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Dead Man’s Penny

Original "Death Penny" issued by the British government after World War 1 to honor the memory of British and Commonwealth personnel lost in the war. The plaque measures 121mm, or 4.76 inches in diameter. (Bill Howard Collection)

In order to appropriately commemorate the British war dead, the government determined to issue a bronze Memorial Plaque to the next-of-kin of all British and Empire personnel who were killed in the Great War. Because of its bronze circular design, it became known as the “Dead Man’s Penny.” A national artistic competition was announced and entries were submitted for consideration. The design selected for the plaque was submitted by the artist, Edward Carter Preston. Production of the plaques began at London’s Memorial Plaque Factory in Acton in 1918, with later production provided by the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. The design featured Britannia holding a trident standing beside a lion, while dolphins (symbolic of Britain’s naval power) dove and rose from the sea. At the bottom of the design, a second lion rips apart a German eagle. A total of 1,355,000 Memorial Plaques were issued between 1918 and 1920. The plaques were sent by mail to the surviving family member on record with a note printed on Buckingham Palace stationery and signed in facsimile by King George that read: “I join with a grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.”

Reverse of Pte. William Henry Taylor's Death Penny featuring his photograph wearing the uniform of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and a heart broken note written by a member of his family. (Bill Howard Collection)

This particular Memorial Plaque was issued to the family of William Henry Taylor (202862) who served as a Private in 8th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment. He was killed in action on September 22, 1918 and was just 19 years old. His family affixed his photo to the reverse of the plaque along with a note that reads: “In loving memory of our Beloved Son, “Billy,” who died 22d September 1918 during the World War.” Taylor is remembered in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Vis-En-Artois.

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