Medal mysteries

Medal mysteries

The stories behind medals can sometimes take a bit of unravelling. Medals can end up in the wrong hands – sometimes because of a mistake, but other times it is not so simple. 

Some World War I medals were sent to the wrong people. The Defence Force presented some medals formally at military parades but 99 per cent of them were sent by registered post. All the medals a person was entitled to would not be sent in one go – they were posted as they became available.

During WWI, the Medals Office dealt with more than 100,000 recipients of medals, plaques, and illustrated scrolls – it is not surprising that occasionally they made a mistake. Most were immediately corrected once the recipient realised he or she had the wrong award.

In some cases medals are not the real thing. People buy and sell medals, usually in good faith. But fraudsters have replica medals made up and then sell them as genuine. This practice is becoming more prevalent with the availability of replica medals and an easily accessible market on the internet.

NZ Memorial Cross presented to Wing Cdr Frank Athol Pennington. 2002.111.6.

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‘Found on Takapuna Beach’

‘Found on Takapuna Beach’

One day this medal arrived in a small envelope addressed to the ‘War Memorial Department’ at Auckland Museum. Inside was a small tissue-wrapped package folded inside a square of note paper. Written on the paper was, ‘Found on Takapuna Beach’. The package contained a New Zealand Memorial Cross. 

The New Zealand Memorial Cross is awarded to the next of kin of all New Zealand service personnel who died while on active service. This particular medal has the George VI monogram which means it was awarded for World War II. Impressed on the reverse is ‘60917 BDR. R.E. FOOTHEAD’. Intriguingly, there are multiple scratches over and around the name. 

Why would someone try to cross out the name of the person awarded the medal?  

We got sleuthing. A check with the police confirmed there was no record of the medal being reported stolen. Online Cenotaph identified the soldier as Bombardier Robert (Bob) Edward Foothead, married of Wellington, who was killed in Libya on 1 December 1941. Bob’s wife was named May and at the time of his death they had a son, Terry. 

We managed to get in touch with Bob’s grandson. The family had a second memorial cross – the one that had been presented to May. This cross is still suspended from its ribbon and still in its presentation box. That means the medal found on the beach is the one awarded to Bob’s birth family, most probably his mother. Bob Foothead’s New Zealand Memorial Cross was finally reunited with his family in February 2015. 

We still do not know how it ended up lying in the sand on Takapuna Beach in Auckland, and perhaps never will...  

Read more

Bombardier R. E. Foothead, of Wellington, killed in action. AWNS-19420211-24-18. Auckland Libraries.

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Medal mix-up

Medal mix-up

In 2014, the Museum was offered a medal set and other objects belonging to Gallipoli veteran Private Thomas Albert Harwood, a member of the Wellington Infantry Battalion. The medal set included the 1914–15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. 

The 1914–15 Star had Thomas’ details but the other two medals had the service details of a Private WS Nickolls. The Harwood family had no idea who Nickolls was or why his details were on Thomas’ medals.  

Our research led us to descendants of Private Nickolls but they didn’t know anything about Thomas. The two men appear to have to no connection, so how the medals came to be grouped together may remain a mystery. 


Thomas Harwood  

Thomas Nickolls  

1914-1915 Star presented to Private Thomas Albert Harwood (10/2636). 2016.1.1.

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What happens when the Museum is offered a medal?

What happens when the Museum is offered a medal?

In order to add a medal to our collection, Auckland Museum needs to know who the legal owner is – that is the person who has the legal right to transfer ownership to us. If it is not clear who has the legal ownership, we do a thorough search. 

Here are some of the things we may do to identify the owner of a medal: 

  • Check with New Zealand Police to see if the medal has been reported as lost 
  • Check the various online databases that list lost or stolen medals  
  • Check military personnel records for possible next-of-kin information, or for other useful information 
  • Search online for information relating to the named recipient 
  • Check online directories for possible family contacts. 


If a medal is not engraved and we don’t know who the recipient was we are unlikely to add the medal to our collection – unless we don’t have that type of medal. 

Brigadier Herbert Ernest Hart. James Hardie Neil Album PH-ALB-195-p1-1.

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