Restoring Pennies Brings Peace for Many

Dead Man's Penny
Dead Man's Penny

Somewhere among the graves and rusting wrought ironwork in Box Hill Cemetery is a memorial grave to Lieutenant Joseph Austin Sorby. He died in April 1918, leaving his parents, Charles Edward and Helen Sorby, to mourn his loss.

When I came across Joseph’s memorial in 2016, I saw an indentation at the foot of the grave. Did a vase once stand there or some other monument I thought? I did not know it then, but Joseph’s father had placed there something he valued highly – a commemorative war medallion known as a “Dead Man’s Penny” as a memorial to his son. Why it was missing I had no idea; whatever the reason, it was no longer where it should be.

Moving along, I came across another grave missing a Penny. With no first or second names, only a birth and death date, I decided to see if I could identify this soldier. Thomas, his father, was born on 14 October 1843 and died on 6 November 1929. Rachael Ann, Thomas’s wife, was born on 10 February 1860 and died on 21 January 1956. Using their surname and Box Hill as my keywords, an internet search revealed Thomas had a son whose birth date of 5 February 1891 and death date of 19 April 1917 matched the details on the grave. Albert William Cook joined the Imperial Camel Corps only to be killed in action on 19 July 1917 at Gaza, Palestine.

Near Albert’s memorial grave is that of a soldier, killed in action at Fromelles on 19 July 1916. There had once been a Penny on the grave, now gone. With few personal details to go by, I used the same research tools I’d used previously to identify William as this missing soldier. More than 5500 Australians were killed, wounded or captured in this, the first action for many,on the Western Front. They may simply been written off as a casualty of war, “Known Unto God”, had it not been for the efforts of Lambis Englezos, an Australian school teacher whose efforts to find “the missing” resulted in the discovery of 250 Australian and British soldiers in a mass grave at Pheasant Wood, Fromelles, in 2009. Of these men, 203 were identified as Australians with 75 identified by name through DNA testing. Sadly, no trace was found of William.

Of the more than 40 000 graves and memorials in Box Hill Cemetery, I have identified fourteen Dead Man Pennies on or missing from graves. The then RSL State President, Major-General Sir David McLachlan, said:

“… it’s absolutely despicable for people to desecrate the final resting place of others. Cemeteries are a place for people to express grief and remember. Anything that violates that is out of order”.

Lost or stolen, I had no idea where the Pennies had gone to, but I vowed there and then to do something about this injustice.

With the support of The White Horse Leader newspaper, I launched a project in May of 2016 to fund the replacement cost of the missing Pennies. Through donations large and small, replica Pennies were obtained, which, when engraved with the soldier’s name, will be returned to the graves, completing a story that began more than 100 years ago. Donations are accepted for this worthy project.

For further information or to donate, contact me at