PITCH and TOSS

Never did I think that as the son of a coal miner growing up in a County Durham pit village in the 40s and 50s, that the experience and local knowledge gained would help a fellow detectorist over 60 years later. A cousin currently living in the same village contacted me and mentioned that he was finding an unusual number of Victorian and the later Georgian coins in one particular area, and asked if I could I explain why this was the case. The answer was easy.

The Miner’s ‘Criminal and Wicked Past.

Most people know that when not at work, miners were often involved with hobbies. Their amusements and recreations often included pigeon racing, gardening, football, quoit playing and whippet racing. Indoor games such as cards, dominoes and darts were frequently played in the local public houses.

Sadly, heavy drinking and gambling were all too common. The latter illegal pursuit took the form of betting on the horses and engaging in the game of Pitch and Toss, the favoured form of coin gaming in mining communities, which has been played at least since the 18th century. Pounds were often staked on every toss and even gold was known to change hands. It was still highly illegal then which sounds ludicrous now because all it involves is a bunch of blokes throwing a couple of old pennies up in the air and betting on whether they would come down as two heads, two tails or one of each. 

Gambling with coins must be as old as the advent of coin usage itself. Even during the reign of Elizabeth I it was a punishable offence under the vagrancy laws of the day, and so it was all those years ago in that small pit village where I was born.

It was a ritual that every Sunday after the public house ‘chucking out’ time, the miners would make their unsteady way across the grandly named ‘Golf Links’, carefully trying to negotiate the numerous cow pats, disturbing startled skylarks and trampling buttercups and daisies underfoot. They were making their way towards a large ring, devoid of grass around which they formed a circle. If I remember correctly, my father (Me Da) used to call it a ‘school’!

The Canyon Tossing School – Historic Hamilton Website

The general rules of the game were relatively simple. One man, the ‘Hoyer’, who didn’t participate in the game, balanced two pennies on spread fingers and threw them in the air. Depending on how they landed, the winners were paid from the stakes of the losers… or something like that!

Tails I Win – Heads you Lose

Because gambling with coins was an illegal pursuit, scouts or lookouts were posted to keep an eye out for the local ‘pollis’ (police). Just imagine the chaos and confusion when the alarm was raised and drunken miners fled in every direction hiding – or scattering coins – in their wake … coins that are now being found many years later by a keen detectorist who now knows just a little more about their provenance! 

My friend Randolph Dee, also a metal detectorist still practising and living in the same area in which I was born, also made a discovery of hundreds of pennies, threepenny bits and tanners (remember those?) many years ago.

When examining his hoard of coins he noticed one penny that was rather unusual. The coin had been skilfully altered with the express intention of swindling unsuspecting miners. Someone had spent hours either filing or sanding down two pennies until they were to same thickness as one, but with both sides as tails.

Randy’s two-tailed coin

Some Of you WILL RECOGNISE THIS BLOGPOST BECAUSE IT WAS DONE ON A PREVIOUS OCCASION. UNFORTUNATELY IT WAS LOST IN MY BIG COMPUTER MELT DOWN.

LUCKILY – AND UNEXPECTEDLY – I WAS ABLE TO RESURRECT SOME OF MY WORK BY USING WAYBACK MACHINE [WBM] AND A NUMBER OF BLOGS THAT RANDY [DEE] HAD SAVED. I THANK HIM FOR HIS CONTRIBUTION TO THIS POST.


10 thoughts on “PITCH and TOSS

  1. Thanks John for a great reminiscence and fond memories of one of your way back blog posts. Just to highlight that my metal detecting in the area of one of these Sunday Pitch & Toss schools resulted in me finding sufficient old coins to completely pay for my first detector a C-Scope TR950 a detector with a shepherds crook handle.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Two up is still illegal here in Victoria except on Anzac day. I live on a State border and the game was played over the other side of the river which is interstate. They would have a Cocky (someone to give a warning) on the bridge to warn if the coppers tried to cross.
    A friend told me he found a few coins in the area the game was played.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would love finding a spot like that. That double faced coin would be a special one in anyone’s collection, just for the story. Thanks for sharing John

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There is a film staring Stanley Baxter called Hell is a city (1960} and theres a scene where all the men are on waste land playing Pitch and Toss there were lookouts scanning the horizon for the police .. We used to play this game at school but we called it odds or evens .. Two heads Two tails evens.. one of each odds ….. Gary

    Liked by 1 person

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