(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Aunt Sally is a game where players throw batons known as sticks at a single wooden skittle called a doll or dolly. It is a pub game mainly confined to Oxfordshire, an English county west of London where it is very popular. There are many competitions, and players are quite serious. The game is also played in the surrounding counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire.
The history of Aunt Sally is uncertain and much of it is lost in antiquity. It may go back as far as the 14th century to a game known as club kayles, which comes from the French word “quilles” meaning skittles. In this game, players threw a long club at a group of skittles, one of which was larger than the rest and placed in the middle or at the back where it would be harder to knock over. It is possible Aunt Sally developed from this game, with this kingpin becoming the only skittle.
The game of Aunt Sally may have been played by soldiers loyal to King Charles I in the 17th century when he set up his court at Oxford during the English civil war. However, details are lacking.
Another influence might have been the barbaric game of “throwing at cocks,” a popular pastime particularly during Shrovetide. The poor cock was tied to a stake in the ground. People would then pay money to throw a club at the bird. The one who killed it took it home for dinner. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the birds were being replaced by replicas at fairs.
A game similar to coconut shy, and possibly a forerunner to it, may also have played a role in the history of Aunt Sally. Prints from the early 19th century show a game where players are throwing a club at some skittles, each with a small object balanced on top of it. The aim seemed to be to knock the item off the skittle and perhaps win it.
The game further developed in Victorian times in the mid 19th century and became popular at fairgrounds. Here a doll on a stick would be dressed up as an ugly old maid or aunt, perhaps by misogynists, and had clay pipes placed in the mouth or attached to other parts. The idea was to knock the pipes off the doll, or at least break them, by throwing sticks. Some of the dolls were painted black, perhaps by racists.
In the late 19th century, an indoor version known as Parlour Aunt Sally was enjoyed by many people. Here a single pipe protruded from the doll’s mouth and players tried to land quoits on it. Aunt Sally reached a peak in popularity around 1890. The pastime may have fallen out of favor to some extent in the early decades of the 20th century as blatant cruelty, misogyny and racism became less acceptable.
By the 1930s, the game was being played competitively as a pub game without the doll and free of the old social connotations. The Oxford Aunt Sally League goes back to 1938 when G. Smith of the Black Boy pub won the first singles event. In 1941, the Oxford & District Aunt Sally Association was formed and there have been singles and pairs competitions ever since.
Today, about 1,400 competitors are registered to play in league on Wednesday nights from May to September at pubs around Oxfordshire. In the modern game, a single skittle or dolly, no longer dressed as a maid or aunt, is used. It is six inches high and nearly three inches in diameter and is attached to a swivel and a rod that is pushed into the earth. The top of the dolly sits two and a half feet high. Six clubs or sticks 18 inches in length and two inches thick are thrown from a distance of 30 feet with the object of hitting the dolly.