minister of magistrate to be countersigned, as an accurate statement of the information provided. As with the Death Penny, it is not known how many scrolls were issued. They were manufactured and distributed as an entirely separate process to the plaque and, as such, no record was kept on the Medal Index Card. Whereas the plaque was sent out to relatives in an ‘On His Majesty's Service’ white envelope complete with a printed ‘Official Paid’ stamp, the scroll was sent out independently in a cardboard tube, with the intended recipient receiving the package quite some time after the arrival of the plaque. 


Official Letter From King George V

Commemorative Scroll Complete With Cardboard Packaging


Returning to Tomnahurich Cemetery, a little research into the aforementioned John George Johansen reveals he was an active member of the 5th Bn Cameron Highlanders, and tragically was killed on the 16th October 1916. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, in France.  What’s more, during a later visit to the cemetery, I was fortunate to find yet another Death Penny, again it had escaped my gaze on previous occasions. As depicted below, the plaque commemorates one Roderick Mackenzie, a Sergeant of the 19th Bn Machine Gun Corps. According to data provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he was killed in action on the 21st March 1918, and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, in France.


Grave Marker Of The Mackenzie Family, Tomnahurich Cemetery, Inverness


Death Penny Commemorating Roderick Mackenzie

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