After two more days researching the prison hulks around the Thames, the Medway, and North Kent, I started to trawl through the collection of convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia.
Tokens were one of the few ways a convict could leave a memento with loved ones before being transported. They were crafted by smoothing a coin on one or both sides and engraving it with a message of affection.
These small “forget-me-nots” of undying love are also known as ‘leaden hearts’. They are personal records and emotional responses from convicts whose lives are usually limited to impersonal official records.
The tokens in the collection at the national museum date between 1762 and 1856 but there are also a number of undated ‘Leaden Hearts’ on display. The museum has kindly made much of the collection available online. They claim to hold the largest collection in the world with 314 artefacts. The Museum purchased most of these tokens (307) from the British dealer and collector, Timothy Millett who co-authored a book on the subject to accompany a travelling exhibition.
When This you see Remember me tho’ many leagues we distant be Miss Smith
The tokens often included 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 crafted around the time of conviction. ‘Leaden hearts’ could be engraved or stippled which involved making marks with a series of small pin pricks.
Certain phrases and sentiments are often repeated and there is a clear distinction between the professional and amateur engravings. Prisoners were usually allowed to carry the tools of their trade and the tokens would have provided a source of income for an engraver. It has also been suggested that the repetition of certain messages indicates there were community values between convicts and surrounding the giving of love tokens.
M. Field and T. Millett, Convict love tokens (Wakefield, 1999)
Prison voices website. There is a good list of primary and secondary sources at this site.
Convict Love Tokens: http://love-tokens.nma.gov.au/
Convict Love Tokens: The Leaden Hearts the Convicts Left Behind. Wakefield Press · Paperback · 120 pages · ISBN 1862544344. Search Abe Books.