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Love Tokens From The Thames

February 14, 2020
by the gentle author

These love tokens are from the collection gathered 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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. February 14, 2020

    Extraordinary. My favourite is the pierced coin set with semi-precious stones. I wonder how many coins, representing ‘forbidden love’, have been thrown into the Thames?

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 14, 2020

    Good point Phil! And how many representing unrequited love I wonder?

  3. Becca Black permalink
    February 14, 2020

    They remind me of the convict love tokens I saw in Australia. These were smoothed down coins that convicts on the hulks awaiting transportation to Australia engraved messages to their families and lovers to tell them what had happened to them and say goodbye. They were then smuggled off the ships

  4. February 14, 2020

    Strangely alive messages from the past.

  5. February 14, 2020

    Happy St Valentine’s day. According to Enid Blyton, the day when birds marry.

  6. February 14, 2020

    These are fab, humans are just great.

  7. Maureen Musson permalink
    February 14, 2020

    Very interesting article! Did you know that there are many folk songs concerning “broken tokens”? When lovers had to be parted – usually because the chap was going away to war/sea, the couple would break a token – often a coin or a ring, – and each keep half. When he came back, years later, very roughened and dishevelled from his travels, she would be able to know it was him by the token.

  8. paul loften permalink
    February 14, 2020

    When you look at the intricate handwork that has gone into the love token the passion is transmitted down the years as an everlasting memory. I wonder if it would be the same if a future “internet mudlark” like Steve should trawl the ether and find old old Valentine ecards? Somehow I don’t think it would have the same sense of timeless wonder.

  9. February 14, 2020

    I know that such things are often considered “found objects” — but, in this case, I think
    “fond objects” tells the tale. I never even knew the term “mud larking” until I read
    Spitalfields Life – but now I am savvy. Thanks to GA and the Mud God.
    Such discoveries!?
    Happy Valentine’s Day to all.

  10. Stella Weng permalink
    February 14, 2020

    How odd to pierce a hole, as though to carry it on a string, then toss the coin in the river! Perhaps they hoped to retrieve the coin one day, and celebrate this sign of heavenly approval of their love.
    Thank you for a touching Valentine gift!

  11. February 14, 2020

    I particularly hope that Vic and May and “Voilet” and her beau had long and happy lives together (and also Snod, who I am convinced was indeed a dog)

  12. Richard permalink
    February 15, 2020

    When i went down to the river to pray
    Studying about that good old way.
    Oh lord, show me the way.

  13. David Green permalink
    February 17, 2020

    Right, so I was just skimming throughout he article without much interest until I came upon picture #6, of the crooked Georgian silver coin. When did this custom die out? Amongst my Grandfather’s effects I have a coin bent just so, which my Mum told had happened when it was hit with a bullet in 1915. It occurs to me I have never looked at the date of this coin, and I wonder if it was a love token from my Gran, or perhaps belonged to my g-grandparents? The interesting things one learns on this website! Thank you. I’ll be digging around in an old box of medals and bits and bobs tonight to look at it with new eyes.

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