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, 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 …
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.
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 pubs’ ‘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 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!
Because gambling with coins was an illegal pursuit, scouts or lookouts were posted to keep an eye out for the local Poliss (police). Just imagine the chaos and confusion when the alarm was raised and drunken miners fled in every direction 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!