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Love Tokens From The Thames

October 23, 2017
by the gentle author

These love tokens are from the collection gathered over the last seventeen years by my Thames mudlark friend Steve Brooker, widely known as Mud God.

The magical potential of throwing a coin into the water has been recognised by different cultures in different times with all kinds of meanings. Yet since we can never ask those who threw these tokens why they did it, we can only surmise that engraving your beloved’s name upon a coin and throwing it into the water was a gesture to attract good fortune. It was a wish.

With a great river like the Thames racing down towards the ocean, there is a sense of a connection to the infinite. And there is a sweet romance to the notion of a lover secretly throwing a token into the water, feeling that the strength of their emotions connects them to a force larger than themselves.

Naturally, it was not part of the conceit that someone might ever find these coins, centuries later – which gives them a mysterious poetry now, because each one represents a love story we shall never learn. Those who threw them have gone from the earth long ago, and all we can envisage are the coins tossed by unseen hands, flying from the river bank or a from the parapet of a bridge or from a boat, turning over in the air, plip-plopping into the water and spiralling down to lie for centuries in the mud, until Steve Brooker came along to gather them up.¬†Much as we may yearn, we can never trace them back to ask “What happened?”

In the reign of William III, it was the fashion for a young man to give a crooked coin to the object of his affections. The coin was bent both to become an amulet and to prevent it being reused. If the token was kept, it indicated that the affection was reciprocated, but if the coin was discarded then it was a rejection – which casts a different light upon these coins in the river. Are they, each one, evidence of unrequited affections?

From the end of the eighteenth century and until the early twentieth century, smoothed coins were used as love tokens, with the initials of the sender engraved or embossed upon the surface. Sometimes these were pierced, which gave recipient the option to wear it around the neck. In Steve’s collection, the tokens range from heavy silver coins with initials professionally engraved to pennies worn smooth through hours of labour and engraved in stilted painstaking letters. In many examples shown here, the amount of effort expended in working these coins, smoothing, engraving or cutting them is truly extraordinary, which speaks of the longing of the makers.

Steve has found many thousands of coins in the bed of the Thames over the years but it is these worked examples that mean most to him because he recognises the dignity of the human emotion that each one manifests. Those who threw them into the river did not know that Steve was going to be there one day to catch them yet, whatever the outcome of these romances, he ensures that the tokens are kept safe.

Benjamin Claridge.

The reverse of the Benjamin Claridge coin, from the eighteenth century or earlier.

The intials M and W intertwined upon a Georgian silver coin.

The intial W upon the smoothed face of Georgian silver coin, bent into an S shape.

Crooked Georgian silver coin, as the token of a vow or promise.

The initials AMD upon a smoothed coins that has been pierced to wear around the neck.

A copper penny with the letter D.

C.M. Marsh impressed into a penny.

The letter R punched into a penny within a lucky horseshoe.

Pierced coin set with semi-precious stones.

Who was Snod? Is this a lover’s token or a dog tag?

This pierced silver threepence commemorates the date January 11th 1921.

On the reverse of the silver threepence are the initials, L T. Are these the initials of the giver, or does it signify “Love Token”?

A smoothed penny with the name Voilet upon it. A phonetic spelling of the name “Violet”as the beloved spoke it?

Cut coins from the early twentieth century.

Read my stories

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

7 Responses leave one →
  1. October 23, 2017

    What an enviable collection. I love the mystery that surrounds found objects…..and applaud
    the serendipitous resurrection of these coins, while others are eternally lost to the bottom of the sea. Happenstance? Destiny? Kismet? All of it: Wonderful food for thought.
    Many thanks, GA.

  2. October 23, 2017

    Fascinating post. Years ago there was an exhibition – I think at the Museum of London with similar carved pennies by prisoners in hulks waiting to be sent to the colony of New South Wales. Even more heart breaking than many of these

  3. October 23, 2017

    As discussed on Start the Week ths morning.

  4. M D West permalink
    October 24, 2017

    Well I shall never laugh at guys with metal detectors again!….these finds are magic.

  5. Colin permalink
    October 27, 2017

    They are beautiful, but I’m afraid I think they should be left in river where they were intended to lie.

    As a teenager many years ago I visited a heavily vandalised cemetery outside a village that had been cleared by Franco’s government to make way for a nearby reservoir. I picked up and took a fragment of a headstone with the name Maria roughly engraved on it. I still regret that decision and hope to return it to its resting place one day.

  6. October 29, 2017

    A few scenes in Penelope Fitzgerald’s “Offshore” (1979) shows the children, who live in a houseboat on the Thames, searching for these and other treasures during low tides, and what they find they offer for sale to a local merchant.

  7. November 15, 2017

    This article put me in mind of The Quincunx, a novel Dickens-inspired novel by Charles Palliser (I can’t help but wonder if that’s a nom de plume?) published in 1989. The author is an American living in England. The descriptions in the book of London poor scavenging a living from Thames detritus are very compelling. In the book they are called sand-dippers, which I assume is an accurate historical phrase. There is a scene where two boys must pass under a submerged stone buttress when caught under water by the incoming tide, truly hair raising.

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