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About the collection

The National Museum of Australia holds the world’s largest collection of convict tokens. There are 315 tokens in the Museum’s collection, ranging in date from 1762 to 1856. The earliest predate transportation to Australia and would relate to a convict sent to another of Britain’s penal colonies.

Most of the tokens were acquired in 2008 from Timothy Millett, a British dealer and collector. Millett was fascinated by these touching keepsakes and was a keen researcher, attempting to discover information about the people named on the tokens. With many families wishing to conceal evidence of a convict past, it was a difficult task. Today, Museum curators and family historians continue Millett’s research, aiming to identify the people and the stories behind these precious mementoes.

This exhibition is supported by the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program, an Australian Government program aiming to improve access to the national collections for all Australians.

Brian and Beverley Oakley examine the convict token.
Brian and Beverley Oakley examine the convict token made by Brian’s great-grandfather. National Museum of Australia

Bound for Botany Bay

In August 1786, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, declared the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales. The Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, was responsible for planning the transportation of convicted felons from the nation’s overcrowded gaols to Botany Bay. He appointed Arthur Phillip as governor of the new colony and in May 1787, the First Fleet set sail with 763 convicts on board.

About 160,000 convicts were sent to the Australian colonies before transportation ceased in 1868. Most of these men and women came from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They were the poor from Britain’s cities but also rural workers, soldiers, sailors and middle-class embezzlers and forgers. For some, transportation meant unhappy exile. Others saw it as an opportunity for a new and better life.

A print of soldiers and convicts.
A View of the Hulks at Woolwich in Kent, printed by Carington Bowles, about 1800. National Museum of Australia

A fond farewell

Although tiny, these tokens are rich in meaning. During the 19th century, verses such as ‘when this you see, remember me’ often featured on objects exchanged between family members about to be separated. Working class people chose decorated rolling pins, jugs, glassware and bobbins; while the wealthy commissioned engraved silver tokens, rings or brooches.

Many tokens were gifted by sailors. Distinguishing them from tokens made by convicts is, at times, difficult. Convict tokens, however, often contain clues that confirm their origin. They might feature figures in chains or birds soaring free. They often refer to slavery, liberty, being lag’d (imprisoned) or even ‘cast for death’.

A number of tokens are pierced, suggesting they were held close and treasured, but not all were welcome reminders. Some show deep scratches obscuring, at times obliterating, the name of the convict.

A sketch of convicts letter writing.
Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island NSW, by Philip Doyne Vigors, 1849. State Library of New South Wales a928881

Making a token

To make a token, many convicts began with a ‘cartwheel’ penny – a large copper coin first minted in 1797. Cheap and malleable, it was perfect for making tokens. The low relief portraits of King George III on one side and a seated Britannia on the other were easy to smooth flat, and replacing an image of the King with their own message might have proved a secret delight for a convict. Halfpenny, twopence and sixpence coins were also used.

Some tokens show signs of being made by the same hand, suggesting that more skilled convicts made and sold tokens to others. It is likely that forgers, jewellers, silversmiths and engravers, also awaiting transportation, earnt a little income this way.

Earlier venues

Convict Tokens was also on show at:

  • Benalla Library, Victoria, from 9 February to 28 April 2024

  • Tura Marrang Library, Bega, New South Wales, 9 September to 5 November 2023

  • Wagga Wagga City Library, New South Wales, 14 June to 26 July 2023

A picture of a black dog
George III cartwheel penny, 1797. Macquarie Bank
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