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; 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.
Toad in the Hole
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 organised the "International 'Toad-In-The-Hole' Competition" annually in the Town Hall in Lewes until 2020 when it was called off due to the Coronavirius pandemic. 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 event co-ordinator, Alan Dunn, in 2011 it was still going from strength to strength, oversubscribed with teams, and being very well supported by local businesses. They looked at extending the event but never had enough members to members to adequately staff it further. In May 2020, after many years raising money for all manner of good causes, the Lewes Lions Club closed but The Commercial square Bonfire Society have taken over the event and will run a competition as soon as it is able to do so.
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.
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 reported that he 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.
Tonspel - The Barrel Game
In the rest of Europe, it's a safe bet that similar games were also quite common throughout the ages. In Belgium, they still play a game that is similar in many respects, the tables from a distance look similar and usually feature a drawer to retrieve scoring disks in the same way. The main differences are that the board surface is wooden instead of lead and the board has multiple holes instead of a single one. The projectiles are thick disks usually made from brass and often feature decorative rings. Multiple targets tend to reduce the skill required to play a game unless the rules require specific holes to be aimed at for some reason, but in this game there are usually 12 disks and the aim is simply to score the most or be first to 50 points, for example.
The most common layout is 4 rows of 3 holes. Sometimes the holes do not have specific scores and on other boards, each hole is ascribed a number from one to twelve. A common feature is that the front hole in the middle is special, being a slot rather than a round hole, and this hole being the hardest by far to score in, usually scores 12 or sometimes more than 12.
In Belgium the game is called Pudebak or Tonspel which means 'Barrel Game' and in French it is known as Tonneau which also translates as 'barrel'. There is a theory that this is because the original form of the game used a barrel as the stand/body.
A board was found in Augsburg before 1630 that is described in 1694 as belonging to a "Pott-penning spel" (in Swedish, a "pot stake game"). It features 18 holes around 2-3cm diameter but in a diagonal lattice layout rather than the regular layout of modern boards. The Swedish translation implies a betting element which, given that most games prior to the 1850s were gambled upon, is not surprising. A similar game with more holes is described in German under the name "Scheffel-Spiel" in a book published in 1733 about common games played at the time - "Palamedes Redivivus". This translates as 'Bushel Game', a Bushel being an old measure of volume equivalent to around 8 gallons - effectively a small barrel...
The Frog Game / Sapo
A more ubiquitous relative and perhaps a descendant of such games is still played in bars and cafes in certain parts of Europe and South America. It consists of a piece of furniture with several holes in the top surface like Tonspel but has the addition of certain obstacles to make these targets more challenging and interesting.
In Portugal the game is called Jogo do Sapo [toad game], in France it is known as La Grenouille [the frog] and in Spain, The Basque country and Catalonia - La Rana [the frog]. It is also popular in South America where it is called Sapo [toad]. Linguists will observe that these names mean "Frog" or "Toad" game. The reason for this is that the common feature for all these games is that the most difficult hole is in the shape of an ornate frog or toad in the centre.
The number of holes, obstacles, size, design of table and the rules all vary from region to region. A popular feature is for the two holes either side of the Toad/Frog to have spinners. Sometimes a pair of holes further back are filled with a trapdoor that swings down if a coin lands on it.
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. A quote from the OED refers to the European game as being a charity game - perhaps the greater element of luck in a multi-hole game lends itself to fundraising activities.
Basque La Rana
In spain, versions of La Rana (The Frog) are particularly popular in Northern states such as Aragon, Navarre, Catalonia and the Basque country. The Basques play the simplest but also the most skilful version of the game - because it features just the single frog hole.
Here then is a clear similarity with the British Toad in the Hole game. Perhaps the first Toad/Frog international should be organised - The English v. The Basque?
A game which may well be a derivative of Toad in the Hole is the American game of "Cornhole". It seems to be centred around Cincinnati, Ohio where it is all the rage but it is rumoured to have begun in Indiana and one person wrote to the author from Minnesota about the game.
It uses four bean bags per two man team. There are two (4 x 2 feet) ramps with holes apprx 6 inches from the top (high part) of the ramp or board and directly centered. The boards are placed around 30 feet apart and each team has a player placed at each board. Play alternates between players at one end each throwing their teams four bean bags. A typical way to score is that any bag landing on the board without hitting the ground first scores one point. Any bag in the hole scores three points.
In fact, quite a number of people have written to the author asking for rules, board dimensions and so forth but really the game appears to be a bit of an informal craze - without any 'official' rules or regulations. Pundits needn't be concerned - this just makes it easier to construct your own boards without any worries. Many pub games have been without any official rules for centuries and all the better for it...
A number of people from North America have written to the author enquiring about a game that is popular in that region called "Holeyboard" or "Washers" or "Ringers". In this game, large washers (flat metal rings about 1 - 2 inches diameter) are thrown by a person standing on one box towards another box 8 feet away. Each box is has 3 holes about 10 inches apart and the holes score 1 point for the near hole, 3 points for the middle hole and 5 points for the furthest hole. Players go backwards and forwards, alternating the target box in the same manner as for quoits or bowls. The objective is to reach exactly 21 points. Various dimensions for the boxes et al have been reported and it appears to be common to connect the two boxes with cord or rope - presumably so that setting them at the correct distance is merely a matter of pulling the rope taut. One person reported that he played with cups instead of holes and another believed that the game was originally played with holes in the ground - certainly, there do not appear to be any standards.
There is another version of "Washers" in existence which is like a missing ancestor between the game described above and the old game of Quoits. Instead of 3 holes, the object is still to throw washers into a single cup which is set into pits reminiscent of quoit pits. Is this a single hole version of the above game or is it a variation of quoits with a hole instead of a stake?
The origin of this game isn't clear and it's relationship to the other games on this page, if any, is a mystery. If anyone, can shed any light on these matters, the author would be pleased to receive an email from them.
Pubs & Where To Play
Please see the separate Toad in the Hole & Pitch Penny Pubs and Leagues page.
Masters Traditional Games publishes free rules for traditional games and also sells a fully-fledged pub-style Toad in the Hole game.
To find the Frog Game in France, search for "Jeu de la grenouille".