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Dead Man’s Penny Memorial Plaque

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the dead man’s penny memorial plaque.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. A number of years ago, before I became a Member of Parliament, I went to a local car boot sale. Looking through all the bric-a-brac and things from days gone by, I came across a bronze plaque that was six inches in diameter. It looked to all the world like a huge Victorian penny. It had Britannia on the front, shadowed by a lion. There were two dolphins and, at the bottom, a smaller lion was ripping apart an eagle. The lion with Britannia was the lion of courage, and the other lion was ripping apart the German eagle, while the dolphins signified the dominance of the seas that Great Britain enjoyed at the time. There was writing around the edge because the plaque was intended to commemorate the life of a fallen soldier. Such a plaque was known—rather crudely, given that it was to commemorate the life of one of our fallen soldiers—as a dead man’s penny.

The service people were from the fledging Air Force of the first world war, the Navy, which dominated the seas, and those who had fallen on the battlefields. They were originally to be positioned in the war grave headstones, but that did not happen due to the fear of metal pilfering after the war. They were struck only for the first world war as they cost so much to produce. Each plaque was struck—not engraved—with the name of the fallen soldier or serviceman.

I remember looking at the plaque—I did not know what it was; I researched it later—and wondering what had happened to the family of the fallen soldier, why the plaque had ended up there, what was the story behind it and what was the story of the soldier’s life and the family he left behind. It struck me that, more often than not, such plaques reach the market—militaria shops and auction sites—because the family have died. I emphasise strongly that militaria shops do us a great service by helping to keep alive the spirit of campaigns and conflicts that we only read about in the history books. We in Morecambe are fortunate enough to have an excellent military memorabilia shop, along with a proud and distinguished military heritage in Lancaster.

I found out later that more than 1.3 million plaques were struck—the exact number is not known—and given out to the families of the fallen. They were struck from 450 tons of bronze. They arrived in a box, sometimes with the medals of the soldier, airman or seaman, and every one of them had a certificate signed by King George V. They were given out predominantly after the war, although some were given before its end.

What do they mean in our day and age, 100 years on? We have had other wars, but world war one was the only occasion on which these plaques were struck in honour of the fallen. As I said, each plaque was individually struck—not engraved—with the name of a serviceman, but with no mention of their rank. It was struck simply to commemorate the serviceman or woman who gave their life doing their duty in the service of their country. In fact, 1,500 were given to women service personnel. They were given out all across the Commonwealth, to everybody engaged in the conflict.

In the great war, we lost 22 Members of Parliament, 20 Lords and 98 sons of people who worked here or were Members. This debate therefore has meaning not just for the rest of the country, but for Parliament itself. The outside of the plaque reads:

“He died for freedom and honour”.

Some plaques say, “She died”, depending on the sex of the service person. I once acquired a plaque. The gentleman named on it was Charles Edward Woodward. It had a hole in the plaque, a fact that made me a little emotional in my last debate on this subject 12 months ago, because it meant that it would have been hung on the wall, over the mantelpiece in his parent’s home. It would have been all they had left of him. I recently found out that his two other brothers also perished in the first world war. I got this plaque from a militaria shop not far from here, and the staff were very helpful and honourable in the exchange. With it came this man’s history, which says that it is a great war memorial plaque issued in memory of Charles Edward Woodward, who served as Private Nm. 1,200 of the 1/5th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, Territorial Force, and was killed in action at Ypres on 30 September 1915.

The local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Chronicle, reported Private Woodward’s death. A biographical note—bear with me, Sir Edward, because the type is quite small—states:

“News of the death of Pte. C. Woodward was recorded in the Lincolnshire Chronicle, he met his death while on duty in the trenches, the trench being struck by shells and he was buried. He was got out later, but only survived about an hour. The above was partly contradicted in a letter from Capt. Scorer to his parents, in which he stated ‘I have to inform you of the death of your son, Pte. C. W. Woodward, on the evening of 30th September. Our trenches were blown up by a German mine and about 60 yards destroyed. Your son was buried in the debris; we dug him out alive, and hoped he would recover, as from outward appearances he did not appear to be injured; but he died later from shock.’ Pte. Woodward was in his 21st year, and first in the village to lose his life.”

Private Woodward is commemorated by name on the Ypres Menin Gate memorial. He was only 20 at his death. He was the son of Parker and Mary Jane Woodward of Rose Cottage, Halton Fenside, Spilsby, Lincolnshire. This plaque was all that was left of him. He was a person. We should not forget that each one of these plaques signifies an individual—a person—who lost their life.

I want to raise awareness that each of these plaques signifies a person. I hope that one day they form a memorial—perhaps in the Imperial War Museum, although it will be difficult to find an area big enough to house more than 1.3 million of them—that demonstrates what they represent and commemorates those who died preserving the integrity of the democracy for which they fought proudly and gave their lives.

Sadly, however, over the years some of the plaques have been scrapped because no one knew what they were. Although I do not think many of them found their way into scrap yards, that nevertheless happened. The previous Member for Croydon South promoted a private Member’s Bill that resulted in legislation that prevents war memorials from being attacked and melted down. I would like these plaques to be covered by that legislation. They mean something. They are a memorial in themselves, especially in the centenary year of the end of the first world war.

What is the Government’s role? I know that they would like to do everything they can, but logistically that is impossible. It is up to us all in the community to recognise that these plaques really mean something. I would love to see some of them form a national memorial to the fallen or go to local regiments, local museums or even the Military Heritage Society.

I was honoured and fortunate enough to go to Spilsby, where I was accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is present today. Private Charles Woodward’s plaque now hangs in the memorial hall in his own village. He has found his way home. I am proud to have done that. It did not matter where that gentleman was from or that he had no connection to me—none of that mattered at all. What mattered was that he was remembered.

It would be fitting for these plaques to be taken to church on Remembrance Sunday. My debate on this subject in the main Chamber was very emotional and eerie. I do not subscribe to the paranormal, but it really felt as though the man was standing at my side. I had never felt that before, and I doubt I will ever feel it again, but other Members who were in the Chamber at the time experienced the feeling that something else was there too. If we take these plaques to church with us on Remembrance Sunday, those soldiers will be there, too, and they will be remembered. That is all that really matters. Let us remember them, let us honour them 100 years on, and let us celebrate what they did for our freedom.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for his remarks, for his work on this subject and for organising this important debate, which is poignant as we approach the centenary of the armistice in 1918. One of the fascinating aspects of the first world war is what is left behind. The sheer volume of artefacts—not just medals, memorials and plaques but letters, art and literature—serves to remind us of the monumental scale of that war. It was a global conflict of shocking magnitude.

My hon. Friend has spoken with great clarity about this subject, both today and previously. I commend his passion—a passion that is understandable when one considers that the prevalence of memorial plaques is due to the almost incomprehensible losses suffered by Britain and her Commonwealth allies. It is estimated that more than 1 million plaques and scrolls of the type he described were issued to the next of kin of those who died serving with British and imperial forces in the first world war for king and country. Each of those plaques represents the loss of a life and the devastation that inevitably followed for family members and friends. More than 600 such plaques were issued to the families of women who died, reminding us that the suffering was not confined to the battlefields. Many plaques were donated, used in memorials or displayed prominently and with pride in local museums, and many are still treasured by the descendants of those who fell, but it is thought that many British and empire war dead had no plaque or scroll issued due to the inability in 1919 and 1920 to trace the addresses of eligible next of kin—no doubt as a result of the high incidence of short-term rented addresses and remarriage, and of records that were not as good as they are today.

Over the past four years of commemorative events marking world war one, my Department has seen at first hand the depth of emotion that many people still feel about that war 100 years on, not only through direct family relationships but through associations in their local communities, school connections and regimental ties. My maternal great-grandfather, Jeremiah Mulcahy of the Royal Irish Regiment, was killed in action at Ypres on 31 May 1915. I know that his loss still resonates with my mother in her 81st year. There are people who felt the repercussions of the war directly—people who grew up in care following the collapse of a family unit, or with distant or disabled fathers or grandfathers, or in communities shattered by loss. There are also people whose only connection to their community’s involvement in the great war is a photograph album, a medal or a medallion of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred—a dead mans penny, as they were colloquially known. Frequently, those items are worth far more to people than their monetary value. They are the very heart of a family or community’s history, lore and identity.

During the centenary period, my Department has worked closely with the Imperial War Museum, which has proven itself a worthy guardian of the nation’s wartime history. Through the refurbishment of its first world war galleries, which are very much worth a visit, and its tireless dedication to education, it has been a key partner to Her Majesty’s Government during the centenary period. Like all museums, it has a strict acquisition and disposal policy—in fact, as Minister for the arts and heritage, I have to sign off when it wishes to dispose of items, even if they are duplicates or of very low value—which determines whether it can accept donations. I am sure my hon. Friend understands that, given their limited space and resources, museums have to make difficult decisions about what is of most value in the context of their collections. In this case, the Imperial War Museum feels that the collection of plaques does not meet the policy criteria, and the policy document states that acquisitions outside the current stated policy will be made only in exceptional circumstances.

When the families of fallen men and women were sent the plaques and the scrolls, the items became their property, in the same manner as medals or any other award. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me that it would not be appropriate for Her Majesty’s Government or any other body to decide what should be done with items of private property, especially items that hold such emotional significance and value. I know that my hon. Friend will understand that, for those reasons, it is not considered either possible or practical for Her Majesty’s Government to attempt to acquire memorial plaques that are no longer in the possession of the families to whom they were issued.

For people in possession of plaques, or for those wishing to research or commemorate an individual, there are other options available. I humbly suggest that Members of this House recommend to any interested constituents that a good starting point would be to visit two excellent online resources that commemorate those who fell in the great war, provide useful information about the person commemorated, and give those in possession of a plaque the option to make that information publicly available. They may find it very rewarding if they can contribute to these sites.

The Royal British Legion’s “Every One Remembered” database aims to ensure that by the end of this year every man and woman from across the Commonwealth who fell during the first world war is remembered individually by those living today. It is a striking lesson that while the way in which people commemorate may have changed thanks to technology, the desire to remember the fallen remains undiminished. I hope that hon. Members will join me in congratulating the Royal British Legion, which we know does such excellent work, on the fact that that every person has now been remembered on the website—more than 1 million people.

A similar digital memorial is the Imperial War Museum’s “Lives of the First World War” project, which I also commend to the House. It records the stories of individuals from across Britain and the Commonwealth—the empire, as it was then—who served in uniform or worked on the home front. Users of the site can add information about medals and service record to an individual’s page if they have more information to add. The facility to add that information, and pictures of artefacts, allows descendants to create a permanent digital memorial of their family’s first world war story. “Lives of the First World War” currently has over 7.5 million individual life stories and over 120,000 registered members.

Her Majesty’s Government’s centenary programme has other programmes that are designed to aid commemorations, and many ways that communities can find out more about these plaques and the memorials on which their ancestors were recorded in the United Kingdom and around the world. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has made a £4.5 million fund available for the conservation and protection of war memorials, which I think my hon. Friend mentioned. In the first world war memorials programme, Historic England, in partnership with Civic Voice, the Imperial War Museum and the War Memorials Trust, work with the public on a programme of recording, research, conservation and listing, to ensure that war memorials across Britain are protected and the people they commemorate are remembered. To date, the War Memorials Trust has made over 360 repair grants, totalling some £1.4 million, to help repair war memorials across the country that are in a poor state and need some work.

I should also mention the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in the Victoria Cross commemorative paving stones project. This project commemorates each of the 627 men who were awarded the highest accolade, the Victoria Cross, during the first world war, placing a commemorative stone in the town or village of their birth or, in the case of those born overseas, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The stones are a visible reminder of the heroic contribution made by local people.

No debate on this subject would be complete without mentioning the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many thousands of casualties from the British Empire are buried in some 23,000 immaculately maintained CWGC sites in more than 150 countries around the world. These moving and sensitively maintained sites are a permanent reminder of the enormous sacrifices made in war. Anyone visiting such a site cannot help but be deeply moved. Of course, the commission does far more than maintain the resting places of the fallen. In 2017 it founded the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation specifically to keep alive the memory and the stories of those who died in the two world wars for generations to come.

With the centenary of the armistice just days away, I am very pleased to have had this opportunity to publicise the options open to people who are in possession of memorial plaques; I reiterate my gratitude to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the House. Through the Government’s unique commemorative programme and the innovative work by our partners in developing ways of commemorating the first world war, we can ensure that future generations never forget those who fell. We can also ensure that they have tools at their disposal to allow them to research their ancestors and the many others who fought 100 years ago. The memorial plaques—the dead man’s pennies—and the many other memorials to the fallen of the first world war are a constant reminder of the huge sacrifice made by a whole generation 100 years ago, and I again thank my hon. Friend for proposing this debate.

Question put and agreed to.