Hoyin’ Skeulls

The “Hoyer” - The man who for the time being was throwing coins.

Photo of Victorian penniesUsually attended by some 60-80 men, these hoyin’ skeulls were held on waste land which afforded a good view of the surrounding countryside to the vigilant “look oot”, although the men themselves were well concealed. The three main venues in this area were at Wolfhill, situated midway between Backworth and Seghill, the ‘C’ Pit heap at Havelock Place, Backworth and Bigges Main lying quarter of a mile west of the Allotment and three quarters of a mile south of Holystone. The object of the exercise was to win money by gambling on the fall of two coins spun into the air. Two heads falling face up was a win, two tails a loss. Only Queen Victoria pennies were allowed to be used.

Normally there were 2 skeulls – the little’n for bets of 2/6d, 5/-, 10/-, where things were very informal and a man could bet against his neighbour ad lib on each hoy and the “big skeull” where things were vastly different. Here, order and formality reigned. The waste land was surfaced with compressed coal dust and to prepare the pitch each man would start at the centre in a stooping position and using his cap, beat the dust backwards through his legs until a circle some 5 yards in diameter was cleared. When the surface was as shiny as blacklead, gaming began.

Officials for the big skeull were:

The “Hoyer” – The man who for the time being was throwing coins, either using his first 2 fingers or a spade, which was a piece of lath, some 4″ long by 1″ wide.

The “Hand” – The man who collected bets against the hoyer and paid out to winners after each hoy,

The “Bebber” – He who picked up the pennies after each throw, polished them on his cloot and returned them to the hoyer, intermittently flapping the pitch with his cap.

The “Lookoot” – Watchin’ for the pollis!

If any man who had bet thought that the hoy was not good enough by reason of insufficient spin, not enough height, gust of wind or rolling coin, he could void the hoy by shouting “bar them”. This was never queried.

Proceedings usually continued until one man “smashed the skeull” often pocketing up to £200. Joe Summers, a man who worked with me at Backworth Maude Pit smashed the skeull at Wolfhill and on the way home engaged in gambling with the bebber to whom he had paid and lost the lot! Skeulls were sometimes raided by Police in numbers when men scattered far and wide over the fields, but it was rumoured that when the local bobby investigated his helmet was passed round the skeull and confusion was avoided!

Myself, being a traditionalist and therefore a seeker of truth rather than rumour, I accepted the invitation of one George Lazenby (still living at Wallsend) to attend the Bigges’ Main skeull. The appointment was at 10.30 one Saturday morning in the summer of 1946. On my arrival I was met by George wearing a sheepish grin and hands stuck in trouser pockets who announced “A’am smashed”. Being there to gain knowledge I supplied him with a 10/- note with which he stepped into the little skeull. I saw him lose the first 5 bob bet, and not wishing to see the demise of 4 hours pay in 60 seconds I moved to the big skeull for further education. I was so interested in the proceedings I had forgotten about George until about 10 minutes later when he tugged my elbow “A’av got 8 quid, wadda wi ganna dee wi’it?” he asked. I took 5, leaving 3 for George to keep or invest. He invested and 2 minutes later was “smashed” again. My one and only experience of hoying’ skeulls therefore gained me the equivalent of one week’s wages and a lot of knowledge.

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