Dead Man’s Penny
James WF Roberts
To a young child the world is full of mystery and wonder. Everything is brand new and magical. Just imagine, you’re a young boy, about ten years old. You’re staring into a fire place, watching the dancing flames in front of you, magical, mysterious. Then you notice something shoved up in the corner of the fireplace, it’s cardboard, but it hasn’t moved, it hasn’t melted. As time goes by you eventually have grab the cardboard parcel. You open it up, there’s a huge brass coin inside. You’re thinking ‘wow, I can buy a bottle of coke’. On the coin there is a picture of a goddess and a Lion. It looks like a Greek myth. As the years go by you understand more, what it says ‘He died for freedom and honour John Samson Wearne’.
‘He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced anger, and generally passed out of sight of men by the path of duty and sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others may live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.’
And you never do forget it. It’s always there in the back of your mind. Until one day, you are passing through cemetery and you come across a grave. On the plaque you see the same 12-centimetre disk cast in bronze gunmetal, which incorporated the following; an image of Britannia and a lion, two dolphins representingBritain’s sea power and the emblem of Imperial Germany’s eagle being torn to pieces by another lion. Britannia is holding an oak spray with leaves and acorns.
A rectangular tablet where the deceased individual’s name is cast into the plaque. No rank was given as it was intended to show equality in their sacrifice.
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You go home do some research and you find out the it’s history from the War Memorial. The Dead Man’s Penny began in 1916 with the realisation by the British Government that some form of an official token of gratitude should be given to the fallen service men and women’s bereaved next of kin. The enormous casualty figures not anticipated at the start of WWI back in 1914 prompted this gesture of recognition.
The plaques were packaged in stiff cardboard wrapping folded like an envelope and sent to the next of kin. Production of the plaques and scrolls, which was supposed to be financed by German reparation money, began in 1919 with approximately 1,150,000 issued.
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You look at the name on the Medal, John Samson Wearne. You contact the relevant authorities, and you even find a genealogy website of that family, not thinking anything’s going to come of this Coin, probably just a museum piece…but then….after a few emails exchanged you find out, something remarkable, you find a little bubble of happiness, trickling down from an unexpected place, the internet. You leave a message on the internet, not-expecting anything of it, but when something happens, that might be fate, than there is hope that other fateful things may happen. You see the name on the screen Graeme Rodgers, and this is his response:
“I can’t thank you enough for what you are doing at the moment. It all seems surreal to me. You have to think that some higher power is mixed up in this. I can tell you that even when I was browsing the net the other day, I came across that web site by pure chance. I didn’t know it was there. I think I told you on the phone that the first time I was looking at that GenForum site I didn’t bother to look at your message at first. A few days later I thought I would go back in and have another look. When I opened your message I was astonished as this forum is world wide as I understand it. What are the odds of this happening? The fact that this house was used in a Wearne family mining enterprise is also very interesting.
“I know that my great great grandfather (John Wearne) was a tin miner from Cornwell (his wife was Margaret nee Toy) and they came out to Australia in 1849 (South Australia at first) before moving to Castlemaine, obviously in search of gold. I also know that a James Wearne (probably Johns’ brother but I’m not sure just yet) and his wife Patience were mentioned in records concerning the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat. Both obviously involved in Gold Mining in the area, back in the 1850s. Obviously their offspring continued the tradition so to speak.
“ I’m sure that when this parcel is delivered there will be some amount of emotion here. Just seeing the attachment was enough to bring a tear to the eye. I’ve checked with our Post Office and they inform me that a registered parcel would normally get here by either this Friday or Monday. Agnes Water is a small coastal town half way between Bundaberg and Gladstone (a bit off the beaten track) so it may take a little longer than normal, but I will let you know when it arrives”.
Then the strangest thing happens, you make a friend, an unexpected friend but a friend all the same. More and more emails are exchanged and then you find out about the Soldier’s life in the army his life on the front, and more and more details happen to just spew forth like an over flowing font.
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According to the records, our Soldier, Wearne was about 32 years old when he was in the AIF (Australian Imperial Forces), when you think about it, he was quite old for a WW1 Aussie digger.
You maybe wondering why you have never heard of a Dead Man’s Penny, before, the story of their production and their delivery was not the qualified success that they had hoped it would be.
The scheme ended before all the families or next of kin of the deceased received the official recognition they should have. There were some relatives who returned the pennies to the Australian Government in protest as they felt it was insulting and it did not replace their loved one’s life. Of course, nothing can replace a life lost but for those ‘Dead Man’s Pennies’ that are in private or public collections, museums and national archives, they are a constant reminder of the ultimate price paid by the men and women of the armed services during the Great war of 1914-1918.
And then on that other auspicious day when the parcel arrives, there is nothing but celebration and hope, that other people’s stories that have remained untold, will eventually be told to the world.
“Ray, I will value this medal with the utmost respect and care. To me this medal is a very close link indeed to my family’s history especially in relation to the tragedy of the 1st World War. “Finding” this medal will also be of particular interest to other members of my family. I would like to meet you in person one of these days to personally express my appreciation. Both my wife (Julie) and I have family in Melbourne so we fly or drive down every year or so.
Attached is a photograph Graeme and Julie Rodgers, with the plaque medal in hand. The photo was just taken today by our next door neighbour (Reg) over the road. I wanted to send you this so as you knew what we look like (so as you will recognize us when we arrive on your doorstep). Reg was quite amazed when I told him “the story” of John Samson Wearne and how his “Dead Mans Penny” found its way to Agnes Water. I’m sure that as I retell the story of how this medal found it’s way to Queensland, a lot more people are going to be just as amazed” Graeme Rodgers.
So who did this all happen to? Ray Shaw the manager of Lead On Australia Inc./Bendigo and The Loop.
If anyone else has an interesting story they would like to share with our Loop readers that is along a similar vein please feel free to contact us.
Dead Man’s Penny. Australian War Memorial Encyclopaedia.
Ray Shaw, Lead On Australia.