Friday, November 9, 2012

Next of Kin Memorial Plaques

Hello Dear Readers,
Today I bring you some information and resources about a particular WWI-era commemorative artifact:  the so-called "Next of Kin Memorial Plaque." Here is an example in the IWM's collection:

William Edginton Memorial Plaque. © IWM, Item  EPH 2114.
During the war, the British Government began working to develop a personalized token of remembrance to distribute to the families of fallen soldiers. Edward Carter Preston was declared the winner of a design contest held in late 1917. A paper scroll bearing an inscription penned by M.R. James, Provost of King's College, Cambridge (and an amazing writer of ghost stories) with edits proposed by King George V and the novelist Charles Keary, was also to be issued with each plaque.

Memorial Scroll for Herbert Walter Stacy, 1919. © IWM, Item  EPH 2223.
The plaques were produced beginning in late 1918 in Acton and later at the Woolwich Arsenal. Scrolls were woodblock-printed at the London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts, starting in January 1919. Each plaque bore Preston's elaborate design and each scroll the commemorative inscription; both pieces featured the individual service person's name.

It was decided that all soldiers and female service-people who died of war-related causes from August 1914 through April 1919 would be commemorated with a plaque and scroll. These materials were sent to relatives of the fallen through the 1920s. The "Great War 1914-1918"website states that over a million plaques and scrolls were created and distributed. Many are still kept by families while others are now in museum collections or in commercial circulation. The "Great War 1914-1918" website has a helpful introduction to the history of the memorial plaque, as well as many interesting illustrations. The IWM's collection also has many plaques and related objects to explore.

Mounted memorial plaque and photograph for  E.M. Tyler, ca. 1918. © IWM, Item EPH 499.
While working at the Yale Center for British Art a couple of years ago, I had the honor of handling and researching the history of two sets of these remarkable mementos. They had come to the museum as part of larger family archives of items related to two soldiers. I can only say that the experience of working with these carefully preserved pieces along with their packaging and related medals, photographs, and letters was a moving experience. While nothing could bring back the dead, the plaques meant something to many families who received them and they were preserved, copied through graphite rubbings sent to friends, and displayed in loving fashion. I don't know that the plaques or scrolls could express much of the personal stories or losses that they attempted to memorialize. However, they bring home a sense--maybe only an inkling, but it's impressive enough--of the individual people who were lost in this crisis. They make the vast numbers or statistics that were part of the war's recording palpable and overwhelming at the same time. Both commemorative of a past tragedy and cautionary about the human price of combat, they help us to remember.

© Fiona Robinson


  1. Another place where you find those Plaques in Canada is in cemeteries. Since the body of the deceased soldier was not repatriated to Canada if he had died or was killed in Europe, some families took the Plaque and bolted it to the family gravestone to commemorate the lost one.

    1. What a fascinating fact--I am very interested in the ways in which families adopted/adapted these plaques. The absence of the war dead prompted so many different approaches and responses. It's very moving.