Dead Man’s Penny – Next of Kin Plaque

A total of 100,444 New Zealanders served overseas in the First World War. From a population of just over a million, forty-two percent of men of military age served. A total of 16,697 New Zealanders were killed and 41,317 were wounded during the war – a 58 percent casualty rate and one of the highest per capita of any country involved in the war (1). At the end of the war the next of kin of those who died received a Next of Kin Plaque commemorating the service of their loved one.

The history of the plaque began in 1916. Because of the large number of casualties on the Western Front, the British Government recognised that some form of official token of gratitude should be given to the next of kin of servicemen and women who had died in the service of the Empire. In August 1917 a competition to design a suitable plaque was announced by the British Government. Over 800 entries being received from all over the Empire, the Dominions and even from troops on the Western Front. Mr E Carter from Preston, Liverpool, England was the eventual winner (2).
The selected design was a 12 centimetre disc cast in bronze gunmetal which incorporated the following:  

An image of Britannia holding in her right hand a trident and in her left hand symbolising victory, an oak spray with leaves and acorns.

This is held above a rectangular tablet on the plaque where the full name of the fallen is engraved. It was decided that no rank would be shown as it was intended to show equality in their sacrifice.

At Britannia’s feet is Britain’s lion emblem roaring defiance.

Two dolphins representing Britain’s sea power flank Britannia.  

At the base another lion is shown tearing to pieces an eagle, the emblem of Imperial Germany.

Around the edge of the plaque are written the words ‘He died for freedom and honour.’ Later plaques were modified to enable an S to be inserted at the start so the ‘She died’ was an option (3).


The plaque was sent accompanied by a scroll headed with the Royal Coat of Arms, with a passage written in old English script. The recipient’s full name, rank and regiment were individually hand written on the scroll.

The first examples of the plaque were sent mainly to English families in December 1918. The scroll above was sent to the next of kin, in this case mother, of Private Dodson in September 1921.

The plaque was received in February 1922.


So why are they called Dead Man’s Penny? Ancient Greek and Roman mythology is that the River Styx forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. A ferryman, Charon, would ferry the souls of the newly dead across the river if they were able to pay the toll. To ensure the toll was available relatives would bury a body with a coin in the mouth (4). The design of the memorial plaque is similar to the penny coin of 1918 and associated with the death of servicemen and women led to them being given the nickname of Dead Man’s Penny.

The families of casualties would also receive from the New Zealand Government a Certificate of Service in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces. This showed the medals awarded, the territories of War which the serviceman or woman served in and also the length of service. The example of Private Dodson was hung in Nelson in a place of honour and has subsequently faded over the years.  

The centre of the certificate has the Coat of Arms of New Zealand.

Britannia, as the symbol of England, is seated with a soldier dressed in New Zealand uniform signing a book.

The symbols of Britain’s sea power steam in the background.

Similar to the Next of Kin plaque the eagle symbol of Imperial German lies defeated by the British Lion and his cubs. The cubs represent the Empire.

Is there a tear on the face of the Lion?


The certificate also incorporates New Zealand elements with a panel incorporating a cabbage tree (Ti Kouka) and mountain set above a stylised meeting or storage house (Pataka).

Certificate of Service of Gunner Percy Lator Nisbett, also from Nelson, has been used to show the elements within the certificate.


Allan Dodson – August 2013


(1)       Military History of New Zealand in World War One: Wikipedia
(2)       The Next of Kin Memorial Plaque and Scroll:
(3)       Memorial Plaque WW1: Wikipedia
(4)       River Styx: Wikipedia



(1)       Next of Kin plaque – Dodson family
(2)       Parchment scroll – Dodson family
(3)       Certificate of Service in NZEF – Dodson family
(4)       Certificate of Service in NZEF – Percy Lator Nisbett
Last Updated: 25/07/2013 4:22pm