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.
Aunt Sally at the King’s Arms, Kidlington
The game on August 28th 2007 was the last of the season and the league started playing again in May 2008. There were two teams, the visiting team from Ambrosden, and the King’s Arms team. The scores were chalked on a blackboard with the home team’s names written up in the first column, with the initials of the visiting team at the right hand side of the board. Each member of the home team threw his six sticks and the score was chalked up and totalled. The home team won 21 points. Ambrosden then threw, also scoring 21, a tie, which is unusual. The home team then threw three sticks each, followed by Ambrosden who passed the score of the home team after three players had thrown. This finished the first leg of the game. If the result had not been clear cut, and the teams had tied again, they would have then played one stick each in a similar fashion. If there had still been no clear winner they would have gone back to throwing six sticks and the process would have started again until there was a clear winner. The players then began on the second leg, which followed the pattern of the first one, with the visiting team again winning, and the third leg followed the same pattern again with a win for Ambrosden. This meant they were top of their league and in 2008 moved into a higher league.
What has been written about Aunt Sally?
There is a great deal written about throwing games with balls but very little about throwing sticks. What is often described as the fairground game of Aunt Sally is played throwing balls rather than sticks.
There are however references to stick throwing. Strutt quotes Stow of London, published in 1720, who writes: “The lower classes diverted themselves by pitching the bar.” Wikipedia also records that Robert Dover, an attorney of Barton on the Heath, in Warwickshire, directed the annual celebration of games in the Cotswolds. Listed among the games is “Pitching the bar” but in neither case is there a description of the game itself. Perhaps these were similar to welly wanging, the modern game popular with children and a mainstay of local fetes and other amateur money raising events. In this game all that is needed is a space to throw, a wellington boot and someone to see fair play.
There is, however, a cartoon drawn by Rowlandson in 1808 entitled “Doncaster Fair or the Industrious Yorkshirebites” which shows a woman encouraging two youths to try their hand at throwing sticks. The throwing sticks are long and thin and what they are meant to be thrown at are prizes balanced on much shorter sticks like ninepins. The prizes appear to be a potato, a slice of bread, a bread roll and a fourth object which it is difficult to interpret. It looks like a very small barrel which may contain alcohol.
Sticks were a cheap and easily available resource at this time, unlike balls. Until the middle of the 19th century bouncing balls were often made of cork and worsted or leather and feathers. These would have been time-consuming to make and not easily replaced. In France balls were sometimes made of papier mache, while in hitting games using sticks, such as knurr and spell or tipcat, the object hit by a big stick was either a round piece of wood, a knurr, which is a hardened excrescence on the trunk of a tree, or in the case of tipcat a short pointed stick.
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.
Beal, Andy. Secretary of the Oxford Aunt Sally League, 2008. Private correspondence.
Masters, James, 2008. Private correspondence.
Opie Iona and Peter, 1997. Play with things. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Strutt, Joseph, 1810. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. Ed. Charles Cox, 1903.
Weedon G. and Ward R, 1981. Fairground Art: The Art Forms of Travelling Fairs, Carousels and Carnival Midways.( New York: Abbeville Press, London: White Mouse Editions.)