Convict Love Tokens

Convict Love Tokens

By Douglas Burbury, 1999


The Millett Collection

Several years ago I came across an article in a British magazine which talked about "Convict Love Tokens" which had been collected by Timothy Millett, of the numismatics firm of A.H. Baldwin & Sons in London. The article had been sent to me by a relative because it contained a reference to our convict ancestor, Thomas Burbury, who was transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in 1832. The fact of Thomas' convict heritage had been kept secret or forgotten in our family until as recently as 20 years ago, when it was discovered by a family researcher using the standard approach of sifting through contemporary documents. But Tim Millett's collection of convict love tokens included something rather unique -- a tangible artifact that substantiated the history of a convict who had been sent to Van Diemen's Land.

The tokens in Tim Millett's collection are basically copper pennies which were in circulation in Great Britain during the early and mid-nineteenth century. However, these particular pennies had been altered in order to serve as mementos for the convicts who were soon to be transported away from their homeland and from their family and friends. In official records of the times, these tokens were also referred to as "leaden hearts".

Tim Millett supplied me with photographs of Thomas Burbury's token, and you can see scanned images of this token on my website at the following URL:

Typically the inscriptions on the tokens took the form of a message entreating those who stayed behind not to forget the convict. Here are sample inscriptions which appear on some of the tokens in the collection.

"Dear Father Mother/A gift to you/From a friend/Whose love for you/Shall never end"
"When this you see/Think on me/When I am in a far country"
"The rose soon drapes and dies/The brier fades away/But my fond heart for you I love/Shall never go astray"
"May the rose of England never bud, the thistle of Scotland never grow, the harp of Ireland never play till I, poor convict, gain my liberty."

Although some inscriptions were quite elaborate, as shown by the last two examples above, most of the messages express a simple regret at leaving their family and their homeland, and indeed many of the inscriptions are repeated time and time again on different tokens. The inscription "When this you see/Think on me/When I am in a far country" (and slight variations of it) is one which occurs with particular frequency. This -- and the fact that many convicts were illiterate and unable to write themselves -- has led Tim to conclude that many of the tokens were probably produced in large numbers by a tradesman or even a skilled fellow-convict, and then had the names filled in as required.

Besides inscriptions, the tokens often include scrollwork, and many even include pictures such a man in chains or a ship. One token, produced by or for one Thomas Alsop, transported in 1833 for sheep stealing, includes a quite elaborate image of a three-masted ship with an ensign flying from the stern.

As many of the tokens have names on them, Tim has spent some time trying to trace the convicts to whom the tokens originally belonged, and to track down any modern-day descendants of these convicts. Two years ago, when his collection numbered about 120 tokens, he had already managed to trace about 50 of the convicts, with the help of some local researchers in New South Wales and Tasmania. The original 1995 article in "Who" magazine -- which was my introduction to the subject of the tokens -- mentioned how Tim Millett had contacted the late Sir Stanley Burbury, a former Governor of Tasmania, and had established via this contact that the Tasmanian Burbury family were descended from one of the convicts whose name appeared on a token in the Millett Collection.

Tim has been actively involved in organising public displays of his collection. Photos of the tokens were first displayed at the Olympia Fine Art and Antique Fair in London in 1995, but the first exhibition of the tokens themselves was held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia in January 1998. I made the trip from Launceston to Sydney to be present at the opening of this exhibition, and was treated as something of a minor celebrity because I was a descendant of one of the convicts whose token was on display at the exhibition. After more than a year of corresponding with Tim during the organisation of the exhibition, it was an extremely moving experience for me to at last see the actual token itself.

Since then Tim has organised other exhibitions for his tokens, notably one which was held at the British Museum during 1999. One of the direct results of this particular exhibition was that after seeing the tokens on display, a number of people came up to Tim and told him that they had things which looked similar to these tokens at home. In this way Tim learned about the location of several additional tokens. And one of the new tokens he found in this way was a duplicate of the token that had belonged to Thomas Burbury!

This discovery added a new complexion to the reasons why the convict tokens might have been created. As I have mentioned above, the tokens' basic purpose was to serve as mementos for the family and friends of those who remained behind after the convict had been transported, and the personal nature of many of the inscribed messages (particularly those who were addressed directly to the convict's immediate family) bears this out.

However, in Thomas Burbury's case, there were definite social and political overtones to his arrest and transportation. He was a "machine breaker" who had been involved in a riot in the city of Coventry in 1831 in which a factory was broken into and some steam looms were destroyed. The cause of the riot was disaffection among the people of Coventry, many of whom worked in the weaving industry, that these new automated machines would take away their jobs and force down wages. Similar activities were occurring in other parts of England at this time, including the activities of the famous Luddites in northern counties such as Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Thomas Burbury and Benjamin Sparkes, who were arrested in connection with this particular riot in Coventry, were both initially sentenced to death, and the severity of their sentence may have been intended to serve as a popular deterrent to such activities.

Thus Tim Millett has formed the hypothesis that in the case of Thomas Burbury, his tokens may have served a somewhat different function, not just as mementos to loved ones, but also as a type of "political statement". He wonders whether the tokens might have been distributed in the way that, for example, mailbox drops are conducted today, to draw attention to the suffering of the population in an English society which was being transformed and inevitably disrupted by rapid industrialisation. It might be a bit precipitate to draw such a conclusion based on two tokens turning up for Thomas Burbury when no other convict has yet been found to have more than one. Moreover, if Benjamin Sparkes also had tokens made for him, none have yet been found. So there remains a lot of work still to be done in the area. It should be noted, however, that Tim Millett is the first person who has attempted to collect large numbers of these tokens and to study them from a social angle rather than purely from a numismatic angle, so that his work to date still represents a pioneering effort in a field which has been neglected in the past.

In any case, the tokens that have been found to date can shed some light on the characters of the people who were transported, and can convey to us a direct sense of the suffering that they and their loved ones must have undergone. And the search continues: Tim is always keen to hear from people who have similar tokens in their possession. Naturally most of the tokens which have turned up to date have come from people in the United Kingdom. However, the occasional tokens have also turned up in Australia, in coin collections or in cardboard boxes in the attic. If you would like further information on the Millett Collection, or if you might have seen such a token somewhere and would like to learn more about its possible history, then Tim would welcome hearing from you. He can be contacted by writing to the following address:

Tim Millett
c/- A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.
11 Adelphi Terrace
London WC2N 6BJ

Please note that although I have assisted Tim Millett with aspects of his research into these Convict Love Tokens, particularly regarding the tokens which appear to have been owned by Thomas Burbury, I have no qualifications or experience in the field of numismatics, nor do I have any commercial interest in the business of A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd. or in any other numismatics firm in England or elsewhere; nor do I have any commercial interest in the Millett Collection, either in its maintenance or in its exhibition. I can also offer no advice to anybody on the possible value of any convict love tokens which they may have in their possession, and will not offer any advice or brokerage services for people who might wish to sell their tokens.

Douglas Burbury

Written and submitted to this site by Douglas Burbury

Douglas Burbury 1999. All rights reserved

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Updated 22-Apr-2002