The word transport originates from the Old French transporter, to “carry or convey across; overwhelm (emotionally)” or directly from the Latin transportare, to “carry over, take across, convey, remove,” (trans,“beyond, across” + portare “to carry” or “to lead, pass over”). Whilst there is the obvious interpretation of how people, objects and material travel, through what different means can memories be transported and retained? How large or small could an object be to be able to carry such emotively charged meaning and does the object materiality itself have to hold a ‘currency’ of it’s own or can that also be transformed through process?
Whilst coins are usually regarded as currency, as collectors items or as a medium for creative expression; there was a time when they held another form, not particularly in that of a shape-changing way but via more of an emotive one. They were, or rather are known as love tokens or leaden hearts.
With British prisons chronically overcrowded and the need for punishments which would serve as deterrents to potential criminals, the latter half of the 18th and well into the 19th century saw the introduction of transportation to the colonies and Australia. It was also seen as a more humane alternative to the death penalty (which, by the 1770s saw 222 crimes carrying it) and was used for both major and petty crimes.
Millbank, originally built as the National Penitentiary was later used as a holding facility for convicted prisoners. Formerly standing on the present site of Tate Britain, its demolition in the 1890s saw a re-direction for the usage of its bricks in the construction of the Milbank Estate. Whilst few are probably aware of the history of these unassuming, everyday items, there are parts of the prison which are still visible, their function also given a new direction and use.
I was not only interested in those who had left and embarked on a journey of unknown consequences but more so in what remained. Those little material traces, left with loved ones and as a consequence of their powerfully emotive stories, being elevated in status to that of museum exhibit, relegated to the confines of a glass cabinet or kept out of sight in vaults, to be handled by appointment only. These cartwheel pennies were considered “as postcards before sailing,” keepsakes and reminders left as a way of comfort and reassurance to those they were leaving behind before embarking on a trip from one side of the world to another, with all its unchartered, uninvented territory. This conversion of an object was not only about leaving a marker of the individual but its transformation also shows the versatility of an object and how its function can change.
The prison hulks at Woolwich saw the prisoners identified by badges worn on their left arm with rings worn on the right. The badges were made of black leather and had an edge of red cloth, containing white and black letters and figures. The number placed at the top signified the length of sentence whilst the number below it indicating the number of months already served on board the hulk, the letters opposite each other, placed in the centre alluded to the prisoner’s conduct whilst on board; V G for very good behaviour or G 6 indicating good behaviour for 6 months, these badges were collected every month and altered accordingly. The rings worn on the right arm (up to three were worn by some, one blue and two red), the blue ring denoting the second stage of penal servitude and the red rings signifying a first-class prisoner, one red ring made a second-class convict and a third-class prisoner with no rings. I was struck by how the individual’s identity was reduced to just letters and numbers whilst those inconspicuous, uniform, everyday objects were altered to one of personal identification and status.
I walked up the Thames from Woolwich where many other convicts were held before transportation from the prison hulk ships. I felt a slight edginess to the area mainly in part because of the lack of people around but more so, I suspect, to my nostalgic thinking about the area’s long-forgotten history with the harshness and bleakness of times gone by.
All images © Kate Grimes