What are convict love tokens?

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A convict love token is a coin that some convicts gave to their loved ones before they were transported to New South Wales.

When a person was transported, they were separated from their family and friends. This was an upsetting experience for everyone affected.

Convicts could be sentenced to transportation for:

  • 7 years
  • 14 years
  • ‘Life’
Painting depicting male and female clasping hands in scene of farewell.
This painting shows a convict giving his wife a love token before he is transported to NSW. 'Convict Sydney' installation view. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

Because Australia is 15,000km from England and travel by ship was expensive, most convicts never returned home even if they finished their sentence.

Love tokens often included dates, names and decorative patterns. Some had pictures drawn on them as well.

Some were very detailed and others were simple.

Each love token is different and symbolises the emotion of being separated from someone who they cared for.

Token words ‘Joseph Smyth/CAST FOR DEATH/4 July 1817/Aged 33’, and the name ‘Mary Ann Smyth/Aged 27’ engraved on the reverse.
Convict love token engraved by Joseph Smyth/Smith for Mary Smyth/Smith, 1817. Hyde Park Barracks Museum collection. Sydney Living Museums.

Why are convict love tokens important?

We know a lot about the convicts transported to NSW from government records, log-books, ship lists and official reports.

But these sources tell us the official perspective:

  • who was transported
  • where they went
  • how long they were to remain
  • and if they were well-behaved in NSW.

Convict love tokens give us a personal perspective – that of the convict.

They are hand-made, and were passed from one person to another during a time of sadness. Love tokens represent the heartbreak of being separated from family and friends.

Only a few hundred survive today, so they are significant historical objects.

What coins did convicts use and how did they make them?

Convicts would have used different types of copper coins to make their love tokens. First, they would have smoothed the coin's surface, removing any words or pictures it had.

Copper is a soft metal, so smoothing the surface was not too hard.  

Below are two examples of different coins a convict might have used, they are:

1797 cartwheel penny - diameter 3.6cm
1827 half-penny - 2.8cm

Because the cartwheel penny is a larger coin, it gave the convict more room to engrave a message of picture.

Once the coin had been smoothed a sharp tool  was used to engrave, or stipple (using lots of small dots), whatever they wanted.

They might include some, or all, of these:

  • a name or names
  • initials
  • dates
  • their punishment
  • a picture 

Some convicts paid to have their love tokens made for them by ‘professionals’ – convicts who were skilled artists, silversmiths or metal workers. Other convicts made their own.

By making a love token the convicts were actually destroying a British coin.

That was illegal, so convicts were breaking the law in order to create a personal memento before they were sent away.


Types of coins used to make love tokens

  • Old pitted coin with head of man.

    George III Cartwheel penny 1797 (back)

  • Old, pitted coin with figure of woman.

    George III Cartwheel penny, 1797 (front)

  • Discoloured coin with king's head.

    Half penny, 1827 (back)

  • Discoloured coin inscribed with female figure in chariot.

    Half penny, 1827 (front)

Different examples of convict love tokens

  • Coin inscribed and with hole drilled through top. Inscription reads  'JAMES / DAWS / AGED 20 / 1826'.
    James Daws
    Convict love token
    (front), 1826
  • Coin with stippled engraving over King's head and body (in shape of swan?)
    James Daws
    Convict love token
    (back), 1826
  • Coin with inscribed design and initials EWN and CD inside love heart.
    Cornelius Donovan
    Convict love token
    (front), 1825
  • Inscribed coin with message:  "THIS IS A / TOKEN FROM / MY HAND FOR I AM / GOING TO / VAN DIEMENS / 18 LAND 25".
    Cornelius Donovan
    Convict love token
    (back), 1825

 

  • Coin with inscription engraved on it, with head in centre of coin.
    Joseph Smyth
    Convict love token
    (front), 1817
  • Coin engraved with inscription.
    Joseph Smyth
    Convict love token
    (back), 1817
  • Worn coin with stippled inscription.
    John Woodcock
    Convict love token
    (front), 1813
  • Worn coin with faint inscription.
    John Woodcock
    Convict love token
    (back), 1813

 

Millthorpe Primary School, NSW

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Louis
    printing

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Taya
    printing

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token

    Marco
    printing

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Jacob
    pressed metal

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    India
    collage

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Taylor
    printing

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Holly
    collage

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Will
    sewing

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Charlie
    sewing

  • Artwork on paper or card depicting student interpretation of coin-shaped love token.

    Bailey
    sewing

Creative Arts activity

Now that you have investigated convict love tokens, use what you have learnt to create your own love token for a person, or, people that you care about.

First step

Measure and cut out a cardboard disc 10-15cm in diameter.

TIP - using a range of coloured cardboard is encouraged, so that the students' base materials are varied.

Next steps

Think about the following:

How will you design and decorate your token to communicate how you feel?

  • Side A: What will you write?
  • Side B: What artwork/s will you do?

Decoration – how will you decorate it?

  • What patterns or design would you like to use?
  • What different kinds of art techniques could you use?

Materials – what would you like to use?

  • Collage/ photos/ stitching/ drawing/ painting/ printmaking – anything you like!
  • Will you attach or stick anything to your token?

Reflection – can you answer these two questions?

  • Who did you make your love token for?
  • Why did you make it for them?
Creative Art K-6 Syllabus
Stage 2
  • Making VAS2.1; VAS2.2
  • Appreciating VAS2.3
Stage 3
  • Making VAS3.1; VAS3.2
  • Appreciating VAS3.4