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Next of Kin Memorial Plaque, Scroll and King’s Message

What are the Next of Kin Memorial Plaque, Scroll and King’s Message?

The Next of Kin Memorial Plaque is a bronze plaque approximately 11 cms or 4½  inches diameter with the name of someone who died serving with the British and Empire forces in the First World War. This was issued to the Next of Kin of the casualty along with the scroll. They were posted out separately, typically in 1919 and 1920, and a ‘King’s message’ was enclosed with both, containing a facsimile signature of the King.

Who might have received the plaque, scroll and King’s message?

The immediate next of kin of all who died serving with the British and Empire forces in the First World War were eligible to receive the plaque and scroll. With nearly a million dead for the British Army alone, the plaques are today still commonly found; the fragile scrolls survive less often. Some of those recorded by plaques and scrolls were not eligible for service medals, for instance, those who did not serve overseas but who died in service through accident or illness. Deaths in the period 1919–1921 (possibly later) could still lead to the presentation of a plaque, if either still in service (and even from natural causes), or the death was accepted as war-related. It is thought that many British and Empire war dead had no plaques and scrolls issued, due to the inability by 1919–20 to trace addresses for the eligible next of kin – a result of the high incidence of short-term rented addresses, re-marriage, and that, if they died unmarried with parents dead, there might be no dependants claiming a pension.

What was the purpose of the plaque, scroll and message?

The plaques and scrolls were produced to commemorate those that gave their lives and acknowledge their sacrifice. They were intended to give the close family a tangible memorial of their lost loved one.  

A closer look: The Plaque

The design of the plaque was the result of a competition, held while the war still raged, although manufacture did not start until 1919. In 1917 a committee set up the competition for any British-born person to design a plaque to record the name of a fallen service man or woman from the British and Empire forces.  There were more than 800 entries to the competition from within the United Kingdom, from countries in the British Empire and from the theatres of war. The winning design was by Mr Edward Carter Preston (1894-1965).

His initials, E.CR.P, appear above the foot of the lion.

You can find more detail about the competition in an article about the plaque on greatwar.co.uk.

The design features the figure of Britannia facing to her left and holding a laurel wreath in her left hand. Underneath the laurel wreath is a box where you will find the commemorated serviceman or woman’s name. The name was cast in raised relief on each plaque, achieved by a labour-intensive process not fully known today. In her right hand she is holding a trident. In representation of Britain's sea power there are two dolphins each facing Britannia on her left and right sides.

A growling lion is stands in front of Britannia, with another much smaller lion under its feet, biting the German Imperial eagle.

Around the edge of the plaque are the words “He died for freedom and honour”. These words were specified by the design competition committee to be included in any design submitted.

Over 600 of these plaques were received by the families of women, for whom the inscription was changed appropriately, as in this example for the next of kin of Winifred Stanley Coates VAD.

A closer look: The scroll

The committee responsible for the plaque decided that they would also issue a scroll with a commemorative message underneath the Royal Crest, with the rank, name and regiment of the fallen soldier handwritten in calligraphic script.

It was printed on high quality paper, size 11 x 7 inches (27cm x 17cm) and was intended to be a treasured record of the sacrifice.

The committee found the choice of words very difficult and asked for advice from many well-known writers. The final version was written by Dr Montague Rhodes James, Provost of King's College Cambridge with a few changes. You can find more detail about the competition in an article about the scroll and plaque on greatwar.co.uk.

What did families do with these objects?

Both the scroll and the plaque were typically framed or put away in drawers; some plaques were mounted on the walls of parish churches or added to memorials.

These objects were unfortunately quite common, and they became known popularly as the Death Plaque, Dead Man’s Penny, or Widow’s Penny.

A smaller commercial plaque

A miniature version of the plaque (approximately 2 inches/5cm diameter) is sometimes found today. These seem to be of private manufacture, and were not a commercial success; they are usually found in a pristine unnamed state, suggesting unsold stock from a warehouse. Presumably the idea was that with only one official plaque made for each casualty, other family members might want to buy and engrave a version.

Your Research

The surviving service papers for British servicemen sometimes contain form W.5080, sent in 1919 to clarify the nearest eligible person to receive the Plaque and Scroll. These forms can be an excellent source for family historians, as they asked respondents to report on all living relatives of the casualty, by name and status. However, unfortunately 60% of Britain’s First World War service papers were destroyed in 1940 when German incendiary bombs fell on a warehouse in London, at Arnside Street.

It is not known how many plaques and scrolls were issued. Issue is not indicated on the Medal Index Card, and they were made and distributed as an entirely separate process. Issue of the plaque and scroll is always confirmed in Australian service papers.

Useful websites and books for further research

Website sources

The Great War Memorial Plaque
Website maintained by a medal dealer; illustrates the features of the plaques, and the mailing envelope

The Great War 1914–1918
A more detailed account of the plaques – their design, manufacture and distribution.

Books
Copies of all these books can be freely consulted from open shelves at the Explore History Centre at IWM London.

British Campaign Medals of the First World War by Peter Duckers
(Shire Publications, Oxford, 2011)
Includes section on the Memorial Plaque and Scroll, p24–26

Great War Medal Collectors Companion by Howard Williamson
(Anne Williamson, Harwich, Essex, 2011)
Detailed illustrated section on both Plaque and Scroll, p134–144

Articles

The Dead Man's Penny: A short history of the Next of Kin Memorial Plaque by Philip Dutton,

The Medal, issue no.29, autumn 1996, p62–71 (earlier version in Imperial War Museum Review, no.3, 1988, p60–68, ISBN-10: 0901627461, ISSN 0951-3094)