Durham Miners, Pitch & Toss and the Detectorist

1st November 2014 — 14 Comments

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 …


Coins from my own collection ©

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’!


Pitch and Toss – CC Licence

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! 



My friend Randy Dee writes: Here’s a coin which I found in the early days of metal detecting, where the miners from our pit village used to play Pitch and Toss on a Sunday, gambling on the throw (Toss) of two pennies and which combination they would land. The local cops would try to raid these gambling dens as it was illegal, but the miners were too cute and always had a look out. On seeing a copper they would either scarper or hide the coins and in the grass – and this is where I made my first hoard discovery of hundreds of halfpennies, pennies, threepenny bits and tanners. When I made my dubious find way back then I didn’t notice for quite some time how the penny shown below had been altered to swindle unsuspecting mining friends and diddle them out of their pocket money. The penny below has had some work put into it and it is only under bright light that the join can be seen. Someone must have spent hours either filing or sanding down two pennies until they were the same thickness as one penny coin with both sides as tails.

Randy Penny

© Randy’s two-tailed penny – click to enlarge


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14 responses to Durham Miners, Pitch & Toss and the Detectorist

  1. Understand the “wobbly” quite well, and no it’s not the wine. Just a few of the “getting old” ailments. Maybe some day we can pull out the detectors and wobble together….

  2. The game you described sounds just like Two-Up in Australia, legal on ANZAC Day but not otherwise (except in certain gambling casinos).

  3. Interesting article John.
    This getting old business is very frustrating especially where detecting is concerned.

  4. I remember these Pitch & Toss schools very well just like yourself John, myself being born in a Durham Pit Village and on a Sunday afternoon the pitmen and others would congregate in a hollow in a pasture slope outside the then in ruins hall of the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning and just like you say there was lookouts posted on the higher ground watching for the coppers, and it was when I first started metal detecting with a C-scope metal detector with the shepherds crook handle that me and my then two young sons we concentrated on these ex gambling school haunts I will always remember the first session there I had found over £20 in pennies, halfpennies, threepenny bits, tanners and the odd shilling, it was just like treasure island.
    Over the following few months we filled two Ostermilk (Baby Milk) tins with coinage, and I still have these treasured finds to this day, great memories.


  5. very enjoyable read john

  6. Interesting read John! All those quaint games we used to play as boys. Cigarette or “fag” cards, marbles, five stones, conkers, hide and seek, knock down ginger, stick-a- lurgy, all that little bit of Old England, alas gone forever!

  7. A very interesting article John and it brought back some childhood memories. I am also from a small mining town and at weekends, miners would gather behind an old disused school near where I lived to play pitch and toss. As a teenager, I was a member of the pit fishing club and enjoyed many overnight trips to lochs and rivers all over Scotland. When the fishing was quiet, the pitch and toss would start and on occasion, it could get rather lively to say the least! Happy days!

  8. When I was a young boy, back in London, the way pitch and toss was played was as follows :- A group of us would take it in turns to ‘pitch’ a coin against a wall. The person whose coin landed nearest to the wall would then collect up all the coins and ‘toss’them in the air, at the same time calling ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. If he called ‘heads’ all the coins that landed heads up were his. The second person would then collect up the remainder and repeat the process and so on until all the coins had been ‘won’. The game would then be played again until they decided they had had enough. This was highly illegal.

  9. Enjoyed that a lot John, fascinating stuff

  10. Interesting story John. Pitch and Toss is quite similar to our two up. 3 pennies were balanced (one head up) on a flat stick called a kip. The tosser (so to speak) is called the spinner. The lookout is called the cockatoo.
    Police turn a blind eye on ANZAC Day to the game. Some casinos are allowed to play it all the time of course.

  11. Mining towns were famous for their gambling. Almost as much money was dropped as was spent.
    Went big game hunting for my first time at the age of 52. I found out in short order that I was not the man I used to be. We harvested a bull elk deep in a canyon. I was tasked with carrying out one of the quarters. I felt like I almost died. It has been 3 days and still feeling it.
    It is a sad day when you realize you are in the September of your life. You think it only happens to others. Then reality hits you like a cold slap in the face. My mind still tells me I am a young buck. But my body tells me you have a limited amount of service left. I just need to be able to go more years of detecting. One of the few things in life I enjoy.

    • For many its all in the mind and a little luck. Iam coming up to 82 and still get out detecting a couple of times each week.my son is knocking 60 has just phoned to say where are WE going detecting today.
      Dont sit back, its mind over matter,unless we are like the unlucky ones who just cant do what they would like through illness.Jerry.

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