LAST year, while cleaning out his Grantville shed, Allan George found something that doesn’t belong to him. In the bottom of a box was a Dead Man’s Penny that commemorated the death of John Andrew Cunningham. This plaque had been issued to the soldier’s Father, William Cunningham, of Malvern, in May, 1923.
Alan enlisted the aid of Roger Clark. The pair made extensive investigations, even featuring the Penny in the Waterline News, Roger’s free (and online) newspaper that covers the Waterline towns of Bass Coast. As members of the Grantville Cemetery Trust they are custodians of the past. So far, no link to the present day has emerged.
As the Great War entered its third year the British government undertook to individually honour those who had given their lives for King and Empire. After much consideration, a bronze plaque and a memorial scroll were designed. However, due to the war effort these weren’t produced until the trenches fell silent.
Eventually they decided to present the plaques and scrolls to the families of every person who died between August 4, 1914, and April 30, 1919 “whilst in military service in the battle grounds of the theatres of war and in the dominions as a result of sickness, suicide or accidents in the Home Establishments, or as a result of wounds incurred during their time in military service”.
Next of kin of each fallen soldier and nurse from The Great War were sent a reply-paid envelope and a form to fill in and return. This information was used to compile a list of recipients of the Memorial Plaque, which soon acquired the nickname of Dead Man’s Penny.
The scrolls were printed from wooden blocks in London. Production of the plaque eventually settled in the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. “He” was amended to “She” for a short production run. Six hundred were issued to the next of kin of women who died directly from their involvement in the war. The 306 British and Commonwealth military personnel who were executed following court martial were excluded.
Each plaque had the person’s name stamped into the design. This was typeset by hand each time one was minted so, although mass produced, they took some time to make. The Honour Roll of the Dead was so long that manufacture dragged on into the 1930s.
The plaques did not list the person’s rank or decorations. This was done to preserve the equality of each sacrifice.
The reactions of the recipients varied greatly. Some of the plaques and scrolls were framed or mounted in larger memorial artwork. Most sat forlornly on mantle pieces and piano tops until their loved ones faded into history. Many were simply placed in a drawer or a suitcase full of pain. It’s difficult to define the emotion attached to these reminders of the departed. Many families had more than one to contemplate.
Each Australian delivery of the penny was accompanied by a form that the recipient was obliged to sign and return to acknowledge receipt. These were then added to the military dossier of each of the fallen Australians. The dossiers are available online at the National Australian Archive.
John Andrew Cunningham is with his fallen comrades in Syria. He is one of over 60,000 Australian servicemen who lie in foreign fields. Roger and Allan want to return the plaque to the family who lost a son. If you can help, or have a Dead Man's Penny, Roger is eager to hear from you. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.