Henry Giles and the Dead Man’s Penny


Ashburton Museum holds a very special collection of military objects and archives. Among the items is a rare bronze medallion, colloquially known as a Dead Man’s Penny. The medallion is large at 120mm across, and carries the name of Henry Giles. Private Henry Giles was a member of the 4th Battalion, 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade. He was killed in action on 4 November 1918, while serving in France, aged just 32. He was the son of William and Ellen Giles of Wakanui, and the brother of Maryann.

Sadly, Henry’s death came just days before Armistice Day on 11 November 1918.

Armistice took effect at the eleventh second of the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It was signed at Compiègne, France, between the Allies of World War One and Germany. This meant the end of hostilities on the Western Front.

The commemorative medallions were called a Dead Man’s Penny because of their circular shape and coin-like appearance. They were issued after the war. A medallion was sent to the next-of-kin of all British and Empire service personnel who were killed as a result of the war. The Dead Man’s Penny that bears Henry’s name was sent to his mother.

Some families chose to return their medallions – asking was this all a life is worth?


The symbolism of the Dead Man’s Penny

The medallion design is highly symbolic. On the front is an image of Britannia, surrounded by two dolphins, a lion, and an eagle. Britannia has long been the female personification of Britain. She is often used during wartime, to represent British liberty, power and democracy. The dolphins beside her are symbols of Britain’s sea power. The lion stands over the eagle. This represents Britain’s defeat of Germany during World War One. Around the outer edge of the medallion are the words ‘He died for freedom and honour’.

Each medallion is inscribed with the deceased soldier’s name. No rank is given, to show equality in sacrifice. The medallion in the museum collection simply reads, Henry Giles.


In memory of Henry Giles

Exactly one year after Henry’s death, his sister Maryann posted a notice in the Ashburton Guardian. She chose to mark his memory with a short poem:

 In a hero’s grave he sleepeth.

Somewhere in France he fell.

How little we thought when we parted,

It was his last farewell.

Alongside Henry’s medallion above are three hand-crafted red poppies. Poppies are an important way to mark war remembrance. The three red poppies were made especially for the exhibition, by Haidee Cowan, the great, great, great niece of Henry Giles. Like many soldiers, Henry did not get to have children of his own. Yet these service men and women are still remembered by other family members. They are also a reminder of how recent a war one hundred years ago is, when we think of how close the links are between generations.


Marking Ashburton’s Fallen

Nearly 500 names speak of the great loss to the Ashburton community, and the many connections between individuals. Written in text just 2cm high, their names reach two-stories high across four columns of tiny names. Surnames are repeated, and many of the names are well-known and remembered through the District. At the start of World War One there were just over 12,000 people living in the Ashburton District. Losing 500 people (not to mention the many more injured, both physically and psychologically) must have had a terrible impact.



  1. The Dead Man’s Penny given to the mother of Henry Giles. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. Three red poppies handcrafted by Haidee Cowan, the great, great, great niece of Henry Giles. ©Ashburton Museum.

Author: Tanya Zoe Robinson

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