Finding a WW1 Widow’s Penny: When sorting out the effects of a deceased relative I happened across an old weighty, partly damaged, envelope. In the top right hand corner was a pre-stamped mark of a crown surrounded by the words ‘Official Paid’. To the left of this was the remnants of the word ‘service’, ‘vice’. Below was a stuck on pre-typed address:
244562 Mr C. Miles
Another sticker at the bottom states “if undelivered return to: The C.S.O.F (Plaque Section, Ordnance Factories, Royal Arsenal, London, [rest destroyed].
Opening this up I found another envelope inside with the numbers 244562 repeated in pencil – actually scrawled across the envelope. On the flap of this envelope is an embossed seal mark. On opening this I found a black card folded around a large penny like coin and the name of Frederick John Miles in raised print. There was one final article within this envelope, a pre-prepared note from the King on paper headed with the Royal Arms and the words Buckingham Palace. The letter reads “I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War” followed by the signature of George V. It was not the only one, there was also one for Herbert Walter Miles.
So how can this information help a family researcher? Well, firstly I knew my mother-in-law’s maiden name was Miles and that her mother was Ethel Nancy Miles. A quick search of the 1911 census shows that Frederick and Herbert were Ethel’s brothers and their father was Charles Miles. Frederick was 15 years of age and born abt. 1896 in Folkestone and Herbert was 13, born abt. 1898 in Capel, Kent. Therefore, Frederick and Herbert were my mother-in-law’s uncles. But what more could I now find out about them and how did Charles Miles come to receive these plaques? It was time to start searching WW1 records to see what could be found.
A quick search of WWI records on Ancestry.com did not find any military records for Frederick but his probate records were found. This detailed that he served as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, dying on the 18 May 1919 at the casualty clearing station Mesopotamia Administration. The records show that he was working in the medical transport section of the RASC. Using his date of death, a search was made on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website (www.cwgc.org). This gave one result that showed he was buried at the Tehran War Cemetery. Documents attached to his result page give further information which includes his final resting place reference and two pictures of the cemetery. There are also documents relating to the inscription and headstones. Sadly, his cause of death is not given but as he is interred here, despite dying in 1919, it shows he would have died as a direct consequence of illness or injuries sustained in WW1. What is nice about this website is that you can download a certificate from the website that gives the name of the solder, service number, position within the army, date of death, a picture of the cemetery and message that commemorates the life of this ancestor.
Herbert too is remembered on the CWGC website. It shows that he was a private with the 7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, regimental number: 203033. He died on the 30th November 1917 and is commemorated on Panel 6 of the Cambrai Memorial in Louverval, France. There is also information about who the memorial commemorates, over 7,000 servicemen of the UK and South Africa who died in the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917 and whose graves are unknown. The Findagrave website actually holds a picture of Herbert’s name on the memorial panel along with other members of his regiment.
There are also other war related documents for Herbert. There can be found on Ancestry.co.uk and firstly include his medal card which shows he was awarded the British and Victory medals. The second document source on this website is the UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914 – 1919 collection. This shows that Herbert died on the 30th November 1917 (which fits with the Battle of Cumbrai dates) in France and Flanders. It shows his residence as Aldington (which fits the 1911 census) and that he enlisted at Canterbury, Kent. It also gives his rank as Private and confirms his regiment number as 203033 and reiterates that he died in action. The last record is in the UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901 – 1929 collection and show that Herbert left £5 5s 6d.
Ancestry also hold enlistment papers which can give a wealth of information about a soldier. This can include a description, including height, eye colour, hair colour and distinguishing features. Next of Kin is included, marriage can be recorded and children listed as they are born. Postings are given as well as any disciplinary action, medical records including treatment, and finally discharge details are provided. Sadly, for our family there were no records in this collection for Frederick or Herbert and they were probably destroyed when 60% of the 6.5 million records were destroyed when a bomb blast hit the War Office in London during WW2.
This blog has described several sources you can use to find information on an ancestor who served during WW1. A simple embossed plaque of bronze and a few medals could be all that remains of a man’s life. Whether you call it a “Widow’s Penny”, a “Memorial Plaque” or “Dead Man’s Penny”, there were 1,355,000 of them issued, of which 600 were specially made for the serving women who lost their lives.
For Mr. Charles Miles, he lost both of his sons during this war and then lost his eldest grandson in WW2 and it was he who received the medals and plaques. For my sons, these have been a window into the past to find out the part their great, great uncles played in creating the world they live in today.