This copper penny was created by a British convict sentenced to transportation to ‘the ends of the earth’, as Australia was described in the eighteenth century. It’s motto reads, ‘When On this Peice you Cast an Eye, THINK ON THE MAN THAT is NOT NIGH’. On its reverse are the initials of an unknown convict, ‘M.C.’ and the date 1792. Called a Penny Heart convict token or ‘leaden heart’, these pennies were smoothed and engraved with messages by convicts doomed never to see their families or homeland again. Created at a time when the criminal classes were largely voiceless and believed to lack all tender feelings, these crude keepsakes commemorate desperate people about to embark on the Georgian equivalent of a trip to the moon. Though the most usual emotion expressed is pain at separation, anger and defiance are also found in a rich selection of verses and mottoes. We know from surgeon’s reports that these tokens share the same rich iconography as tattoos: the chains,anchors, Irish harps and mythical figures that convicts also inscribed on their skin as ineradicable statements of defiance.
I was fortunate to write much of The Penny Heart in Australia and New Zealand, as I house-swapped across the Antipodes with my husband, Martin. Even with Skype and emails, the sense of distance from our own loved ones in Britain was immense. For a year, while Martin taught Maori youngsters on New Zealand’s East Cape, we watched the same view of the rolling Pacific studded with volcanoes as that recorded in Captain Cook’s Journal. On visits to early settler homes I was struck by small collections of cherished objects: locks of hair, scraps of fabric, portrait miniatures. I understood, as I had never done before, the power of memorial objects such as hair jewellery and penny hearts to be what the writer Laqueur calls ‘a bit of a person that lives eerily on as a souvenir.’
Athazagoraphobia is the powerful human fear of being forgotten. In The Penny Heart, Mary, a sharp-witted confidence trickster, has a penny token engraved at Newgate prison with a rhyme that is part promise, part threat:
Though chains hold me fast,
As the years pass away,
I swear on this heart
To find you one day
While Peg’s use of a token to make a vow to return and take revenge is my own invention, the larger backdrop of crime, punishment and the position of women is true to the times. Writing her journey, to the wild Antipodes and back again to Britain, was my memorial to those who had been shipped to ‘the ends of the earth’. Prompted by fear of extinction, they engraved their messages in their own authentic voices, a plea from the past to remember them today.
THE PENNY HEART (Hodder & Stoughton) is a historical novel of suspense, that draws on age-old themes of cooking, trickery and revenge. Martine’s debut, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, was one of the American Library Association Booklist’s Ten Best Crime Debuts of 2015.