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What price is a life?

At the beginning of the First World War, when the British Government decided to make a gesture to the families of people who lost a loved one, they had no idea how many would fall and the magnitude of the task.

They held a competition to design a token of recognition. Sculptor and medallist Edward Carter Preston's design for a plaque was chosen from 800 entries and earned him £250. It depicted Britannia standing with a lion and holding a trident.

Around 1,150,000 plaques were issued, commemorating those who fell between 4 August 1914 and 10 January 1920. Each plaque came with a letter from King George V, which said, 'I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War'.

Despite these noble intentions, the plaques were not always well received. They were dubbed 'Dead Man's Penny’' and many recipients sent them back, saying such a token could not replace the life lost.

According to President of the Landsborough and District Historical Society, Ms Rosey Field, the Dead Man's Penny is rare and valuable today. Incredibly, three have come to be part of the Landsborough Museum's Far From This Land exhibition, which opened in April 2015 and ran throughout 2016. The medallions are among many other rare items featured in the exhibition—letters, documents, photographs, artefacts and family histories.

Landsborough Museum volunteers worked with heritage consultants, Blue Sky View, to research the First World War and the families of four local people. The result was a unique exhibition that explored the region's history and unearthed unique artefacts.

The four locals were:

  • Harry Hapgood, who recorded his time away through many photographs and letters home to his family
  • William Murphy, who died in 1916 in France, at the beginning of the Battle of Pozieres
  • Constance (Connie) Lindsay, believed to be one of 10 staff nurses who enlisted for service from the Sunshine Coast
  • James Maddock, a member of one of Mooloolah's pioneering families, who died aged 35 of abdominal wounds received in action, after barely a month at the front.

Ms Field said the heroic lives and stories of Hapgood, Murphy, Lindsay and Maddock and their families were made all the more poignant by the words on the Dead Man's Pennies, 'He died for freedom and honour'.

A fifth person, Percy Edwards, is also commemorated in the exhibition. Percy's Dead Man's Penny was discovered in the area and is believed to have been left behind by a relative who worked in Landsborough. Sadly, Percy died in 1918 en route to the war zone in Europe.

Ms Field said this project was one of the biggest that the museum's volunteers had ever undertaken.

"Hours were spent researching and locating objects to display. Without Blue Sky View's support and assistance we would never had produced what we believe is one of the best First World War exhibitions in Australia. We are very proud of it," she said.

Explore the Anzac Legacy Gallery


Now open at Queensland Museum, the new Anzac Legacy Gallery tells the fascinating story of the First World War in Queensland.

Visit Queensland Museum to discover stories, objects and journeys that trace how the war changed the face of Queensland and continues to shape our lives, a century later.

Queensland Anzac Centenary grants program

Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia (CC BY-ND 3.0)
Last updated
3 December, 2018

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