‘No pen can write, no tongue can tell the aching’ – Transported convicts, love tokens and tattoos

Ships in the Thames by Samuel Atkins c.1790
Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

This article was first published in the February 2022 edition of Historical Times a free interactive digital magazine issued every month full of news, reviews, offers and articles from a wide range of historical authors and experts, well known and not so. If you are interested in subscribing, you can find out more here.

In 1877 at Gunning, New South Wales, Susannah Watson, aged eighty-three, died in her own bed singing part of the hymn, Rock of Ages.1 In 1828, with two previous convictions for theft, she had been sentenced in Nottingham to fourteen years transportation to New South Wales, having stolen as a means to feeding her children. The mother of six children at the time of her conviction, Susannah was permitted to take her infant son, Thomas, with her on the convict transport, Princess Royal. She never saw her husband or other children again although, later, she did exchange letters with two of her daughters. Her husband never responded to any of her letters or messages. In New South Wales, Susannah had other children and married again. In her letters, she encouraged her family to come to New South Wales to take advantage of the greater opportunities. Despite the ultimately better life she had here in Australia, she regretted the loss of her children.2

Susannah was one among the more than 162,000 men and women transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868 as punishment for crime. These convicts endured the terrors of the four to six-month sea journey cramped in the hold of a wooden ship and the privations, regimentation, violence and dislocation of convict life in an unfamiliar landscape with its strange birds and animals and seasons in reverse. While all except for those with Conditional Pardons were permitted to return to the British Isles once their sentence was served, few could afford it. Transportation severed relationships with spouses, children, lovers and wider family. Wound through the heartbreak and intense longing felt so acutely by these men and women facing a rupture as final as death was the desire not to be forgotten by those left behind, nor to forget them.

In the period between conviction and departure, within prisons or on the hulks floating in the Thames, some convicts made tokens which were passed on to those they wished to be remembered by. Called love tokens or, poignantly, leaden hearts, these tokens were handmade either by the convict himself or by ‘professionals’, other convicts with skills in silversmithing or metalwork. The tokens were usually defaced coins – pennies flattened and stippled, by tapping a nail into the surface of the coin, or skillfully engraved. Some had holes pierced at the top so they could be threaded with cord and worn around the neck. Their creation, the defacing of coinage, was an illegal act in itself.

The making of these sort of tokens was traditionally associated with seafarers who left them behind as remembrances for loved ones. The tokens were produced through the whole of the period of transportation to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land and were inscribed with a variety of information: the convict’s name or initials, the date, the person they wished to be remembered by and, occasionally, the crime committed and the length of their sentences. The tokens sometimes carried motifs and decorations including hearts, birds (gaol birds), sailing ships, and anchors representing hope as well as expressions of regret or longing.3

This token from the early years of transportation is engraved on one side of a flattened copper coin with the initials MC and the date 1792. On the other side is the verse

On this Piece
you Cast an Eye

George Poulton, an 18 year old baker’s boy from Gloucestershire, was convicted at the Central Criminal Court in 1835 for a burglary and sentenced to seven years transportation. He sailed the following year on the Strathfieldsaye. His token is inscribed


On the other side is written

+ BIDS +

A token from 1824 engraved on one side with the date 1824 and the initials S.C. inside a highly decorated heart with leaves and flowers. On the other side the text is engraved and has a stippled pattern beneath it.


It is unlikely that S.C. saw his mother again, even after attaining his liberty.

Other transportees remembered those they had left behind by marking their bodies with tattoos. For the whole period of transportation, 37% of male convicts and 15% of female convicts were tattooed. In many cases, the tattooing took place on the voyage to Australia – the designs picked out by puncturing the skin with a mixture of gunpowder and charcoal or India ink, some of the tattooing done by transported seamen with skill in tattooing.4 Around 40% of convict tattoos appeared to refer to events occurring in the year they were convicted, or the transport ship sailed.

On arrival, all had their physical appearance recorded in precise detail both in description books and on their individual convict records. These descriptions assisted in identifying convicts who absconded. The tattoos on the bodies of the men covered a wide range of designs, some quite intricate, from the symbols of love and relationships (three times more likely to be found on women than men) to animals (from asses and bees to tigers and zebras), candlesticks, flowerpots, crucifixes and religious scenes, sailing ships and anchors. Some had meaning, others were simply decoration in the way tattoos are today.

Tattoos were inscribed most commonly on the arms and legs and also the chest and, occasionally, the back and other parts of the body, least often on those parts particular to the male anatomy. Tattoos that referred to affection or that seemed to hold personal meaning for the bearer were sometimes located over the heart. The clerks recording the tattoos described what was seen; the convict was not asked to explain the meaning. Occasionally the clerks were coy, simply describing a tattoo as ‘obscenity’.

The most common tattoos were letters, both names and initials, presumed to be the initials of loved ones. Women were almost twice as likely to have these sorts of tattoos as men and their tattoos were most often found on the arms or shoulders.

Elizabeth Miller a housemaid aged 20, originally from the area around Gretna Green, was transported from Carlisle in 1849 on the Emma Eugenia after her third conviction, this time for larceny of wearing apparel. She was tattooed with initials on both her arms.

On her left arm

C &M

On her right arm


Some of these are most likely to relate to the family she left behind in Carlisle. Her father’s name was James as was her eldest brother’s, she had a sister Janet, a brother John and perhaps a brother Walter who had died some time between 1842 and 1849. The string of initials on Elizabeth’s right arm could be an acronym of sorts with meaning significant to Elizabeth or could relate to an elusive husband. She was observed in the company of a man when she committed her final theft and claimed to be a widow at the time of her transportation yet no marriage or possible death for a husband has been uncovered. She was transported under the same surname, Miller, as she was first convicted under for theft and vagrancy in 1843, aged 14. In 1852, when Elizabeth Miller married William Thompson per Westmoreland, an untattooed convict and notorious absconder, she stated that she was single.

William Thompson per Westmoreland photographed around 1900 when he was about eighty years old, wearing an old convict uniform and leg irons as an illustration of the earlier period. The photograph was taken by Hobart photographer John Watt Beattie who interviewed William about his experiences as a convict in the 1840s. These were published as The Career of William Thompson, Convict (Edited by Julia Clark) by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority in 2009.
Photo courtesy of Libraries Tasmania Online Collection

The listing of names or initials is reminiscent of the tattoos of seamen who spent long periods, years even, away from their loved ones. Elizabeth’s son, William Thompson, a whaler, was similarly decorated. Among the tattoos of several women, including Queen Victoria, on his right arm, there was a series of initials: AT, WT, LT, MT, GT, ET, JT. These probably represent his siblings Alice, Lizzie, Mary Ann, George, Ellen and Jane. The WT could either refer to William himself or his father. His left arm was quite bare with only the initials V.B.K.C.I. – something, once again, that had meaning only to William and perhaps those who knew him well.

Elizabeth Miller’s sons were named for members of her husband’s family but in the name of one of her daughters, Jane, we hear an echo of her sister Janet. It was quite common for those transported to name their children after family left behind. William Reader, an untattooed private in the 96th Regiment stationed in Van Diemen’s Land, entered the convict system in 1845 after a theft while drunk. His seven-year sentence effectively cut off any chance of his eventual return to England. William later named seven of his fifteen children after his brothers and sisters. He also settled in New Norfolk, the hop growing area of Tasmania. As William was from Kent, it may be that he was drawn to the area because it provided work he was familiar with, equally it could be with its hop vines and oast houses it answered some of his longing for home.

Many of those transported were tattooed with symbols closely associated with love and loss: true lovers knots, hearts, bleeding hearts, hearts pierced with arrows.

Ellen Thomas, a 20-year-old lady’s maid from St Saviour in London, was sentenced to seven years transportation in 1842 for stealing pieces of a gown, and sailed on the Royal Admiral the same year. Her family comprised two brothers (names illegible) and a sister, Sarah. Ellen’s tattoo was quite simple – WS, a bleeding heart and I L S D on her right arm. I L S D could be a form of acronym that had special meaning to Ellen or else mean I Love S D, we cannot tell. Whoever WS was, we know from her bleeding heart tattoo that Ellen felt grief at their separation. In 1844, Ellen married another convict, Thomas Beer, transported in 1838 on the Gilmore for burglary.

Mary Ann or Marianne Brennan was a 22 year old laundress from London, tried in 1847 for stealing from the person of John Urquhart a silk handkerchief worth one shilling and his purse containing one pound, eleven shillings and six pence. She had previous convictions for stealing a watch and for housebreaking. Mary Ann was sentenced to ten years transportation, and sailed the following year on the convict ship Elizabeth & Henry. She left behind in England her father William, brothers Laurence and William and sisters Margaret and Johanna.

Mary Ann had a number of tattoos. On her right upper arm

BB I ♥ L
Alfred Whitfield
I love MB to the heart

On her right lower arm

EM I ♥ L
AB I ♥ L
TB I ♥ L
JL I ♥ L

‘I ♥ L’ is believed to mean I love to the heart and the initials preceding the phrase those of the beloved. Those initials with a B in the place of a surname could be assumed to be those of family members but they barely correspond to the names of her siblings. MB could be her sister Margaret and JL Johanna with a married name beginning with L but we do not know. Whoever these people were, Mary Ann cared enough about them to have their names written on her skin.

On her left upper arm she had written
William Jessie when you see this remember me and bear me in your mind let all the world say what they will speak of me as your friend.
There is no indication who William Jessie was, nor Alfred Whitfield, mentioned on her right arm. Mary Ann was tried with a Joseph Dyke, a 34 year old butcher from Kentish Town, who had robbed Joseph Urquhart of his watch, valued at five guineas in the same incident at the Red Lion public house in Drury Lane. Dyke was also sentenced to ten years transportation but did not sail until 1850 on the Rodney, having spent three years in Millbank Prison. He rates no mention in Mary Ann’s tattoos. In 1850, Mary Ann went on to marry untattooed Nathan Nathan, a convict also from London who had been transported for larceny in 1840 on the Lady Raffles. They left Van Diemen’s Land, as so many former convicts did, in the early 1850s.

John Finlayter was tried at the Lancaster Quarter Sessions in 1835 for stealing six silver spoons and transported on the Aurora the same year. He was a carpenter and joiner from near Liverpool, married with two children. He had a number of decorative tattoos including dots, a dog, the sun and the tree of life. He had JF ~ heart and dart, and a mermaid tattooed inside his right arm and a man and woman, a true lovers knot and a heart with darts below the elbow of his left arm. On back of his left hand were the initials J.F.A.G.M.L and he had a ring tattooed on both the ring and middle fingers of his left hand. Once again, we have no idea what the string of initials means but the JF could represent John himself and the A his wife, Ann.

John’s tattoos show some of the range of designs used to record the emotional connection the bearer had to those left behind. The true lovers knot was a symbol of enduring devotion as the further the ends of the knot are pulled apart the tighter the knot becomes. The heart and darts (Cupid’s darts) represented erotic love. A number of convicts had rings tattooed on their fingers, pricked out as a series of dots. As they were not permitted to wear jewellery, this was one way of replacing a physical ring. These did not necessarily indicate that the wearer was married as most were found on single people, though, in this case it most likely represents John’s marriage.

John received a Conditional Pardon in 1841. This pardon meant that he could never return to England so his original marriage was as good as ended. With this knowledge and thirteen years away from his wife and children, the pain of separation must have dulled, as it did for many, for John married a Janet or Jessie Thorn, a former convict from Aberdeen, in 1848.

The longing and grief resulting from the separation and dislocation of transportation to the other side of the world was endured. Some never recovered, living lives as troubled as those they had left behind in Britain. Others, realizing that there was no return, made the best they could of it even, where possible, taking chances for a better life. There were instances of transportees, just like Susannah Watson, encouraging their families to find ways to join them. By the early 1850s, some Irish women were using arson as a deliberate way of getting themselves transported. Transportation, no doubt, was a better option than starvation and death in Ireland. When Eliza Morrison and Mary Nowlan were sentenced to seven years transportation for arson at Kildare in 1849, they thanked the judge saying, in unison, ‘A long life to your honour’.5

Convict legacy – tip of the iceberg.
A handful of the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Elizabeth Miller.
Elizabeth had 8 children, 40 grandchildren and 108 great-grandchildren…

Those who had marked their bodies with ink had a way of never forgetting, though as the years passed the ache would ease, especially those for who found others to fill the hollows in their lives. The creation of a family and the raising of children was their greatest legacy, a legacy that continues today. Elizabeth Miller’s early life was troubled—she was charged with vagrancy at fourteen. In Tasmania, her weaknesses led to numerous charges, even into her sixties, for obscene language and drunk and disorderly, yet she managed to raise all but one of her eight children to adulthood. They in turn produced at least forty grandchildren for her. Many of us would not be here but for these men and women who endured and rose above a loss that seemed akin to death.

I am a descendant, through my father, of nine men and women transported to Van Diemen’s Land, including Elizabeth Miller, William Thompson and William Reader mentioned in the article above. My latest novel, Cold Blows the Wind, looks at a period in the life of two great-great-grandparents, Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods, both the children of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

©Catherine Anne Merrick.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Anne Merrick and https://catherinemeyrick.com/ with appropriate and specific direction and links to the original content.

The images of Convict Love Tokens are courtesy of the National Museum of Australia which holds the world’s largest collection of convict tokens, with 314 in its collection dating from 1762 to 1856.

[1] Smith, Babette, A Cargo of Women: Susanna Watson and the convicts of the Princess Royal. 2nd Edition. (Crows Nest, NSW, 2008) p.232

[2] Smith, A Cargo of Women p.167

[3] King, Christina ‘Convict Love Tokens’ Royal Australian Historical Society https://www.rahs.org.au/convict-love-tokens/ accessed 14 Jan, 2022.

[4] Barnard, Simon, Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia (Melbourne: Text, 2016.) p.30

[5] Smith, Babette, Australia’s Birthstain: the Startling Legacy of the Convict Era. (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2008.) pp.61-5.



Barnard, Simon, Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia (Melbourne: Text, 2016.)

Digital Panopticon: Tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925 https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/ accessed 14 Jan, 2022.

King, Christina ‘Convict Love Tokens’ Royal Australian Historical Society https://www.rahs.org.au/convict-love-tokens/ accessed 14 Jan, 2022.

Libraries Tasmania – Convict records https://libraries.tas.gov.au/family-history/Pages/Convict-life.aspx accessed 14 Jan, 2022.

National Library of Australia ‘Convict Love Tokens: A Project of the National Library of Australia’ http://love-tokens.nma.gov.au/ accessed 14 Jan. 2022

Smith, Babette, A Cargo of Women: Susanna Watson and the convicts of the Princess Royal. 2nd Edition. (Crows Nest, NSW, 2008.)

Smith, Babette A Cargo of Women: The Novel (Sydney: Pan, 1991.)

Smith, Babette, Australia’s Birthstain: the Startling Legacy of the Convict Era. (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2008.)


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