Convict Love Tokens

A rare collection of tokens engraved with poignant messages of affection for loved ones

By National Museum of Australia

The National Museum of Australia

Edward Hawkins love token Edward Hawkins love token (1834)National Museum of Australia

'When this you see, remember me'

Smoothing and engraving a coin with a message of affection was one of the few ways a convict could leave a memento behind in England before being transported.

These small tokens are also known as 'leaden hearts'. They record personal and emotional responses from convicts whose lives are more often represented by official government records.

The National Museum of Australia holds the world's largest collection of convict love tokens, with more than 310 in the collection. They range in date from 1762 to 1856. While the vast majority were made by convicts sent to Australia, a handful were produced by convicts sent elsewhere in the world prior to the commencement of transportation here in 1788.

This selection of tokens provides an introduction to the collection. The entire collection can be viewed on the award-winning Convict love tokens website.

Elijah Swainson love token Elijah Swainson love token (1817)National Museum of Australia

'Cast of death'

The tokens often include the names of the convict and their loved one, the length of the convict's sentence and popular phrases and rhymes of separation.

They were frequently engraved around the time of conviction for a prisoner's loved one or family.

The tokens were engraved or stippled, which involves making marks with a series of small pin pricks. They were crafted by professionals and amateurs.

George Morris love token George Morris love token, 1817, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Elijah Swainson love token Elijah Swainson love token, 1817, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Thomas Spicer love token Thomas Spicer love token (1818)National Museum of Australia

The tokens bear messages of hope, love and fear. Perhaps the greatest of these fears was that of being forgotten once separated, either by distance or death.

John Campling love token John Campling love token, 1818, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Michael Lambert love token Michael Lambert love token, 1820, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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James Thurtell love token James Thurtell love token, 1829, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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David Poultney love token David Poultney love token (1829)National Museum of Australia

At one time, a chain or thread may have passed through the hole at the top of the token, possibly enabling it to be worn close to someone's heart.

William Reynolds love token William Reynolds love token, 1829, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Frederick Buck love token Frederick Buck love token (1830)National Museum of Australia

The tokens vary remarkably in design and quality. Inexpert hands have scratched out some while others bear the marks of being the product of an artisan.

Mary Ann Whitlock love token Mary Ann Whitlock love token, 1831, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Deney Briant love token Deney Briant love token, 1831, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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William Kennedy love token William Kennedy love token, 1832, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Thomas Burbury love token Thomas Burbury love token, 1832, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Thomas Alsop love token Thomas Alsop love token, 1833, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Joseph Kelf love token Joseph Kelf love token (1833)National Museum of Australia

While common phrases and pictorial elements are repeated, there is also remarkable individuality displayed in these tiny keepsakes.

Joseph Smale love token Joseph Smale love token, 1834, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Edward Hawkins love token Edward Hawkins love token, 1834, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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John Bloxidge love token John Bloxidge love token, 1839, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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Thomas Lock love token Thomas Lock love token, 1845, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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James Godfrey love token James Godfrey love token, undated, From the collection of: National Museum of Australia
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John Bloxidge love token John Bloxidge love token (1839)National Museum of Australia

'Remember me when far away'

View the National Museum's entire collection of more than 300 tokens on the Convict love tokens website.

Eighty of the tokens are on show in the gallery 'Journeys: Australia's connections with the world', at the National Museum in Canberra.

Credits: Story

The National Museum of Australia purchased most of the convict love tokens in its collection from British dealer and collector Timothy Millett in 2008.

The Museum acknowledges the significant work undertaken by collectors Timothy Millett and Peter Lane in uncovering the history of convict love tokens.

Their research has provided a basis for the Museum’s research into the histories of a number of the convicts associated with particular tokens in the collection.

Object photography by Katie Green, Lannon Harley, Jason McCarthy, Dragi Markovic and George Serras.

National Museum of Australia website

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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