Aunt Sally

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A drawing from the 1911 edition of Whiteley's General Catalogue.

Aunt Sally is a traditional English game usually played in pub gardens and fairgrounds, in which players throw sticks or battens at a model of an old woman's head.[1] Leagues of pub teams still play the game today,[2] throughout the spring and summer months, mainly in Oxfordshire and some bordering counties.[3]

In France, the game is called jeu de massacre ("game of carnage").[4][5]

The term Aunt Sally is used for an argument or idea that is easily refutable and set up to invite criticism.[6]


It has been suggested that the term was based on a blackface doll itself inspired by a low-life character named "Black Sal", which appeared in an 1821 novel entitled Life in London by Pierce Egan, a contemporary of Charles Dickens.[1]


The game dates back to the 17th century,[3] although the name "Aunt Sally" may have been a later addition.[1] It was traditionally played in central English pubs and fairgrounds. An Aunt Sally was originally the modelled head of an old woman with a clay pipe in her mouth; the object was for players to throw sticks at the head in order to break the pipe.[4] The target has also been a puppet,[4] live person,[4] or a simple ball on a stick.[1]

There are also other theories of how the game started. One such theory is that a live cockerel was placed on the stick, and people would throw sticks at it.[7] Whoever killed it won the game and took home the chicken. Another theory is that in Port Meadow in Oxfordshire, at the time of the English Civil War, the Cavaliers (soldiers loyal to King Charles I) were bored and formed a game with sticks and makeshift materials similar to the game as understood today.[7]

Today, the game of Aunt Sally is still played as a pub game in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.[2]

In 2011 the inaugural Aunt Sally Singles World Championship took place at the Charlbury Beer Festival in Charlbury, West Oxfordshire. Among the attendees was prime minister David Cameron. The tournament has continued there annually ever since.[3][8]

On 24 August 2019, the first world championship for Aunt Sally pairs was held in the Bull, Launton, Oxfordshire and was won by the pub team from The Bell, Bicester. Darren Moore and Billy Craig were the winners. Runners up were Aimee Sheehan and Christopher Hulme.

Modern rules[edit]

The game bears some resemblance to a coconut shy or skittles, but with teams. Each team consists of eight players.

The ball is on a short plinth about 4 to 6 inches (100 to 150 mm) high by 3 inches (75mm) diameter, known as the "dolly", which is placed on a dog-legged metal spike about 30 to 40 inches (750mm to 1000mm) high. Players throw sticks or short battens, about 18 by 2 inches (450 x 50mm) at the dolly, from ten yards away,[9] trying to knock it off without hitting the spike. Successfully hitting the dolly off is known as a "doll"; however if the spike is hit first, then the score does not count and is called an "iron".[3][7][1]

Cultural references[edit]

In literature[edit]

  • G.K. Chesterton, in his anti-German book The Crimes of England (1915), refers to the wooden likeness of Paul von Hindenburg (described above) as a "wooden Aunt Sally"
  • E. Nesbit, in Chapter VIII of the children's book Five Children and It (1902), describes a country fair: "There were some swings, and a hooting-tooting blaring merry-go-round, and a shooting-gallery and Aunt Sallies."
  • Angela Thirkell, in her 1945 novel Miss Bunting, uses an old Aunt Sally, which its owner contributes to a village sale, as a symbol of the postwar world's rejection or adaptation of old English folk traditions.
  • An Aunt Sally literally going by the name of 'Aunt Sally' is a major character in Barbara Euphan Todd's Worzel Gummidge books and subsequent TV series adaptations.
  • In Gunby Hadath's short story "The Battle and the Breeze" found in The Dozing of Cuthbert (1932), the Aunt Sally at a country fair involves a black man sticking his head through holes in a canvas sheet, mocking those who try to hit him with wooden balls.

In music[edit]

"The Wheel and the Maypole" by XTC: "I've got the seed if you've got the valley I've got the big stick if you've Aunt Sally's head"

In television[edit]

  • In Penelope Keith's Hidden Villages Series 3 (September 2016), Keith visits Hook Norton in Oxfordshire. While there, she spoke to people about Aunt Sally and showed numerous people playing the game. Old footage of David Cameron playing the game was included.
  • Aunt Sally also featured on the BBC Countryfile programme in August 2013.
  • In the season 1 premiere episode of the UK TV series House of Cards (1990), journalist Mattie Storin – in her first conversation with the Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart – confirms she understands Francis' explanation of how newly elected Prime Minister Henry Collingridge is being used as a pawn and set up to take a fall by calling the PM an Aunt Sally
  • Aunt Sally is played in the British detective television series Midsomer Murders (episode 18, "Dark Autumn", and episode 1 of series 22, “The Wolf Hunter of Little Worthy”)
  • Aunt Sally appears as a character, portrayed by Una Stubbs, in the television adaptation of the children's series Worzel Gummidge, produced by Southern Television for ITV, which was adapted from Todd's books, from 1979 to 1981, and in the sequel/spin-off series Worzel Gummidge Down Under; she is a fairground doll of the type used as a target for throwing competitions but nevertheless considers herself to be of a superior class to Worzel, a scarecrow, and her frustrated suitor.
    • Vicki Pepperdine also portrayed the same character, who is portrayed more closely to the Aunt Sally of the original novels, and is Worzel's aunt as opposed to being his (one-sided) crush, in the 2019 BBC adaptation of Todd's books, Worzel Gummidge.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Aunt Sally". Worldwide Words. Michael Quinion. 22 August 2009.
  2. ^ a b "Aunt Sally: Three Tuns unbeaten". Banbury Guardian. Johnson Publishing Ltd. 20 July 2000.
  3. ^ a b c d "101 Reasons to love the Cotswolds - 49. Aunt Sally". Loving the Cotswolds. Loving The Cotswolds. 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Aunt Sally" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 922.
  5. ^ "Massacre"., LLC. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  6. ^ "Aunt Sally". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  7. ^ a b c "Home Page". Oxford & District Aunt Sally Association. 2016.
  8. ^ "6th World Aunt Sally Championships". Oxfordshire, UK: Jack FM. 2016. Archived from the original on 18 October 2016.
  9. ^ "Greene King Oxford & District Aunt Sally League Rules 2018" (PDF). p. Rule 13.

External links[edit]