Tag Archives: convicts

The other convicts

Of the dated tokens in the National Museum of Australia’s collection of convict love tokens, the most recent is a 1856 token and the earliest is a 1762 token .

Anyone familiar with Australian history will know, that the first convicts transported to Australia arrived in 1788.

The 1762 token is a reminder that imprisonment and transportation are not exclusively an Australian story.

As Thomas Keneally explains in Australians: Origins to Eureka:

As immortalised in popular ballads, foolish young men and minor criminals, perhaps to the number of 120,000 were torn from the breasts of their lovers to be shipped to ‘Amerikay’. From about 1650 to the outbreak of hostilities between the Americans and British in 1775 they arrived in Virginia or Maryland or the Carolinas, where American settlers would bid for their labour generally for seven years at the auction block. The administrative beauty of this was that the master took over the prisoner, and troubled the authorities only in the case of escape or major unruliness.

What happened to these other convicts? They seem to be a footnote in Australian history. Are they featured in American history?


The First Fleet entering Port Jackson 1788


The rose of England never bud till I gain my liberty

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.

This is one of the more original verses found on the convict love tokens held by the National Museum of Australia. The verse is from this convict love token dated 1837, engraved for an unknown convict sentenced for seven years.

Have you heard this verse before? Do you think the token was left with a loved one or was for the convict alone? 

download (20)

Scotch thistle

This posting has been produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.

When this, you see remember me

When this, you see remember me, and, bare, me in, your mind let, all, the, world say, what they, will speak of me, as, you find
— Anonymous

This is one of the sayings that appear on convict love tokens . You can see it on this token. I was a bit unsure if these sayings should be attributed to the convict (where known), but anonymous seems more fitting as I assume the origin of these words is unknown.

What we do know, though, is that these words were meaningful for the individual convict who had them engraved on a token for their loved ones. In history the voices of the disadvantaged can be hard to hear. Convict love tokens are one of those rare historical sources where the dominant voices are not the winners but the losers. This makes them very special.

Do you agree?

This posting has been produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.

Convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia

History and serendipity featured the story of how the National Museum of Australia, my local  museum, became the holder of the largest collection of convict love tokens in the world.

The National Museum of Australia has set up a wonderful, interactive display of the entire collection of love tokens, which really allows you to explore these beautiful objects from a number of perspectives. You can find it here. Happy exploring.

download (18)

Valentines, 1884



Never speak about the lower classes

Thinking about the Great Strike of 1917 and Australia’s convict heritage, had me thinking about The Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith. This is a great book to add to your reading list if you are interested in colonial Australia.

In 1835 the ship The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast, south of Jervis Bay. On board were 250 Irish convicts. Miraculously all survived. Babette tracked what happened to the survivors and found in their personal histories much that explains the Australian way of life.

One of Babette’s arguments is that Australia’s egalitarianism was founded in the work practices and attitudes that were required because the government, in the early years of the colony, were completely dependent on the convict workforce to sustain the colony. Babette explains it like this:

The penal colonies created a dilemma for leaders who were faced with extracting productivity from workers who had no predisposition to cooperation, let alone obedience. In fact, the opposite. They were likely to respond with subterranean ridicule or dumb insolence to someone in command. And they could counter harsh commands or coercion by reducing their productivity. While the lash might punish them, it could not deliver a workplace result.

According to Babette the desire for classlessness continued after the convict era. In 1902, Henry Montgomery, an English bishop wrote a manual for clergyman heading to the colonies. His advice included:

Never speak about “the lower classes”. Australians don’t like it.

Do you agree Australia’s egalitarianism is founded in Australia’s convict heritage?

download (17)

Chain gang, Hobart


History and serendipity

One thing I enjoy about being a history enthusiast is the way it seems to promote serendipity.

Recently my partner who loves all things historical, antique and collectible started watching the UKTV show Trading History. This show tells the stories behind auctions of historical artefacts.

Knowing my interest in colonial Australia, my partner told me about the episode that featured Timothy Millett and the auctioning of his 307 convict love tokens. Timothy, a coin dealer, started the collection in 1984 when a valued customer sold him 70 tokens. Intrigued by the poignancy of these keepsakes, Timothy continued to build his collection. He also started to research the history of those named on the tokens. Reluctance to acknowledge convict forebears, however, made this difficult.

In 2008 Timothy decided the time had come to sell his collection. All 307 tokens were bought by an Australian museum. This seemed to be just where they should be, but which museum had them?

Then while doing some idling googling I found them. They were acquired by the National Museum of Australia. My local museum, and now I discover holder of the largest collection of convict love tokens in the world. Serendipity plus.

Do you agree an enthusiasm for history seems to make for a lot of serendipitous moments?

download (14)

The National Museum of Victoria, 1876