A token recognising the ultimate sacrifice made by a young First World War soldier has been kept for nearly 60 years on the mantlepiece of a man who bought it as a curious young boy.

John Hay was born in Mile End  in 1947 and grew up in Ferndale Road, Leytonstone, with his mother, father and younger brother Alexander before they moved to Barclay Road in 1955.

At the age of 10, he visited a jumble sale at a now-demolished congregational church on the corner of Barclay Road and High Street, where he stumbled across a First World War bronze memorial plaque, or medallion, in honour of Albert Edward West.

Intrigued by the plaque, Mr Hay bought it for 10 pence and took it home to his family.

“I bought it because I didn’t know what it was and I had never seen one before,” said Mr Hay.

“My mother and father were less than enthusiastic and said it was like bringing someone’s gravestone into the house.”

After extensive research on the internet, Mr Hay, 67, discovered Albert had enlisted in the army in 1914, aged just 16. The medallion has sat on the mantlepiece of every house Mr Hay has owned for the past 57 years, always with a poppy on Remembrance Day.

From 1919 onwards the round plaques, referred to as the ‘King’s penny’ or ‘dead man’s penny’, were issued to the next of kin of men and women of the Army and Navy who died in the First World War, or later as a result of their wounds.

They show the figure Britannia, a lion standing over a German eagle and the deceased’s name, with the inscription ‘He died for freedom and honour’.

They do not record the dead person’s rank, as all contribution was considered equal.

About 1.4million were made and were accompanied by a letter and a scroll from King George V, although the plaque Mr Hay bought had only a cardboard cover.

In the 1970s, Mr Hay moved out of Leytonstone and travelled around the world before settling in Barningham, North Yorkshire, with his wife Sheila, now 67, in 1986.

He found out through Army records that Albert lived in Trinity Street in Leytonstone with his mother and father, Emily and Charles, and four siblings.

Albert enlisted at Stratford into the 7th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment as Private 9125 and was sent to Boulogne on May 31 1915. He served on the Western Front, including in the Battle of Loos.

Just a month after the battle started, Albert was killed, on October 13. Although his body was never sent home to his family, his name is listed on a memorial at the Dud Corner Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, near the Belgian border.

“Many of the shells fired at the Germans were duded,” Mr Hayes said. “Troops came across all sorts of difficulties crossing enemy lines.”

In December 1915, Albert’s father was told he was missing and then in March 1916, the private was listed as ‘killed in action’.

Mr Hay now wants to trace the descendants of the West family and reunite them with the plaque.

The 1911 census showed Albert’s sister Ellen had married a Mr Rogers and had a son named Thomas, all of whom lived in Trinity Road.

“If they wanted it back, I would be very happy to reunite Albert’s family with the plaque 100 years on and if not, he stays on the mantle shelf, polished and remembered.”

If you know more about Private West or his family, email john.hay1 @mypostoffice.co.uk.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Woodland Trust