York Museums Trust: First World War Remembrance - Death Pennies

Posted on 10 December 2013

As 2014 approaches, governments, museums, communities and families alike are pausing to consider how best to commemorate the First World War centenary.

This is a question that people have been asking for a hundred years now – and the results are scattered across the world we live in today. From community cenotaphs to national memorials, family shrines to massive military cemeteries, WW1 casualties have been remembered and re-remembered in a variety of mediums. One form of commemoration that is often forgotten is the humble death penny – a bronze memorial plaque that was issued to more than 1.3 million next-of-kin in the UK and throughout the British Commonwealth in the decade following the close of WW1.

But what were the initial reactions to these plaques and why did they receive the nickname ‘Death Penny’? What did families do with them long-term and how have they come into museum collections? What does this process tell us about the perception of death pennies in families and communities? 

This internship project was developed to contribute to York Castle Museum’s upcoming exhibition ‘1914: When the world changed forever’. The research I was responsible for was principally concerned with developing our understanding of WW1 commemorative plaques (or Death Pennies) to go beyond our knowledge of design and production to understand how they were received by grieving families across the UK (and throughout the British empire). It also involved researching the individuals that they commemorated, their lives and their families. While the exhibition won’t take place until next year, the short term outcomes for this project were to update the museum’s collections database to provide greater information on these objects and the individuals associated with them, and to write a blog post for the museum’s website to communicate the project’s findings to the community.

Although the project faced a number of challenges, not uncommon in dealing with historical records riddled with gaps, the internship provided me with very rewarding opportunities for engaging with community understandings of the past. The value and impact of the research really hit me one afternoon when we had Catherine, the great niece of two of our commemorated soldiers, visit the museum. She brought in family records and photographs and shared stories and memories that really gave life to two of the men that I had been researching. I was also able to provide her with some information regarding her great uncles that she hadn’t known before and it was really fulfilling to see the impact that it had on her. 

Writing the blog post for the YMT website was also a stimulating experience. It was quite challenging putting so much information into an interesting and easily digestible blog for the general public while still respecting the subject matter. Nonetheless, it was exciting to transform the research into something that was publicly accessible. In the PhD programme, you rarely have such quick turnaround time for research and public engagement so I found the couple of weeks that I was working for the York Museums Trust to be really stimulating in that respect.  Heritage can be such a valuable contribution to society but it can be very challenging to share it in a respectful and responsible manner that is still interesting and easily understood. I think that the impact and transfer of research is a critical stage of any project and I have developed the skills and confidence to continue to pursue this with my own doctoral research and in future jobs.

I chose to do this internship because the subject matter was of great interest to me, and had interesting links with my own research as an archaeologist focussed on funerary commemoration and what it can tell us about social history in the modern era. I was also interested in gaining experience and networks in the museum world, as one of the possible career avenues that I am interested in. Finally, I hoped to learn some new skills that would be transferrable to my work and research. Overall, this internship provided me with much more than the opportunity to be part of a research project that was of great interest to me. It provided me with new skills, confidence and experience to draw on as I pursue future stages of my doctoral research, applying for jobs and the pursuit of my career more generally. The public engagement that comes with museum work was rewarding and stimulating, and the opportunity to explore this as a career option was extremely useful. It was one of the most significant experiences I have had since commencing my doctoral studies.

See also Katherine's write-up: "Death Penny for your thoughts..." for York Museums Trust.

Katherine Cook

IPUP Intern