In the mills of Lancashire, sewing fabric together with a thread from each new bale of cotton from North America was very important. In this way, the owners could determine how strong the cotton was and so they employed professional sewers for this reason. The sewers were issued with a new thimble every six months to protect their fingers from the needles. If the sewer lost their thimble they had to pay for a new one, so there was a tendency to share the thimbles. In order to save time, thimbles were thrown from sewer to sewer. Some throws were more accurate than others, which led to thimble throwing contests on the annual works day out to Blackpool. This was first recorded in 1862 and the Thimble Throwing contest has taken place every year since then on July 5th.
Lines are drawn on the ground and the contestants must try to land their thimbles in this area. Containers of varying sizes such as a bucket, a milk bottle, and a baked beans can (empty) are also placed in the area. The contestant wins extra points for landing their thimble in one of these receptacles – more points are awarded to contestants that land thimbles in the narrower receptacles, with the Milk Bottle being the highest points scorer. There are five rounds of thimble throwing and points are accumulated over all five rounds.
Betty Calthorp won the contest seven times between 1869 and 1891 largely due to her uncanny ability to throw her thimble into the milk bottle under pressure. She used an underarm delivery to ensure a high looping path for her thimble. This worked well in calm conditions but occasionally in high winds her thimbles landed outside the target area altogether. On the occasion of her seventh victory in 1890, she was awarded a Milk Bottle mounted on a piece of slate as a memento of her victories. The other multiple winner was Bill ‘Beans Boy’ Burns who swore by aiming at the beans can at all times – his strategy led to five wins between 1922 and 1936.
In 1954, a second competition was introduced based purely on hurling the thimble the furthest distance from a fixed point using only human power. No slingshots are allowed to be used. Each competitor uses a standard metal thimble without embellishment. This last rule had to be introduced in 1955 after the inaugural competition was marred by accusations of cheating. Some people filled their thimbles with wet sand while others attached wings and flew the thimble a long distance.
Some contestants use a shot putt technique to launch their thimble; others take a long run up a la javelin thrower and then hurl their thimble skywards. The longest distance ever recorded was 136 feet 4 inches by Dennis Taylor in 1972; it was a windy day and he determined that if he threw his thimble high enough the open end would catch a draft of wind and it would go further. He was proved correct and his record survives to this day.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker