I first encountered Harry Dean on 25 December 2009.
His death plaque, sometimes called a death penny, was a surprise Christmas gift from my long suffering other half; it is possibly the best Christmas gift ever. I had been watching auctions on eBay for months, and just hadn’t been able to justify the prices they were fetching. This gift came completely out of the blue, and is the only one that completely overwhelmed me (and still does).
More than 1.3 million of the bronze plaques were issued to the families of British and Empire men and women killed as a result of the war. In August 1917 a competition for a ‘War Memorial for Next of Kin’ was announced in the Times newspaper. Offering government prizes for the winners. It was stipulated that the design should include the words ‘HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR’ and that the design should essentially be simple and easily intelligible. Designs might be square, rectangular or circular, but should be as close as possible to 18 square inches in area.
The competition attracted over 800 hundred entries, and in January 1918 a design by sculptor Edward Carter Preston was selected as the winner. One of the runner-up designs was by William McMillan who would later design the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
The design features Britannia holding a trident, symbolizing British naval dominance, in her right hand and standing with a lion. In her left hand she holds a laurel wreath, a symbol of both peace and victory. To the right of the lion is an oak spray with acorns, for strength &endurance, whilst around Britannia two dolphins represent dominance at sea. Above the lion’s head there is a name tablet, where the deceased’s name is cast in raised letters. There is no rank displayed, so as not to discriminate between sacrifices made. ECrP representing the initials of the designer appears above the lion’s front paw.
Each plaque was individually cast, with the lettering for the name being built up from individual separate letters. The first ones were made in Acton in 1919, and towards the end of 1920 production was moved to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. The Woolwich plaques are identifiable by a small W stamped within a circle on the reverse. Another change made during production at Woolwich was in the lettering on the left hand side.
There was very little space between the lion’s back leg and the word HE, and on the Woolwich plaques the H is slightly narrower so that an S could be added to make the HE read SHE when the plaque was commemorating the life of a woman. 600 plaques were issued to the families of women killed in the war. Later plaques made at the Woolwich Arsenal had a number engraved between the tail and the leg of the lion representing the maker’s number.
Harry Dean’s plaque is one from the Woolwich Arsenal. There is a number 17 between the tail and leg of the lion.
For many families the plaque took an important role in remembering their family member, sometimes being displayed prominently at home, maybe framed, or even incorporated into the headstone of a parent or widow when they died. Others found the offering offensive, and chose not to accept the plaque.
Like the deceased soldiers medals, the plaques were sent many months after the end of the war. There was an official list of people, in order of precedence, who might be considered next of kin, and a letter was sent to the person highest on the list.
The next of kin of soldiers executed in the war were not issued with a memorial plaque (This would apply to the 306 soldiers commemorated at the Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum.)
Unfortunately many of the plaques were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes thrown away when a relative died, and maybe the family didn’t know what it was. Others were even melted down for what scrap value could be gained. There has been a revival of interest in recent years, probably accelerated by the coverage of World War 1 centenary commemorations, and it is quite easy to purchase one. The asking price is enhanced if the previous owner has already researched it’s background, and also if it is accompanied by the same soldier’s medals. For my part, I am pleased that I didn’t know anything about Harry Dean, as it has led me on a real journey of discovery.
So, Who are you, Harry Dean?
Once I’d got used to the idea that I am the proud custodian of his death plaque, I felt that I wanted to find out a little bit more about Harry Dean. I’m completely unable to pass it without at least a passing thought for Harry and his comrades. I’m truly sorry that this hasn’t been able to stay with Harry’s family, but will give it the loving care it deserves, in lieu of his family.
It was a simple matter to look on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website to see how many Harry Deans had been awarded one of these plaques, and because it was a relatively unusual name, there weren’t too many to choose from. The plaque would have been engraved with the same name as is recorded on the CWGC register, so I knew that I could discount the Harold Deans and those with a middle name, like Harry William Dean. This left me with a shortlist of just eleven names.
My first task was to make a small spreadsheet, with the basic details from CWGC so that if we happened to be near one of the relevant cemeteries on one of our War Walks, then I could, at least, call in and pay my respects.
Fast forward a few years, add in a house move, and I found myself involved in a project researching names on the local War Memorial. By the time I’d written a few biographies, and with the help of a very patient man who showed me how to tease out information from military records, I realized that I could research Harry Dean in the same way. Whilst I still don’t know which one of the eleven is ‘my” Harry Dean, it feels right that all of them should be honoured for what they gave in the pursuit of peace and freedom. It has been amazing learning a little bit about the lives, and deaths of these eleven men, and a privilege to be able to share their stories.
For all that you suffered and all that you lost, Harry, and the other ten Harrys, thank you.