BRONZE DEATH PLAQUES or THE SOLDIER'S PENNY
Bronze death plaques like the one shown here were sent to the next of kin of every commonwealth man or woman who lost their lives as a result of Great War service. The plaques were also sometimes known as the 'Soldiers Penny', or the 'Dead Man's Penny'. For Home Establishments, Western Europe and the dominions the qualifying dates were from the 4th August 1914 until the 10th January 1920 . For other theatres of war, and for those who died subsequently from attributable causes the qualifying date was 30th April 1920.
The plaques measure approximately 4¾ inches (121mm) and weigh approximately 11¾ ounces (333gms). They were posted to the next of kin protected by a stout brown cardboard, purpose made folder, which was then put into in a white HMSO envelope.
As early as October 1916 the Secretary of State for War, David Lloyd George set up a committee 'to consider the question of a memorial to be distributed to the relatives of soldiers and sailors who fall in the war...'. That the Government was considering providing a personal memorial for the fallen was made public on Tuesday 7 November 1916 when 'The Times' printed an article headlined, 'Memento for the Fallen. State Gift for Relatives'.
Nothing was heard again publicly, until an announcement in 'The Times' of Monday 13 August 1917 stated that 'The Government are offering prizes amounting in all, to not less than £500', in a competition to design a small memorial plaque for the next of kin of the fallen.
It was stipulated that it must have an area of as near as possible to 18 square inches. It may be a circle of 4¾ inches in diameter or a square of 4¼ inches, or a rectangle of 5 inches by 3 to 3½ inches. It must have space for the person's name, and it must also bear the inscription 'HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR'. 'HE' of course being changed to 'SHE' for women. It was also stipulated that all competitors 'must be British born subjects', and 'that the design should be essentially simple and easily intelligible'.
The competition aroused enormous interest and by the closing date of 31 December 1917 had attracted over 800 entries. Entries had been received from all over the Empire, from the Western Front, the Balkan and Middle East theatres of war and from many artists based at home in Britain.
The result of the competition, which had the King's approval, was officially announced in The Times of Wednesday 20 March 1918. The first prize of £250 went to Mr Edward Carter Preston of the Sandon Studios Society, Liverpool. The second prize of £100 went to Mr Charles Wheeler of Chelsea, and the three third place prizes of £50 each went to Mr William McMillan, Sapper G D MacDonald and Miss H F Whiteside. A further nineteen competitors were considered 'worthy of honourable mention'. Edward Carter Preston's initials are embossed just above the lion's right forepaw.
Production of the plaques commenced during December 1918, and was originally at a disused laundry in Acton, London. Later, the Acton factory closed and production was transferred to the Woolwich Arsenal. Other former munitions factories were also used for production. Thus, sites that once made weapons for killing were now making mementos for men who had been killed. A certain irony?
The original estimate had been for 800,000 plaques, but it has been estimated that some 1,150,000 were eventually produced. Of those about 600 were to women.
It was quite common for bereaved households to prominently display the plaque of their deceased loved one, often with their medals, as a small domestic shrine.
A variety of commercially made holders or frames were offered for sale, which were frowned on by many. But often a home made, lovingly prepared frame would be produced to house the plaque.
All plaques were accompanied by a tribute from the King, shown above.
The Times 07 November 1916, 13 August 1917, 20 March 1918.