Mystery of Portsmouth death penny solved as Somme hero’s legacy is returned to city

THE death penny of a World War One soldier who died in the Battle of the Somme has eventually been returned to its spiritual home some 104 years after it was issued.

By Neil Fatkin
Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 2:49 pm
Updated Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 5:39 pm

Gloucestershire couple, Dot and Tim Oakes, were left stunned last month when they discovered a death penny engraved with the name Stephen Ray under the floorboards of their Forest of Dean home. The death penny, also known as a widow’s penny, was issued to the next of kin of fallen heroes who lost their lives during the Great War.

After discovering Stephen was potentially a former Portsmouth resident, the couple contacted The News to help track down his family and solve the mystery of how it had ended up under the floorboards of their larder.

Stephen’s story sparked a massive response with readers contacting The News from as far afield as Australia, USA and Canada.

Chris Pennycook, left, who was sent the death penny by Gloucestershire resident, Dot Oakes, after she found it under the floorboards of her house, pictured with Gareth Lewis Picture: Sarah Standing

One of the first to reply was Chris Pennycook, who runs The Pompey Pals Museum at Fort Widley. He was able to confirm that Stephen was indeed a Portsmouth resident.

Chris said: ‘Stephen served in The 14th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment. He was very much a Pompey Pal, and was named on the shirt Portsmouth FC wore during the 2014 season.

‘The 14th Battalion went in to their first full scale engagement on September 3, 1916, on the Somme. He died of his wounds on September 30th 1916, probably as a result of the action on the 3rd.

‘Stephen was 25 at the time of his death and is buried at Gezaincourt Communal Cemetery in France.’

The death penny which was issued to the family of Pompey Pal, Stephen Ray, after he died in the Battle of the Somme. Picture: Sarah Standing

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Research carried out by the museum revealed Stephen had lived at 62 Seymour Street, Buckland, with parents, Stephen and Annie Ray.

However, with Stephen’s identity confirmed, mystery still remained as to how the Pompey born and bred soldier’s death penny had ended up in Gloucestershire.

Chris said: ‘When I read the initial story, my first thought was how has this turned up in a house in the Forest of Dean?’

Gareth Lewis (left), chairman of the Pompey Pals Museum, and co-founder, Chris Pennycook, inside the museum with the death penny. Picture: Sarah Standing

The mystery was solved by local historian, Clare Ash, who found out that Stephen was the third born of nine siblings – eight boys and one girl. More importantly, Clare discovered that Stephen’s eldest brother, Alfred S Ray, had moved from Portsmouth to live in the Forest of Dean.

Dot said: ‘We found out Alfred had moved to this area long after the end of the war and he lived in what is now our home until he died in 1962. He must have brought the death penny with him, although I’m not sure how it has ended up under the floorboards.’

Mystery solved, Dot and Tim were then left with the task of reuniting the death penny with Stephen’s family. However, with claimants from across the globe it was a task fraught with difficulty.

Dot added: ‘I was astonished with the response. I thought we might get one person reply but because Stephen was part of such a large family we were inundated with responses. What I was surprised about was just how far across the globe Stephen’s family now lived.’

With Clare’s help, responses were narrowed down to four claimants; great-great-niece, Philippa Martin, who lives in the USA, Mrs JC Lampee, also a great great niece who lives in Idaho in the USA, great niece Kerrie Davidson and her father, Dave Evans, who live in the UK and Steve Farrell, who also resides in the UK, and whose wife was Stephen’s great niece.

With four equally justified claimants, it was decision which Dot said ‘was impossible to make’.

Dot added: ‘As all four relatives have an equal claim to the penny it would be impossible to decide between them. We have decided to give the death penny to the Pompey Pals Museum. It just feels like the right thing to do and ensures Stephen’s death penny is returned to his home city where he is from.

‘I have found investigating Stephen’s life absolutely fascinating. I‘m delighted it has found a good home and pleased the mystery has been solved.’

After hearing of Dot’s decision, Chris said: ‘It’s an honour. One of our stated aims is to repatriate Portsmouth history back to Portsmouth. We’ll certainly put Stephen’s story together so he’s never forgotten.’

It was a decision which has been welcomed by Stephen’s nieces and nephews.

Great-great-niece, Kerri Davidson, said: ‘It's been absolutely amazing to find out more about our ancestor Steven Ray and it has been quite emotional finding out what happened. He was so young, and although I never knew him, I'm proud of what he achieved in his short life.

‘We are so happy that Pompey Pals saw the article and got in touch. We think it's an amazing thing to do to have an exhibition about Stephen and we can’t wait to come and see it.

‘I hope the rest of the family agree that it's best going to the museum. It's like his memory has been brought back to life and will now be pride of place where he can have the recognition he deserves.’

The museum are now hoping to find out more about Stephen’s life and have contacted his relatives for photographs to accompany his death penny. While Stephen’s final resting place may have been amidst the muddy carnage of the Somme, his legacy has now been returned to his spiritual home, alongside the memories of the Pompey Pals he served with.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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