Love and Lead: A Story of Love Tokens

Alfred Lord Tennyson said it best,“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  Love is an experience that transcends time and space. Love is also a double-edged sword. It can be as excruciating as it is exquisite; but most who have loved and lost would probably be willing to take that risk once more.  Love is just that good, and inspirational. From the arts to pursuits of passion, scientific endeavors to astounding physical feats, love is a motivational force behind expression and manifestation. In numismatics, one expression came in the form of love tokens.  Not to be confused with any token of love, which can be a variety of collectible items; a numismatic love token is a very specific object.  According to the Love Token Society, an authority on the subject, ‘love tokens’ are coins from circulation that have been smoothed on at least one side, and engraved or pinpunched by hand to convey affection.  

The love token tradition can be traced back to the late 1500’s in France, when triezains (a set of thirteen personalized engraved coins that remained currency) were bestowed to


Seated Liberty Love Token

newlyweds as a blessing.  Since then, this tradition has evolved to suit the times and cultures that acquired a taste for the trend. Queen Victoria, for example, made it fashionable to wear your heart on your sleeve, by finishing your daily attire with tokens of your love, or loss as it were.  US citizens revived the practice when sweethearts were separated, sometimes forever, during the Civil War, and World Wars I, and II. Mariners of the past also created love-token-forget-me-nots prior to setting sail, perhaps never to return.  Though sentiments are similar, these tokens are as unique as their authors, despite borrowing symbols and themes to convey their love.Throughout the course of time, several themes have appeared on the faces of these tokens.  A handshake typically indicated the intention of marriage. Lovebirds illustrated fidelity.  Cupid’s bow and arrow implied infatuation. Initials would often appear in interlocking patterns.  Flowers, horseshoes, landscapes, and all manner of design have at one point appeared on a love token.  Of all the themes and designs to appear on the face of these tokens, there is a haunting poem that represents the double edge of love’s sword.  This poem appeared on love tokens during the Georgian era in England, and it goes like this, “When This you see, Remember me, Tho’ many leagues we distant be.”  There are variations to the wording, but these coins are specifically known as ‘leaden hearts’, and they were made by criminals within the English realm that were sentenced to “transportation” by Crown Justices and local magistrates.  

Leaden hearts bring humanity to those criminals, mostly petty but some hard, who were recorded impersonally in the annals of history.  They were most often created around the time of sentencing, and customarily included the name of the prisoner; the name of their love; the length of the sentence; a popular poem or variation of the one above; or images of their choosing.  These criminals would give these leaden hearts to those they cherished before being shipped off to penal colonies in America and Australia.  The sentence of transportation was typically given in lieu of being publicly hanged, drawn and quartered; or later simply hanged in the gallows.

The largest known collection of leaden hearts belongs to the National Museum of Australia.  In 2008, they purchased a collection of 307 tokens from collector Timothy Millett, who had been amassing leaden hearts since 1984.  Millett also sold the museum the accompanying documentation and artifacts for some of the pieces that verified the identities of the convict-artists.  They have a catalog of 314 tokens available at their website for public viewing.  The museum beautifully displays both sides of the token and, when available, the associated artist’s information and story.

One English penny in the collection jumps out at the viewer.  On one side it bears the name “Frost”, and on the other the word “Charter”.  This leaden heart obviously doesn’t demonstrate the passions and longings of romantic or familial love.  Upon closer investigation, however, it reveals the love of human-kind by a long ago espouser of human rights— John Frost.  

John Frost was a Welshman born on the 25th of May, 1784, in Newport, Monmouthshire.  He was born to successful innkeepers, but was orphaned to his grandfather when his mother passed away.  Apprenticed at 16 to woolen drapers and merchant tailors in Cardiff, Bristol, and later London, he returned to Newport at age 22 to start his own business as a draper and tailor.  He was a well-respected community member and family man with eight children. He was known to be of high intelligence, well-spoken, compassionate, just, and eventually, a revolutionary in his own right.

Despite his honorable reputation, Frost was imprisoned briefly for six months under the charge of libel.  He had made statements rightfully claiming malpractice against a Newport lawyer, Thomas Prothero, who was well connected to powerful industrialists and land owners at the time.  Once released from jail, the Thomas-Paine-inspired-Frost would aggressively pursue Prothero’s friends and allies with factual accusations of mistreatment of the greater community.  He became increasingly more politically active, and in 1835 became a Councillor and Magistrate for Newport, then went on to be an Improvement Commissioner, and Poor Law Guardian of the community.  In 1836 he was elected Mayor of Newport.  He sought political reform and aligned himself with the Chartist movement and their six points.  He even professed his support of universal suffrage, and its importance in political reform.

He was an intelligent and successful man, but he made a mistake that would alter the course of his life forever.  He devised an insurrection of the political establishment of Newport, in what became known as the Newport Rising.  This insurrection did not go as planned and Frost, unfortunately and unintentionally, got 25 of his fellow Chartists killed, 45 wounded, and many more imprisoned.  He was captured and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This actually marked the last time in British history that this sentence was given out. The sentence was later commuted to transportation due to public outcry and threat.  He was sentenced to life in modern day Tasmania in 1840, and carved his leaden heart sometime after.  In 1856, he was pardoned and he lived out the rest of his days in Bristol lecturing on the hardships of convicts, and delving into spirituality.

This is perhaps the most glorious story tied to a leaden heart.  Most leaden hearts were carved by petty thieves who were caught red handed simply trying to survive abject poverty.  They were carved by oppressed people with tough lives who were struck with the realization they would never see their loved ones again.  Though most love tokens across time and space are sweet sentiments that celebrate the positive side of love, leaden hearts are the love tokens that blatantly express the other side of the emotion. Though a sense of sadness comes with most leaden hearts, there is great history and humanity behind them.  That potent combination gives these specific love tokens great value to numismatist collectors and history buffs alike, and will for generations to come.

-Rachael S.


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