Aunt Sally: More Things to Knock Down Without Spilling Your Beer

Aunt Sally was the inspiration for my research into English pub games. The game was featured the British detective series Midsomer Murders, which regularly explores the bizarre festivals and customs of rural England. We couldn’t tell what in the world the characters were doing or why, since we’d never seen anything quite like it. A little digging uncovered not only the rules and origins of Aunt Sally, but also the wonderful and weird world of traditional pub gaming. 

The complete story of English pub games will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine.

The Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports calls the origins of the skittle-like game Aunt Sally “obscure,” but offers several possibilities for its mysterious name. “Sally” is a dialect word for “hare,” and throwing-sticks were sometimes used to hunt hares in the 19th century. A more likely explanation is that “sally” means to pitch forward, and “aunt” is a reference to the vaguely feminine shape of the target. The French name is the far more evocative Wholesale Slaughter (“jeu de massacre”), which is just plan odd.

The modern version involves throwing six sticks 18 inches long and 2 inches round at a target. A pole, four feet tall, is set into the ground, while a fat white skittle with a bulbous head perches on the top. The goal is to knock this doll from its perch, with a point scored each hit. Players throw their 6 sticks in 4 rounds, for a maximum total of 24. It’s actually much harder than it sounds, and a score of 20 points is considered superb.

The game may have evolved out of a cruel bloodsport called “throwing at cocks”. A live chicken was tied to the top of a pole, and people took turns throwing sticks until someone killed it. The “winner” got to take the chicken home for the pot. It was usually played on Shrove Tuesday.

Joseph Strutt, in his 1801 book The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period, says that “Upon the abolition of this inhuman custom, the place of living birds was supplied by toys.” The game found its way from fairgrounds and fetes to the pub, where it shed its cruel heritage and became almost respectable as one of the “lawful games on licensed premises.” Local leagues are organized around pubs, and Championships are held in August and September. The game surged in popularity in the 20th century, with the Oxford League alone counting 120 teams, and six other leagues cropping up in pubs around the country.

In his definitive book Played at the Pub, author Arthur Taylor estimates that “come summer, over 2,500 men and woman can be found playing the game, usually on a Thursday night,” and indoors during winter. The popular British TV show Midsomer Murders even featured an Aunt Sally rivalry as a subplot in the episode “Dark Autumn,” which led to a minor resurgence of interest in the game. 

The game actually made it to American shores, and then migrated back to England in a new form around the year 1855. The American version involved throwing balls or batons at doll’s head affixed to a strike. The doll’s head had a pipe extending from it, and the goal was to knock the pipe off without hitting the head. In the game of Nacks, unique to Yorkshire, the target was a peg rather than a doll.

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