The National Museum of Australia holds the world’s largest collection of convict tokens, with 315 in its collection. These tokens were made by convicts around the time of their sentencing and were given to friends and loved ones as mementos.
Rare personal convict mementos
Smoothing and engraving a coin with a message of affection was one of the few ways a convict transported to Australia could leave a memento behind with loved ones in England.
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.
Tracing the lines
Convict love tokens often include the names of the prisoner and their loved one, the length of the convict's sentence and popular phrases and rhymes of separation. They were often engraved around the time of conviction, for a prisoner's loved one or family.
Tokens were engraved or stippled, which involves making marks with a series of small pin pricks. They were crafted by professionals and amateurs.
Sophie Jensen, Senior Curator:
The stories within each token are powerful, they are individual and emotional and we are adding to them all the time. The love tokens receive a lot of interest, especially from families who have explored their ancestry and found one of the tokens is part of their own story.
Grigoryan Brothers composition
Classical guitarists Slava and Leonard Grigoryan chose a convict love token from the Museum's collection as inspiration for the 2021 composition Love Token.
The Museum commissioned the Grigoryan Brothers to write an album inspired by museum objects for its 20th anniversary.
The words engraved on the 1819 token had special resonance for the Grigoryans. Reflective of the geographic distance between them during the COVID-19 pandemic and their enduring personal connection, the token bears the words, ‘Dear brother when this you see remember me when I am far away’.
Love tokens collection
There are 315 convict love tokens in the National Museum's collection, ranging in date from 1762 to 1856. The Museum purchased 307 tokens from British dealer and collector Timothy Millett in 2008.
Millett's interest in convict love tokens began when he joined his family's firm, AH Baldwin & Sons, dealers in coins, medals, tokens and numismatic (coin collecting) books. Millett was fascinated by the tokens and acquired a large collection from a customer in 1984. He continued to build his collection and researched the people named on the tokens.
The National Museum held several tokens when it bought the Millett collection. Other institutions in Australia and overseas have collected tokens and a number remain in private hands.
Thanks to the efforts of Timothy Millett and other researchers, we know the identity of convicts associated with about 80 of the tokens in the collection. The Museum continues to research the collection and identify more associations and links to individuals, including the three below.
Godfrey was a baker of Soho, London, who was sentenced to seven years transportation for larceny. He arrived in Australia in 1837 and was assigned to various masters.
Godfrey left Tasmania in 1846 a free man. He was bound for Port Phillip on the Shamrock. No further trace has been found.
Token front: 'James Godfrey, Hannah Jones'. Made by: 'T Boulton, S Stevens'. Reverse: 'When in captivity time goeth very slow, but free as air to roam, now quick the time doth go'.
Lock was sentenced to 10 years transportation in 1845 for highway robbery and stealing. A groom by trade, he was one of five children. His family's names were tattooed on his body.
Lock constantly broke the conditions of his sentence in Australia and received lashings and time in solitary confinement. He stole two sheep and was given a life sentence, but received a conditional pardon in 1858.
It is not known if he ever returned to England.
Token front: 'Thomas Lock, Aged 22, Transped. 10 years'. Reverse: 'When this you see, remember me, when I am far from the [sic]'.
Lawley was sent to Australia for stealing a handkerchief, after he had already served two years in prison for a previous conviction.
His convict record reveals he was a polisher, listed as single at the time of sentencing. Lawley was assigned to a master in Parramatta and later received his ticket of leave.
He was recorded as living in Goulburn for the 1841 census and later ran an inn at Araluen, near Braidwood. He was listed for insolvency and last recorded at Port Macquarie in 1871 where he was on trial for four counts of larceny.
Token front: 'AL, AP' either side of a balloon. Reverse: Abraham Lawley, In y(ears) 20, Transported Agakeep, Ann Pembuttom 1828'.