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Pitching disc games - History and Useful Information
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There are a whole variety of games which simply involve the throwing of coins or discs at walls or at holes in a bench, chair, wall or box. This game has been going on for time immemorial and its origins are lost in time.
The most well know example in England comes from Norfolk and Essex and is called Pitch Penny, Penny Seat, Penny Slot, Tossing the Penny or Penny in the Hole. Essentially pennies are thrown across the room and into a hole carved in the seat of a high-backed settle or wooden bench.
The illustration is from a children's book published in 1744. The chap on the left is throwing a coin at the hole which is presumably located at the centre of the little mound in front of him. The title of the picture is "Chuck Farthing" so it seems that the name of the game changed over the years as the currency changed. The same thing happened for Shove Ha'penny which was previously called "Push Penny" and prior to that "Shove Groat". The accompanying poem reads "As you value your Pence, At the Hole take your aim; Chuck all safely in, And you'll win the game". One might reasonably deduce from this that several coins were thrown in a turn.
Toad in the Hole is nowadays a markedly Sussex game, centred around the town of Lewes, where the World Championship is held each year. In truth, and rule variations notwithstanding, it is is the same game as Pitch Penny, the only difference being that a dedicated table or box is used instead of using a bit of convenient furniture that already lies in the pub.
The game seems to have originated around East Sussex and maintains a consistently ardent although largely localised following, and is thriving in the areas where it is played. The Lewes Lions Club in Lewes, East Sussex organises the "International 'Toad-In-The-Hole' Competition" annually in the Town Hall in Lewes. Lion Ken Shipway, then President of of the club, wrote to inform the author that the game had a resurgence in recent years thanks to the competition. For instance, the 2006 competition entertained 192 competitors in 48 teams of 4 people. Up to the final it is the best of 3 games in a match and in the final it is the best of 5 games. Teams from all over the world are invited to enter! The author visited the World Championship in 2009, where they had more entrants than they can cope with and so some of the less "serious" teams don't make it to the starting line. According to the current event co-ordinator, Alan Dunn, in 2011 it is still going from strength to strength, oversubscribed with teams, and being very well supported by local businesses. A full report, photos and information about the next competition can be found on the Lewis Lions website. They have looked at extending the event but do not have enough members to man it presently.
The first official Toad in the Hole competition started in 1983 when a few tables were borrowed from local pubs in order to organise a competition at the Landport Community Centre for the Twinning Association. But it wasn't until 1995 that the annual event began to be held as part of the Lewes Festival. In 1996, eight tables were made for the competition although the tables were subsequently lost in the floods of 2000. Despite that setback, the annual event continued and became known as the International Toad in the Hole competition. In 2014, it should again host the maximum 48 teams.
There are varieties but commonly weighty brass discs, "toads", are thrown about 8 feet or so at a table. In the centre of the table, which is really just a wooden box on legs, is a hole at which the discs are aimed. Discs which descend through the hole end up in a large drawer which forms the interior of the table and which is pulled out to collect the discs after each turn. 2 points are scored for a toad in the hole, 1 point for a toad resting on the top of the table and normally four toads are thrown per turn.
The pictures show a modern commercial version of the game from the author's collection featuring rubber instead of brass toads. It was obtained from Masters Traditional Games.
There is a mystery surrounding this game - that of its origin. In continental Europe, the similar game is called Frog or Toad because one of the holes is a frog hole but in England it is the disks themselves that are called Toads and the hole is just a hole. A further twist to the plot is that "Toad in the Hole" is also the name of a traditional Yorkshire dish consisting of sausagemeat in batter. So what exactly is the relationship between the UK game and the European game?
The Oxford English dictionary has some extra information:- a quote from E.H.Pinto, Treen, states "Toad in the hole probably originated in England in Tudor times. But the fact that this 1969 passage is the first mention of the game that the OED has found belies the statement, somewhat. On the other hand, the dish called Toad in the Hole was first recorded in print in 1787. The Guinness book of pub games mentions a Mr. Aubrey Charman who apparently saw the European version of the game in Alfriston in the 1920's. Consequently, it seems likely that the game appeared in Southern England in the early part of the 20th century.
So really, there are two potential theories for the ancestry of "Toad in the Hole". The author would like to propose the first hypothesis as follows. The game was seen in Europe by some enterprising Englishman and upon his return, he decided to make his own "Toad" game. Being as how the continental game is quite a complicated bit of furniture, a simpler device was concocted with just the one hole. Although a less interesting visual spectacle, a single hole is actually a greater test of skill... But now there was no toad on the board to make sense of the name, so over time it went from "Toad game" to the better known phrase "Toad in the Hole". And the adopted name immediately gives rise to the implication that the disks are in fact the toads. QED.
A second and rather less contrived theory would simply be that Toad in the Hole is simply a modern version of those old games found all over England in Pubs, Churches & public areas that involve tossing a coin into a hole. Genuine Toad in the Hole games have a playing surface covered in solid lead which gives some subtle opportunities that are unique - for instance, some players are adept at digging the edge of the toad into the soft metal as it lands so that it bounces back towards towards the hole rather than sliding forward into it. The Essex and Norfolk Pitch Penny holes are (or were) also usually surrounded by lead so any story that they are not related would seem rather far-fetched. Perhaps the name, however, did come about due to some random influence from across the channel.
In the rest of Europe, it would seem to be a safe bet that similar games were also quite common through the ages. A relative and perhaps a descendant of such games is still played in bars and cafes in certain parts of Europe. It consists of a piece of furniture with several holes in the top surface plus obstacles to make these targets more challenging. The number of holes, size and design of table and the rules all vary from region to region. Players attempt to throw coins or disks in the holes which score differently according to their difficulty. Disks that land successfully slide down to the front of the table to a compartment at the front of the table showing the score. Another quote in the OED refers to the European game as being a charity game.
In Portugal the game is called Jogo do Sapo, in France it is known as La Grenouille or Tonneau in Belgium Tonspel or Pudebak, and in Catalonia - La Rada. It is also popular in South America where it is called Sapo. Linguists will observe that these names mean "Frog" or "Toad" game. The reason for this is that generally the most difficult hole is in the shape of an ornate frog or toad in the centre.
The picture on the left shows an example of "La Grenouille" from Normandy. This was very kindly sent for scanning by Anita Chapman, Liverpool, England.
On the right, there is a picture of Sapo at a hotel in Nasca, Peru. Courtesy Lucy Worrall and Matthew Murphy.
jm at tradgames.org.uk
Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.