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Aunt Sally

The idea of throwing a missile at an object representing a living creature is widespread and is sometimes quoted as a predecessor of Aunt Sally. Strutt, the Opies and Weedon and Ward all refer to the game of throwing at a live cockerel in a cage. When this was outlawed in 1800 as being too cruel, a model of a cockerel was substituted. Strutt says that at fairs the ‘barbarous and wicked diversion of throwing at cocks usually took place at all the wakes and fairs that were held upon Shrovetide. Upon the abolition of this inhuman custom, the place of the living bird was supplied by toys made in the shape of cocks, with large and heavy stands.’ Francis Place, quoted in Opie, describes how the models were made. ‘They were cast in moulds made either of Fire stone or Chalk. I soon found that a small quantity of pewter mixed with lead made the cocks much more tough.’ Here, though, it was not sticks which were thrown but pieces of lead or a smooth stone.

Weedon links Aunt Sally to coconut shies, which first made their appearance at St Giles Fair in Oxford in 1877 and notes that by this time balls had replaced sticks as missiles, but as late as 1911, according to Masters’ web site, an edition of Whiteley’s General Catalogue shows a man throwing a stick, not a ball, at a doll dressed as a woman.

The history of the development of the dolly is obscure. Before the mid-19th century, again according to Weedon, some showman set up comical dolls to be knocked down or pivoted. A French version of such a game had a group of three foot high dolls all representing characters at a wedding which were fixed to a horizontal bar. So there was the bride and groom, the priest, the in-laws, the mayor and so on. The balls were made of papier mache, as were the dolls. The aim of the game was to target one or several of the characters and hit them in such a way that they pivoted. This idea of throwing at figures crossed the Atlantic to the USA, where negro heads were often used as targets, while it was common in Germany for the target to be a Turk’s head.

Because there are hard objects flying through the air, there is always, even in 19th century fairground games, some element of protection from the missile. Weedon says, ‘These early Aunt Sallies stood before a simple sheet, pegged and guyed into the ground and attached with wooden sticks. ‘Compare this description with that of the Masters web site. You need, they say, ‘a backdrop. The backdrop should be a sheet of canvas, leather or other impact-absorbing material.’ They supply a sheet of PVC sheeting, 6 foot (182 cm) square, green with a black spot, which should be fixed 30 inches (75 cm) behind the doll. They do not, however, supply the pipe into which the iron swivel arm is fitted. They suggest using a 3 ft 6 inch (91 cm) piece of gas pipe and burying the first foot (30 cm) of it in the ground.

So what conclusions can we reach from all the above? It seems safe to assume that the game of Aunt Sally was originally a game played at fairs; that the use of sticks rather than balls survived from an age when balls were more difficult to come by than they were in the 20th century, and that the game at some point travelled from fair ground to pub, retaining some of its early features. The earliest date James Masters can suggest for Aunt Sally as a pub game is 1962, though an encyclopedia published in 1935 mentions the game as a parlour game or fete attraction. The Oxford Aunt Sally League claims to be 68 year old, however, which would mean their league was formed in 1940. Further enquiries from their secretary shows that there was a singles winner recorded in 1938: G. Smith of the Black Boy pub, so the game must have been up and running in pubs well before that date for there to be an organization developed enough to award prizes.

Having arrived in the pub, it then seems to have taken on the formal organization of that other stalwart of pub games, darts. So it now has formal teams and leagues and the winner of each league is rewarded with a trophy at the end of the season. The Oxford Mail, though not the Oxford Times, carries the results and reports on the game.

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