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War often conjures images of battle, bloodshed and bodies. Quick to disregard the complex intricacies of war, we too often revisit history numerically: what date did the battle begin? How many soldiers fought? How many died? Statistics are impressive. However, it’s easy to forget that behind every body is a person, and behind every person is a story.

Now, what’s a story without love?

The Keep Military Museum is no stranger to love; pop along to our new Dorset at War Gallery to read all about Lance Corporal Horrace Collier and his love, Birdie—you’ll see that. Then, most recently, the museum was given this intriguing artefact: a love token.

Love tokens were symbolically charged. Usually crafted by rubbing down a coin to create a smooth surface for engraving, love tokens were small and portable. The tokens were usually handmade and given by suitors to their sweethearts. They were often intricate in design and were, therefore, powerfully personal. But their symbolic value didn’t stop at love. The metal used spoke volumes of social class and standing. The carefully engraved designs could be interpreted far deeper than face value in a time rich in symbolism. Faith and religion also strongly played their part—in love and society. They were fascinating keepsakes and The Keep Military Museum’s recent love token donation is no exception. In fact, it’s proven to be rather special.

Presumably made of brass, palm-sized, and heart-shaped, this love token is engraved on both sides. Larger than typical love tokens, its design is exquisitely intricate. It’s maker, we presume, is the man whose name is engraved on the back: Thomas Son of Thomas and Catherine Purch, August 1st 1812. Thomas, leaving for war, is depicted on the front—arguably the Peninsular War given the date. He looks back at his love who seemingly grasps the very same heart token in her hand as he marches on to camp. In the foreground there is a threatening entanglement of weapons, trumpets and a drum that ominously allude to one thing: a battle cry. War is inevitable.

On the reverse side is a date, Thomas’s name, age (Enlisted in the Royal Artillery in the 19th year of his age) and a hymn by John Hopkins that begins ‘Lord plead my cause against my foes/Confound their force and might’. The choice of hymn is particularly poignant. It calls to the ‘Lord’ to keep him safe and drive away his enemies; although, one line resonates more than others: ‘I am thy help at hand’. Upon reading, the line immediately evokes the image of Thomas’s love on the front of the token, her arm and hand outstretched, holding his heart. As you read and examine the token again and again, you begin to get a real sense of its power. This woman holds more than his heart; she is his faith.

Ben Venus – Education Volunteer