Family Heirloom- Dead Man’s Penny for James Joseph Stapleton

A family heirloom on our children’s paternal side of the family is a World War I Memorial Plaque, but is more popularly known as a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’. It is in memory of James Joseph Stapleton who was killed in action on the Somme on 1 September 1918.

J J Stapleton Memorial Plaque-Copyright Nola Mackey 2013

This Photograph is Copyright-Nola Mackey

These Memorial Plaques were issued after World War I to the next of kin of all British and Empire soldiers, sailors and airmen who were killed or died of wounds during the war.

In 1919 the British Government held a design competition for the proposed plaque. There were over eight hundred designs submitted. The winner was Edward Carter Preston a renowned sculptor and medalist for a prize of £250.

These plaques were made of bronze and about five inches or 120 mm in diameter.

The medal design was only on the front and is an image of Britannia holding a trident and standing with a lion. In Britannia’s outstretched left hand is an oak wreath. At the bottom of the plaque is another lion tearing apart the German eagle symbolizing Britain’s superiority on land. Dolphins swim around Britannia symbolizing sea power.

A rectangular tablet to the right of Britannia is where the deceased’s full name is inscribed. No rank is included as all gave the same sacrifice- their life. Around the edge of the plaque in capital letters reads: “HE/SHE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR.”

The initial plaques were made at Acton in London, but later, manufacture was shifted to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. On the back of this plaque is “WA”(the A being formed by a bar between the upward strokes of the “W” ), which indicates it was made at Woolwich.

These plaques were issued with a commemorative scroll from King George V.

On receipt of the scroll and plaque the next of kin were required to officially acknowledge by letter and form. These can be found within the service personel records at the Australian Archives.

From the 18th Century the British ‘penny’ was made of copper and a ‘Britannia’ design featured on the face of the coin. It is described as- “Britannia seated facing right, wearing a helmet, holding a trident in her left hand and her right hand resting on a shield with the words ‘one penny’ in the field and date below.” This design with few variations remained as the face of the British penny from c 1780 to 1967.

During World War I the soldiers used these coins as ‘Two-up’ Pennies and even today many surviving sets come out on “Anzac Day”. This is the only day ‘Two-up’ is legally sanctioned.

Due to the similarity in design of the Memorial Plaque and the British penny the Memorial plaque became known colloquially as “The Dead Man’s Penny”.

See also

posted 21 April 2013 at World War I Family Heroes – The Stapleton Boys

posted 13 October 2014 at Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Mont St Quentin

 posted 13 October 2014 at Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

Michael Stapleton- An Ancestor with a Wooden Leg – Was he a Pirate?

When my mother-in-law died suddenly many years ago, my father-in-law came to live with us, as he didn’t want to live on his own. He lived with us for over four years. First sharing a bedroom with our son and then, when we moved onto a small property out of town, in a small purpose built unit near our home. Most days he had his evening meal with us, and afterwards the conversation often turned to family history, when I quizzed him on what he knew of his ancestors.

His mother had been Honorah Stapleton before her marriage to his father, James Mackey. My father-in-law spent many of his childhood school holidays with his Stapleton grandparents at Billinugil, where his grandfather was responsible for the ‘tick-gate’.

One afternoon while discussing the lives of these grandparents, it was revealed that grandfather Stapleton had a wooden leg.One of the children immediately spoke up, and asked in all innocence, “Was he a pirate?” Of course, everyone equated a ‘wooden leg with a pirate’, especially as many children’s books, particularly the ‘classics’, in which most pirates had a wooden leg, or a hook arm, as in Walt Disney’s character ‘Hook’ in Peter Pan.

My father-in-law didn’t really know how he came to have a wooden leg, but believed it was from an accident. He didn’t know when, but said he always remembered his grandfather having the wooden leg.

We had no contact with other members of the Stapleton family at that time, so until we could get some idea of when and where ‘the accident’ happened, it was to remain a mystery.

When the National Library of Australia launched their on-line newspaper resources on TROVE, I was keen to try it out. In the early stages it was only the large national newspapers, but as time went on the country newspapers were added. It was then that the mystery was solved.

The ‘Northern Star’ (Lismore, 1876-1954) had the following article in 1905.

Yesterday afternoon a serious accident occurred at Messrs Hollingworth and Mallett’s sawmill at Mullumbimby. The information at the time of writing is somewhat meagre, but so far as can be ascertained it appears that an employee at the mill named Michael Stapleton, aged 46, by some means came in contact with one of the revolving saws, with the result, that his left foot was entirely severed from the leg and he also sustained serious injuries about the body. He was brought to Lismore under the care of Mr Mallett on last nights train, and on arrival was removed from the railway station to the hospital in an ambulance. He was admitted for treatment by Dr Duka, but at the time of writing particulars as to his condition can not be obtained.

[Ref:1905 Serious Sawmill Accident’, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 16 September 1905, p5, retrieved 20 May 2013, ]

In another newspaper more than 100 miles away:-

Michael Stapleton, whilst engaged packing up a revolving circular saw in Hollingworth and Mallet’s saw mill, Mullumbimby, on Friday, jambed his thumb, and in endeavouring to release it his shirt sleeve was caught in the teeth of the saw. He slipped onto the saw, and was thrown eight feet away. When picked up by his work- mates, it was found that his left foot had been completely severed from the heel to the instep, and that his right arm had been badly injured. He was taken to the Lismore Hospital.

[Ref: 1905 Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, 1889-1915), 19 September 1905, p8, retrieved 19 August 2013,

As we know there was no government help such as ‘Medicare’ in those days and everyone needed to pay for the services of the doctor and the hospital and staff in such emergencies. How did a labourer with a large family (there were nine children and two adults by 1905) pay for these services?
This question was answered by a further article in the newspaper.

The usual monthly meeting of the committee of the Lismore Hospital was held at the School of Arts on Tuesday last. ….The correspondence included the following letter- From the Secretary of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, Mullumbimby  thanking the medical and nursing staff for the treatment that had been given their brother, Mr Stapleton, while in the hospital as the result of a serious accident and referring in eulogical terms the marvellous care which had been effected in his case- Received.

[Ref: 1905 Hospital Committee, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 11 December 1905, p2, retrieved 20 May 2013, ]

I thought it very interesting that even though the family income was very low, they still were members of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, Mullumbimby, and paid into the lodge sick and funeral fund.

However, this would have only paid the basic medical expenses, and there would have been loss of income and many other expenses at such times. Although Michael (Jr) and Andrew would have been working, and would have been expected to contribute to the household, there were eleven mouths to feed, and the home must have been busting at the seams.The Brunswick and Mullumbimby community, although probably quite small at the time, rallied around the family and the following short reference was found in the newspaper.

Mullumbimby…The concert to be held on the 8th December in aid of Michael Stapleton, who was severely injured at the sawmills here some time ago, promises to be very successful.

[Ref:1905 District News, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 25 November 1905, p5, retrieved 20 May 2013,]

The local newspaper, the Mullumbimby Star did not start publication until 1906.

Michael Stapleton was fitted with a prosthesis or artifical leg and returned to work in the mill, as he gave evidence to the Sawmiller’s Wages Board in 1909.

M Stapleton, tailor out at the Canadian bench at Hollingworth and Mallett’s mill at 6s a day, said an experienced man was required for this work, and 7s 6d should be the lowest pay. He considered the work dangerous.

Ref: 1909, Industrial Disputes Act-Sawmillers Wages Board, Northern Star (Lismore, 1876-1954), 11 October 1909,p2, retrieved 20 May 2013,]

 During the First World War he took the position of ‘gateman’ on the Billinugil Tickgate, where he worked for many years. He retired in 1932.

So, although Michael Stapleton had a wooden leg, he was not a pirate, much to the disappointment of our children, but what a wonderful story to find out about. With a little thought and patience many of these family puzzles can be solved in this way.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

In my last blog I wrote about our experience at Mont St Quentin, while on a tour of the Australian World War I Battlefields.

After St Quentin we drove on to Peronne, where we had lunch and visited the ‘Historial De La Grande Guerre 14-18’ or the Museum of the War of 1914-18, which was housed in the old medieval castle. It was well worth visiting, as it showed the story of the soldiers, of the many nations, who took part in the war.

After lunch we boarded the bus and drove to the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

The Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension was begun in March 1917 after the Germans had abandoned the town the first time. The Germans continued to use this cemetery when they took the town back in early 1918.

The Australian 2nd Division became the final group to use it, until after the end of the war when the Commonwealth Graves Commission brought in all those soldiers in isolated graves and small cemeteries. There are 517 Australians here, nearly all lost their lives on the attack on Mont St Quentin in late August and early September 1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its own website at It is worth visiting not only for the history and continued work of the Commission, but the symbolism which goes with the cemeteries, such as the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and the ‘Stone of Remembrance’.

This was the first of many cemeteries we visited over the next few days, and our tour guide did a wonderful job in educating our group on these features, as well as many more concerning the general nature of these cemeteries.

We have two family heroes in this cemetery, Private Robert Edward Sherwood and Corporal James Joseph Stapleton.

Before we left home in June I had printed out from the above mentioned website, the map of this cemetery and marked the position of their graves.

We were able to alight from the bus at the cemetery gate.

The sky was grey and cheerless, never the less the cemetery was beautiful with the gleaming white headstones, lush green grass, and coloured flowers in full bloom decorating the graves themselves. The whole was shrouded in a peaceful silence.

We were the only members of the group to have soldiers buried here, and with the assistance of Pete and our fellow tour companions we were quickly able to find their graves.

For the second time that day we were in for a surprise, although perhaps we should not have been. Corporal J J Stapleton was buried between his two mates, who were carrying him to the field medical station when they were killed by shrapnel from an exploding ‘whiz-bang’ mortar shell.

This gave us a strange comforting feeling knowing that even though he had died so far away from home and family, he was not alone, but resting in peace beside his mates.(Below)


We were able to take photos with the back -drop of the Australian flag. One of the members of our group had previously made many tours of the Western Front Battlefields, and generously shared with us all an Australian flag he had brought with him. We all appreciated this kind gesture, as it gave an added depth to all our photos.

My grandmother’s, cousin, Robert Edward Sherwood was also buried in another section of the cemetery. We  took photos of his grave with the Australian flag too.(Below)


After reboarding the bus, we headed for the town of Iepers, where we were to stay the night.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Mont St Quentin

In former blogs I have mentioned we planned to visit the Australian Battlefields of World War I in France and Belgium this year, to honour our relatives, who fought there. Now we have done this, I will share with you some of our experiences.

Our tour was arranged with an Australian company and was fitted around other tours we planned, as we made the best of the opportunity of being in Britain and Europe in the summer.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, where we were joined by several other Australians booked on the Australian Battlefields Tour.

Our Tour Guide, Pete Smith, a former British serviceman, who now lives in France, knows the landscape and history intimately. Everyone on the tour had lost family members on these battlefields and Pete made a special effort to visit as many War Graves Cemeteries as possible, and locate the graves of the fallen soldiers belonging to the families. He also described all the battles and conditions in detail, so we could understand, and felt a connection to the places.

We all had a copy of an excellently researched and written book, Walking with the Anzacs- A Guide to the Australian Battlefields on the Western Front’ by Mat McLachlan. This was very helpful in not only giving background to the battles, but maps and other useful information of what was going on around the area, during the war. This helped us understand better what Pete was showing us.

The bus left Paris about 9 am and we headed northwards to the Belgium border. The sky was over-caste and the showers followed us throughout the morning, as we wove in and out of the heavy traffic.

Our first stop was on the edge of the Somme at Mont St Quentin. Here is a quote from the above mentioned book, “The attack on Mont St Quentin was considered by many to be the Australian’s greatest action in World War I. In three days, between 31 August and 2 September 1918, a handful of desperately under strength battalions captured one of the most formidable German defensive positions on the Western Front and took over 2600 prisoners.”

It was here that J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood lost their lives on the 1st and 2nd September 1918. I have written about these men in former blogs, however, to stand on the edge of the ‘Mont’ and have a clear view over looking the fields, that the Australians fought across in the half light of the morning of the 31st August 1918, was very moving. Directly behind us on the ‘Mont’ were the German trenches, still visible but half hidden in the wooded undergrowth.


A short distance away was the remnant of a defensive stone wall with an Australian mortar shell still embedded in it.

We were shocked how exposed and flat the terrain was, and still find it hard to believe what those brave Australians accomplished in those few days.


On the back of this hill is the village of St Quentin. Here the striking 2nd Division Memorial stands. This original memorial was unveiled on 30 August 1925, the seventh anniversary of the battle. The memorial now depicts a larger than life Australian soldier in full military kit standing astride, on a stone plinth. The Digger faces north-east, the direction of the Australian advance. This Digger figure is unique amongst the Australian Divisional Memorials, as the other four are identical stone obelisks. These we later visited on our tour. This was not the original sculpture. The first one, unveiled in 1925, was an Australian soldier bayoneting a German Eagle sprawled at his feet. German soldiers who occupied this area during World War II destroyed the sculpture leaving only the plinth. The present Digger sculpture was erected in 1971.

The memorial is surrounded by houses, but the adjacent tree-lined roadway is called the ‘Avenue des Australiens’.

There are a number of ‘story boards’ with photographs adjacent to the memorial. One struck a deep chord with us. It was of two soldiers carrying a stretcher with a wounded soldier across the open battlefield, accompanied by a fourth man waving a white red cross flag, above his head on the end of a stick. The reason it effected us so much, was that it was taken the exact day James Joseph Stapleton was injured and was stretchered by two mates towards the field dressing station. However, the three of them were killed by shrapnel, when a ‘whiz-bang’ shell exploded in the air above them.

We will never know who the soldiers in this photo were, but it did give us a small window into the lives of the men on the battlefield.

We know the three soldiers who were killed, were buried in a shell hole close by where they fell, and crosses were erected soon afterwards.

There is a photograph of the original grave of J J Stapleton, which was sent to his mother, by the original Imperial War Graves Commission. It is in the possession another Stapleton descendant.

We also know from military records that their bodies were retrieved some two years later by the War Graves Commission, and were reburied in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.