Convict love tokens, also known as leaden hearts, were deeply sentimental and symbolic pieces. They offered convicts a final chance to keep a piece of themselves in the hearts, minds and homes of their families.
When British convicts were transported to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries, their sentences may have been for seven or fourteen years. However, for many it was almost impossible to return home.
Tokens were often made from British cartwheel pennies, worn down and engraved with messages of love. This emotional act is remembered in this coin set. Explore the stories of these Convict Love Tokens below:
While lying in wait to be sent on the First Fleet to Australia, Thomas Tilley created an everlasting symbol of adoration to leave behind for his loved one.
Tilley identified that his sentence of seven years transportation for theft with force may not leave the desired lasting memory, and therefore lied about his crime claiming a nobler deed. The obverse of the token features the false statement claiming that he was being transported for signing a note sent to the hulks. With the words 'Thomas Tilley transported 29 July 1785 for signing a note sent the hulks Jan 24 1786.' Tilley attempted to leave a nobler impression. The reverse of Tilley’s Convict Love Token depicts a Gaol Bird chained to the ground by its neck.
In 1787, following some time in the Thames hulks, Tilley boarded the ship Alexander to travel to Botany Bay, Australia.
Now housed in Powerhouse Museum Collection, the convict love token featuring the Gaol Bird design has become an iconic symbol from early colonial Australia and Britain as it is one of the few existing Convict Love Tokens from the First Fleet. This design is featured on the 2016 $1 Copper Uncirculated Coin remembering the heartfelt link felt between transported convicts and their loved ones.
Convicts awaiting transportation often left behind mementos of their love for those closest to them as a symbol of their everlasting care for that person. Due to the rarity of convicts returning after their sentence, these small symbols of love were treasured, emotionally charged keepsakes. As a great amount of time has passed, many of the origins and eventual owners of particular convict love tokens, or leaden hearts are lost within history.
This design, featuring timeless symbols including a border of olive branches and the words “Forget Me, Not”, was created by a convict whose full name, crime and ultimate fate are no longer known. Similarly, the recipients of this leaden heart have been lost through time.
A replica of the emotive “Forget Me, Not” design can be seen on the 2016 $1 Copper Uncirculated Coin. The original token can now be located in the British Museum.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, during the transportation period, convict love tokens were not only given to sweethearts but also to family members in a sentimental symbol of their affection. This design echoes the voice of John Howe, a 14 year old boy providing a sombre memento for his brother William.
Currently housed in the Powerhouse Museum, the token uses a combination of touching sayings such as “When this you see, remember me” and “liberty is sweet” with images of leg irons and manacles.
Sculpted from a cartwheel penny, Howe’s individual style can be seen on this token with the use of stippling dots to create the engraved sentimental message.
This unique style has been duplicated with an antique finish on the 2016 $1 Copper Uncirculated Coin.