April 20th 2018
Next club meeting Monday 30th April 2018.
· Subject - A History of the Postal Order by Gary Oddy
Monday 4th June 2018.
Monday 2nd July 2018.
Meetings are held
Reading Coin Club were entertained by a very interesting talk given by Tim Millet on the subject of Convict Love Tokens.
Tim started off with a history of transportation of felons to the colonies which started quite early in the 18th century but was interrupted by the American War of Independence. After this it took some years to re-establish penal colonies in Australia and the conditions under which these early transportees lived were truly horrific. In addition to the privations they were likely to encounter on the journey, the convicts could spend up to a year in various penal institutions before being transported.
And so with a great deal of time on their hands, the convicts looked for ways to fill their days, and one of these ways was to engrave tokens to various loved ones who were to be left behind. Taking their lead from established sailors’ practice, most of the engraving was done on coin of the realm, principally the cartwheel penny. The engraving itself took two main forms, firstly stipple engraving in which a nail was forced into the soft copper of the coin thus making a small indentation or dot. These dots could then be arranged in patterns to form words or pictures and the standard of workmanship ranged from the crude to the highly skilled. Some convicts were even able to produce tokens by the much more skilled method of line engraving.
Part of the joy of collecting convict love tokens is that as most items were signed and dated, it is possible to research the lives of the engravers and Tim mentioned several of these. The most noteworthy was a Thomas Barrett who was being transported to Australia for forgery. Already a skilled engraver, he attempted to pay various Portuguese merchants in Rio de Janeiro with counterfeit coins made from buttons, buckles and pewter ship’s spoons. Despite the fact that he had thereby committed another crime, the captain was so impressed with the level of workmanship that he commissioned Barrett to produce a piece of work known as the ‘Charlotte Medal’. This unique item is now regarded as the first piece of Australian colonial art and in 2008 was sold to the Australian government for $750,000. Barrett himself, despite this early piece of good fortune was unable to change his ways and this led to his other claim to fame; he was the first person in Australia hanged for theft… (Image from National Museum of Australia).
Barrett was probably one of several career engravers who would engrave tokens for the other, largely illiterate convicts, presumably for a small fee and Tim has identified the same hand in several of the items in his collection.
Around 90% of the 162,000 transported convicts were men, although the government was keen to send as many convicted women as possible. Tim mentioned a rather sad token produced by (or possibly for) a Mary Ann Witlock who was transported to Australia for theft and vagrancy. Strangely her token is not addressed to a lover but to her aunt. She spent the rest of her life in Australia in and out of prison, eventually marrying a farmer some 30 years her senior.
At the other end of the scale there was the case of Thomas Burbury initially condemned to death in 1832 for Luddite activities but this was commuted to transportation for life. Burbury was clearly a man of substance and very unusually his neighbours from Warwickshire provided the funds to send his wife and children out to join him. He ultimately became a civic dignitary in Tasmania and a substantial landowner. His family prospered and his grandson Sir Stanley Charles Burbury became Tasmania’s first Australian-born state governor.
Tim finished with a collage of other engraved coins including one celebrating the pelting with rotten eggs of a particularly corrupt and unpopular Lord Mayor of London.
Initially convict love tokens were shunned by the numismatic establishment as merely defaced coins but over the years their popularity has grown and good examples now change hands for considerable sums. They are an excellent window on the past, and provide a unique insight into the lives of some of our less fortunate ancestors.
The club thanks Tim for this excellent talk on a thoroughly absorbing subject.