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Bear me in your mind

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Engraved with poignant messages of affection, these convict love tokens provide an intimate glimpse into the history of the convict era.

by Sophie Jensen, Senior Curator, Australian Society and History Program


A tiny hole pierces the small coin. Two names are stippled alongside the date, 1829, and a male figure with hat and boots is shown shooting at birds, his dog by his side. On the reverse of the coin a verse is inscribed – 'When/ this you see/ Remember me/ and bear me in/ your mind let/ all the World/ say what they/ will dont prove/ to me Unkind.' At one time, a chain or thread may have passed through the hole enabling the token to be worn – perhaps close to someone’s heart. But these are the details about which we can only guess.

Magazine spread on the National Museum of Australia's collection of convict love tokens.
The wreck of 'George the Third', by Knut Bull, 1850, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 123 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 2001.

The coin is a convict love token – also sometimes referred to as a 'leaden heart'. Made by convicts after their sentencing, these tokens were mementoes produced to leave with their loved ones. The most popular coin from which these tokens were made was a 'cartwheel penny', first minted in 1797. The penny was cheap and easy to obtain, and its low relief design made it an ideal object for the convict’s purposes. Smoothing out the surfaces left the coin clear for the convict’s messages of love, hope and fear. Perhaps the greatest of these fears was that of being forgotten once separated, either by distance or death.

Despite the use of well-worn phrases and verses, 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. Some talented convicts would have made an industry in producing the tokens on behalf of others. While common phrases and pictorial elements are repeated, there is also remarkable individuality displayed in these tiny keepsakes.

With the acquisition of the Timothy Millet collection in 2008 the Museum became the holder of the largest collection of convict love tokens in the world. The Museum’s collection now contains 314 of these precious and intriguing items, ranging in date from 1762 to 1856. Individually the tokens are moving and highly evocative. Each one speaks directly to us of a personal convict’s story. The tokens are a reminder not of 'the' convict experience but of each convict's experience.

Our research is now focusing on attempting to link tokens to individual convicts. Tokens often feature a name and year, and at times a specific date is mentioned – this is often the date on which sentencing took place. A number of tokens state the length of sentence and a smaller number make specific reference to the fate of transportation itself. Occasionally a token appears to make pictorial reference to the offence committed. Some tokens bear the initials of the loved ones that the token was given to. Each piece of information contained on a token acts as a clue to the identity of the convict – the more clues we have the greater the chance that our research can confidently tie the token to a particular individual. Once this is done the meticulous official records that were kept on each convict can connect us to this intimate artefact.

In many cases we have been working to verify the research painstakingly undertaken by Timothy Millet and other passionate and knowledgeable collectors such as Peter Lane, who generously lent some of his tokens to be exhibited in the Australian Journeys gallery when it opened in 2009. In other instances, we have been able to make new connections and piece together stories that until now have been unknown. When connections occur – and an individual is identified – it is an exciting moment. It adds to the richness and vibrancy of a collection already brimming with stories of tragedy, love, hardship, hope and pain.

While each token speaks of an individual experience, the collection as a whole is helping to create something equally enlightening. Once individuals are identified their stories combine to create a new landscape of personal experience, forming a collection of convict biographies that may yet enable the Museum to piece together a richer piece of work – a collective biography that will illuminate convict lives from a new perspective. Together the tokens weave a powerful and moving story that will evolve and take us in new directions as our intriguing research continues.

Eighty tokens from the Museum's collection are now on display in the Australian Journeys gallery. A new web feature also allows you to examine the entire collection online at love-tokens.nma.gov.au.

The front and back of James Thurtell's token.

James Thurtell

This token may relate to James Thurtell, 18, gardener and baker's apprentice, who was tried and convicted at Norfolk Assizes in April 1829 for stealing shoes, spectacles, a tea chest, candlesticks and other items from Martha Chapman. Sentenced to seven years' transportation, he sailed for New South Wales on the Katherine S Forbes, leaving on 7 October 1829 and arriving on 19 February 1830. Thurtell's records show that he was single, measured 5 foot 4 inches, had a ruddy complexion, the point of the right fourth finger missing and a number of interesting tattoos. He gained his ticket of leave in 1836, his certificate of freedom on 9 February 1842 and married Maria Jane Culverson in 1841 in Keslo, New South Wales. His death certificate shows that he died in the lunatic asylum in Parramatta in 1861.

This token is one of the few that makes specific reference to the fate of transportation. The heavy stippled text conveys a sense of the weight of the sentence upon the young man contemplating an uncertain future, and reads:

TRANSPORTED FOR
*7* YEARS 1829.

Engraved on the reverse is:

JAMES
THURTELL
AGED
*18*
YEARS
*1829*

 

The front and back of David Poultney's token.

D Poultney

It is likely that this token relates to David Poultney, 20, weaver and labourer, tried and convicted at the Warwick Assizes in April 1829 for attempted murder. Poultney was one of a group of poachers who shot at, and wounded, the gamekeeper on the land of the Lord of Denbigh. Initially sentenced to death, this was commuted to 14 years' transportation, possibly due to a petition for clemency from local inhabitants testifying to his previous good conduct. He sailed for Van Diemen’s Land on The Thames on 31 July 1829 and arrived on 20 November. Records show that Poultney was assigned to the police department shortly after his arrival in Hobart as a 'field' police officer. He received his conditional pardon on 9 May 1836. In 1837 he married Annie Watts and they went on to have 10 children. Poultney died in 1884, a successful and respected landowner in the Hobart district.

D. POULTNEY
L. COWLEY
1829

On the reverse is an image of a hat with two feathers at the base of stippled cursive text:

WHEN
THIS YOU SEE
REMEMBER ME
AND BEAR ME IN
YOUR MIND LET
ALL THE WORLD
SAY WHAT THEY
WILL DONT PROVE
TO ME UNKIND

 

The front and back of Josh Smale's token.

Josh Smale

This token is inscribed 'Josh Smale' but is likely to relate to Joseph Smales, 27, who was tried and convicted at London Gaol Delivery on 20 February 1834 for stealing 17 sheep. Sentenced to transportation for life, in his trial the prosecutor 'strongly recommended [Smales] to mercy as a little drink affected his mind'. Smales sailed for Van Diemen’s Land on George III on 12 December 1834. The ship was wrecked in the mouth of the Derwent River on 12 April 1835. Smales was listed as one of the 134 people who drowned. Smales' story illustrates the dangers that were a very real threat to convicts throughout the history of the transportation system.

His token is engraved with eight lines of stippled text, with the first and last lines curving around the edge of the token:

WHEN THIS YOU SEE
REMEMBER.ME
. AND . BEAR . ME .
. IN . YOUR . MIND .
. LET . ALL TH[E] . WORLD
. SAY . WHAT [TH]EY WILL
. SPEAK . OF . ME .
AS YOU FIND

The reverse is engraved with decorative stippled embellishments of flowers and leaves, and the words:

A GIFT BY
JOSH SMALE
FEBY 20 1834

 

The front and back of John Campling's token.

John Campling

Inscribed 'John Campling' this token may relate to John Camplin, 15, who was tried and convicted at Middlesex Gaol Delivery for the theft of a silver watch. Initially sentenced to death, this was later commuted to transportation for life. He sailed for Van Diemen's Land on the Surrey in September 1818. Camplin's conduct record states that he was subject to numerous lashings, was fined for theft and drunkenness, and had his sentence extended by three years in 1833. Tokens such as Camplin's are a vivid reminder of the pain that parents would have felt seeing their young son sent on a voyage from which they could never expect him to return.

Camplin's token is engraved with a fine rope border and two crossed hearts above six lines of cursive text:

DEAR FATHER MOTHER
A GIFT TO YOU ~
FROM ME A FRIEND
WHOSE LOVE FOR YOU
SHALL NEVER END
1818

On the reverse it reads:

WHEN THIS YOU SEE
REMBR ME WHEN
IN SOM[E] FOREIGN
COUNTRY JOHN
CAMPLING
~