People newly arrived in Oxfordshire are often completely bemused when they hear the term ‘Aunt Sally’. They may have used it as a dismissive term for people who set themselves up as targets, but to find that it is a pub game, with teams and leagues is quite a surprise.
The game, though played almost exclusively in Oxfordshire, spills over here and there into villages in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, and James Masters, who sells traditional pub games, says he sends equipment all over the world.
The game is simple in structure, but far more interesting to watch and play than this description implies. There is also a good deal of skill involved. It consists of throwing sticks at a ‘dolly’. If the dolly is knocked off its stand cleanly, without the stick hitting the supporting post of the dolly first, it scores one point. Each player has six sticks so obviously the maximum score for one player in a round is six, but a good average score is three. Keith Bradford, an Elsfield resident, who founded the Ambrosden team at the Turner’s Arms, plays in a team of eight. His brother is reckoned to be a good player and his average is 3.5. Scoring nothing from the six sticks is called a blob and is recorded as a cross.
The modern Aunt Sally head is often made of beechwood, 6 inches (15 cm) high and 3 1/2 inches (9 cm) in diameter. It has no features and is a doll in nothing but name and shape of head. It is fixed into an iron arm attached to a post so the bottom of the doll is 30 inches (75 cm) from the ground. The sticks are rather longer than a rolling pin and about the same circumference and length so are rather heavy. Masters quotes the size of the sticks they make as 18 inches (45 cm) long and 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. They typically weigh 1 lb 4 oz (580g), though they also make slightly heavier and slightly lighter ones. The player must stand 22 feet (6.8 m) away, with his/her feet clearly behind a marked line. Each player has his own sticks carried in a canvas bag and Keith always sands his down after he has played a game, to make sure they do not get greasy and slippery. He has tried making his own, but the best ones locally are made by someone in Garsington.
At the King’s Arms in Kidlington the playing space is a long alley, similar to a skittle alley, with the dolly set up at one end in front of a large piece of canvas painted with a dark circle positioned behind the dolly so that the white dolly can be clearly seen against the black of the circle. In Brill the area where the dolly is positioned is under a plastic roof but the rest of the playing space is open to the elements. Here again the playing area is long and narrow though the alley is in the pub garden and not part of the building. On the night I was there it was raining hard, which did not deter the players, though obviously cut down on the number of people watching. The spectators huddled under umbrellas while the players sheltered under a gazebo and emerged to throw their sticks, after which they retired to their shelter and their drinks.
Keith is of the opinion that the number of teams has declined because pubs are turning increasingly to catering, rather than just being places to drink. Alleys are being knocked down so there are fewer venues. Andy Beal, secretary of the Oxford Aunt Sally League confirms Keith’s observation. There were at one time 28 sections, which meant 280 pubs and clubs in the league but this has fallen dramatically and seems to have settled at 12-13 sections with 120 to 130 teams, which means between 1300 and 1500 players. The Bampton League in West Oxfordshire has 76 teams, plays in 48 pubs and has upwards of 800 players. In 2007 they counted among their players, albeit for only a day, HRH the Prince of Wales, who found the game much harder than he expected.
Some pubs erect their Aunt Sally on the night of the game thus allowing the space to be used more flexibly. The playing space at the King’s Arms at Kidlington is one such. It doubles as a venue for receptions and is hung with blue and white wall hangings, which partially cover the old stone walls of the barn it originally was and the carpet which covers the whole of the floor is partially rolled up for the Aunt Sally game.