David Morris – 2017 Speech on First World War Memorial Plaques

Below is the text of the speech made by David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, in the House of Commons on 20 October 2017.

A number of years ago, before I was a Member of Parliament, I went to a local car boot sale and looking through all the bric-a-brac and things from days gone by, I came across a bronze plaque. It looked for all the world like a huge old Victorian penny. It had Britannia on the front, being shadowed by a lion, there were two dolphins and, at the bottom, a smaller lion was ripping apart an eagle. The lion with Britannia was the lion of courage, and the other lion was ripping apart the German eagle, while the dolphins signified the dominance of the seas enjoyed by the UK at the time. There was writing around the edge because the plaque was intended to commemorate the life of a fallen soldier. Such a plaque was known—rather crudely, given that it was to commemorate the life of one of our fallen soldiers—as a dead man’s penny. The service people were from the fledging Air Force of the time, from the Navy or those who had fallen on the battlefields.

I remember looking at the plaque—I did not know what it was; I researched it later—and wondering what had happened to the family of the fallen soldier, why the plaque had ended up there, what was the story behind the plaque and what was the story of the soldier’s life and the family he left behind. It struck me that, more often than not, such plaques reach the market—militaria shops, auction sites—because the family has died. I emphasise strongly from the outset that militaria shops do us a great service by helping to keep alive the spirit of historical campaigns and conflicts that we only read about in the history books.

I found out later that 1,355,000 of these plaques were given out. They were struck from 450 tons of bronze. They arrived in a box, sometimes with the medals of the soldier, airman or seaman, and every one of them had a certificate signed by King George V. They were given predominantly after the war, although some were given before its end, to the families of the fallen.

What does this mean in our day and age, 100 years on? We have had other wars, but world war one was the only occasion on which these plaques were struck in honour of the fallen. Each plaque was individually struck, not engraved, with the name of a serviceman, but no mention of their rank. It was struck simply to commemorate the serviceman or woman who gave their life doing their duty in the service of their country. In fact, 1,500 were given to women service personnel. They were given out all across the Commonwealth, to everybody engaged in the conflict. In the great war, we lost 22 Members of Parliament, 20 Lords and in the region of 98 sons of people who worked here or who were Members. This particular debate therefore has meaning not just for the rest of the country, but for Parliament itself.

Members have probably seen me walking around the Chamber today. I know it is not customary to display a dead man’s penny, but I have one with me. It says on the outside of the plaque, “He died for freedom and honour”. Some plaques say, “She died”, depending on the sex of the service person. As Members can see, the plaque is ​quite large and weighty. The gentleman named on it is Charles Edward Woodward. The hole in the plaque makes me a little emotional, because it means that it would have been hung on the wall, over the mantelpiece in his parent’s home. It is all they had left of him.

I bought this plaque from a militaria shop not far from here, and the staff were very helpful and honourable in the exchange. With it came this man’s history. It says that it is a great war memorial plaque issued in memory of Charles Edward Woodward, who served as Private No. 1,200 of the 1/5th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment, Territorial Force, and was killed in action at Ypres on 30 September 1915. Having no known grave, he is commemorated by name on the Ypres Menin Gate memorial. He was aged only 20. He was younger than my son.

Victoria Atkins (Louth and Horncastle) (Con) My hon. Friend has mentioned the Lincolnshire Regiment and I suspect that he is about to explain the special part that this brave young man from my constituency played.

David Morris I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention, because I was welling up. He was 20 at the time of his death and was the son of Parker and Mary Jane Woodward of Rose Cottage, Halton Fenside, Spilsby, Lincolnshire. This plaque is all that is left of him—he was a person.

I want to raise awareness. One day I hope that we will be able to follow Lord Ashcroft’s commendable example by collecting the plaques for these fallen people and displaying them in a room—although it will be difficult to find one big enough to house more than 1.3 million of them—in order to commemorate those who died preserving the integrity of democracy and the freedom of our country.

Sadly, over the years, some of these plaques have been scrapped, because nobody knows what they are, although I do not think that many of them are finding their way to scrapyards. The previous Member for Croydon South promoted a private Member’s Bill that resulted in legislation preventing war memorials from being attacked and melted down, and I would like these plaques to be covered by its provisions, because they mean something.

Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con) My hon. Friend is making a very moving and passionate speech. He speaks of the Members we lost in this place in the great war. We see their shields in the Chamber every day. I would like to share a very positive initiative in one of the villages in my constituency, Crawley Down. A group of volunteers, led by Roger Webb and Philip Coote, is putting up memorial plaques on each of the homes of the servicemen who died in that awful conflict 100 years ago. It is wonderful to see that happening and I am hugely honoured to have been present when students from Crawley Down School have unveiled those memorials, keeping alive the memory of that generation of which my hon. Friend is speaking so eloquently.

David Morris I thank my hon. Friend for that nice story. It is right that we should commemorate. This is only part of the story, but it is fitting for those homes to bear those plaques.

What is the Government’s role? The Government would like to do everything they possibly can, but it is really up to the community to recognise that the plaques ​mean something. I would love to see a national memorial to the fallen, or for the plaques to go to local regiments, local museums or even the Military Heritage Society. Personally, I would like for Charles Edward Woodward’s plaque to be displayed here in the House of Commons. I understand, however, that because he does not have any ties with the Commons, that cannot be the case—maybe it could be displayed in the green case downstairs for a short time. I would therefore like to round off this emotive speech by letting him go home and handing the plaque to my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins).