In 1917, before the First World War had even concluded, the British government began a project of commemoration that would see the production and distribution of 1,355,000 bronze memorial plaques to service men and women’s next of kin over the span of more than a decade. Death pennies, as they quickly became known as, came to be a household feature of the post-world war era for countless families in mourning.
A great deal is already known about the manufacture of these plaques, but after a rather complicated process of production and delivery on such a vast scale, what did families do with the simple bronze plate? How did different generations perceive them? And what does the narrative of individual plaques tell us about World War One history more generally?
Extracting the experience, memory and perceptions associated with isolated objects in a museum collection can be challenging to say the least. In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition at York Castle Museum, ‘1914: When the world changed forever’, ten death pennies from the collection became the launching point for exploring the diverse and ever-changing reactions to the difficult task of commemorating the massive losses of World War One.
The memorial plaques in YMT’s collection.
The ten men represented by plaques in the York Castle Museum certainly represent a range of First World War experiences – they include privates, lieutenants and majors who fought on a number of different fronts. There are those that enlisted at the beginning of the war and others that joined much later. Before the war, they were labourers, carpenters, drapers, teachers and engineers; most were young, single men leaving the homes of their families for the first time with no prior experience in the army. Some were killed in action, others died of other conditions at the front, or died of wounds at a later date.
The one uniting factor is that through one avenue or another, the death pennies commemorating their loss eventually came to be donated to the museum.
Some of these stories have been largely lost, and others we’ll save for the exhibition, but we had the great privilege this week of meeting the great niece of two of the men represented by plaques in our collection. Their family’s story, along with others, helps to illuminate the history of death pennies in Britain, and in Yorkshire in particular.
Jane Anne Richardson, c. 1912.
Jane Anne Richardson (b. 1857), and her husband Joseph Richardson (b. 1854), lived in Pudsey, Yorkshire with their five children: William Pearson (b. 1882), Frederick George (b. 1884), Richard Ernest (b. 1890), Lily (b. 1893), and Joseph Leonard (b. 1896). The family were engaged in a range of occupations before the war, including carpentry/joinery, drapery and teaching, but eventually all four brothers enlisted.
Richard, a teacher in Malton at the time, was the first to enlist (c.1915), initially with the Royal Army Medical Corps and later with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Joseph Leonard was the next, leaving his parent’s home to join the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In 1916, William Pearson, with a young wife and drapery business in Harrogate, joined the Army Service Corps. Finally, Frederick G., who was in the US at the time, enlisted in Philadelphia in 1918 with Britain’s Royal Engineers. These four were part of a whole generation of men who enlisted in large sweeps – whole families, schools, and companies joined up en masse, forever transforming communities across Britain.
Unfortunately, the Richardson family suffered its first loss on September 17, 1916, when the youngest son Joseph was killed in action in France. Nearly two years later, on September 1, 1918, Richard died of pneumonia in Egypt. Frederick is also believed to have died, while William returned to Harrogate following the war, where he and his wife raised two children – John and Grace Margaret.
William Pearson Richardson, and his two children, John and Grace Margaret.
Following these losses, the Richardsons applied for memorial plaques for Joseph and Richard – a process that involved completing rather complicated forms listing all living next of kin, their ages and addresses. The Richardson plaques were most likely issued to parents Jane and Joseph, who would have been deemed the closest Next of Kin. The plaques were manufactured and received several years apart – Joseph’s plaque was most likely produced in the early 1920s, when manufacturing had just begun at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. The plaque issued for Richard shows the morphology of a later mould and was likely produced in the mid twenties. This was not uncommon; many families received various commemorative materials more than a decade after their loved one died.
The memorial plaque and campaign medals of Joseph Leonard Richardson (left) and Richard Ernest Richardson (right).
After arriving in modest packaging, along with a printed letter and commemorative scroll, the plaques were most commonly framed and displayed along with other medals, photographs and mementos. Others were inset into funerary monuments or kept tucked away with other family keepsakes. We don’t know what Joseph and Jane did with the plaques when they received them but they died soon afterwards, in 1925 and 1926 respectively.
Lily Richardson, who had remained at home to look after her aging parents, then became their custodian. She was a teacher in Fulneck, and is said to have kept the plaques in a glass cabinet in the front hall, upright on plate stands.
When Lily passed away in 1960, her niece Grace Margaret (daughter of Lily’s brother William Pearson), inherited the plaques along with her uncles’ campaign medals. Already the custodian of other lines of her family’s history, Margaret soon decided to donate the plaques and medals to York Castle Museum to give them a lasting memorial and to give back to the city of York.
Grace Margaret, who inherited the plaques in the 1960s (left), and a letter from York Castle Museum recognizing her donation of materials in 1963 (right).
While many death pennies across Britain and the Commonwealth have stayed in their family, being passed down through generations, others have been sold for scrap metal, sold to collectors (especially in recent decades), and there is even anecdotal evidence that they were used up to the 1950s to cover old Victorian drains. Most of the plaques in the York Museums Trust collections were donated between the 1950s and 1970s along with medals and other ephemera pertaining to the individual by family members two or three generations removed, often still living in the same village or region.
For the Richardson death pennies, the story of course does not end with them being donated to the museum. Catherine, the daughter of Grace Margaret, visited York Museums Trust this week as part of a collaborative effort to reconstruct her family’s history. Catherine hadn’t seen the donated material in decades but as a child, she remembers visiting York Castle Museum, which had a medal room at the time, and being told, “These are your uncles’.”
Catherine and the plaques and medals of her great uncles (2013).
This story, in addition to the story of the other plaques in the Trust’s collection, begins to shed light on the ways that our perceptions of the First World War and its commemoration has shifted over time and through the generations. More than 1.3 million plaques like these are part of a commemorative tradition, including local parish monuments, private graves, large military cemeteries and collective monuments scattered throughout the UK and Europe, that continues to connect us to the heart of this history: the individuals, their families and their communities, their lives and their deaths.