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Pub Games - 1976
In the links section of the main menu is a publication that we were involved in during 2009 , called 'Played At The Pub' by
|Arthur Taylor. The original book was printed by Mayflower in 1976 and contains this extract about Aunt Sally:-|
Aunt Sally was, for most people, one of those satisfyingly cathartic fairground games, where father threw wooden balls viciously-at a female wooden face on a stand, and won a prize by smashing clay pipes in the figure's ears or mouth' By and large, the coconut shy seems to have taken its place, although, the phrase itself lingers on, like 'king-pin' and ‘bear garden’, often used but rarely thought about in its original context.
In a small area of Oxfordshire, however, centred on the city and stretching into many of the -neighbouring villages and hamlets, Aunt Sally is the name given to a vigorous and burgeoning outdoor pub game, which when it bothers with origins at all, claims a fairground ancestry. It could well have a much more fascinating background than that.
Unless you actually come across a match in progress, it is remarkably easy to pass a pleasant summer's evening in one of the playing pubs without realizing that the game is there. In the garden or yard, there is a narrow 10-yard concrete pitch, which often goes unnoticed, or is mistaken for a path. At the end of this stands a hollow metal post, 2 ½ feet high and often wrapped round with rubber inner tubes. (Local supplies of the latter are not too hard to come by – after all, Oxford is famous for car factories as well as dreaming spires). Behind the post, a tightly stretched triptych of canvas and perhaps a tell-tale blackboard for chalking up the score, complete the fixed scenery.
When a game is imminent, the stage is swiftly and subtly re-arranged and brought to life. The chairs and tables, previously spread at random in the garden under the trees, are grouped in lines along the pitch for thirsty supporters.
An official arrives with a swan's-neck swivel and the 6-inch Doll, or skittle. The swivel is inserted in the top of the hollow post; the Doll is perched on its tiny platform. These essential items are usually kept in the pub, to save them from souvenir-hunters. 'We get casuals,' said a landlord balefully, 'whose motto seems to be, if it stays still, kick it and if it moves, steal it.'
The teams bring their own sticks, six 18-inch ash batons to a set, rounded at each end, like truncheons without a grip or taper. They are carried, very professionally, in long, narrow canvas bags, and polished lovingly with talcum powder, or burnished with fine sandpaper, so that they slip smoothly out of the hand on the throw.The object of the game, simply stated, is to knock the Doll off the swivel by throwing a stick at it (so it could be described as a form of skittles in reverse - what you are really doing is throwing the skittles at the cheese, or Doll, as it is called here).
there are many ways of throwing the stick, the wooden Doll must be struck
cleanly - if the stick strikes the swivel or the post first, the so-called
'blob shot' does not count. This is often confusing for the beginner, since
the swivel often twists round on its pin, with a metallic rattle, after
a good shot. The trick is to listen for the initial impact of wood on wood
or, if still in doubt, to watch the 'sticker up', provided by each team.
He crouches by the post, like a fielder at silly mid-on, and judges each
shot, swiftly returning the Doll to its place if it is knocked off.
Eight players throw consecutively for a team in a normal league match and each player throws six consecutive sticks. Thus in a single leg, or 'horse', it's possible for a team to throw down forty-eight dolls - in fact no side has ever scored more than thirty-nine in one leg, which gives some idea of the difficulties and skills involved. A match consists of the best of three horses, and a team winning all three scores 3 points in the league.
There are tales of legendary skills - the player who was reputed to stand a lighted candle on the Doll. With his first stick, it was said, he put out the candle flame, with the second he knocked off the candle, and with his third he could score a clean hit on the Doll. What he did for encores is not recorded. There are certainly players who consistently score highly. They are called 'Sixer-men' for obvious reasons, and they are very few and far between. In all the games I have seen, a six score was greeted with wild applause and a symphony of car horns and rattled beer mugs, while a 'blob'- no score - received muttered sympathy rather than derision.
The Oxford and District Aunt Sally Association is largest of the local leagues, and the fact that it has no than seventeen divisions with ten teams in each section shows that the game enjoys tremendous support. There is promotion and relegation, and some of the teams in first division are so good they have to be handicapped. Television viewing in that part of Oxfordshire must take a terrible battering in the summer, which can't be a bad thing.
It seems curious, given such fervent local enthusiasm, that the game has not caught on elsewhere. Efforts have made to spread the gospel of Aunt Sally to London, Wales and Devon, without success. One local player claims to have heard of a similar game in Australia and Russia, but nothing has been substantiated.
If the failure of Aunt Sally to spread is one mystery, the question of its origins remains another. The Oxford League began just before the last war, and indeed the magazine Picture Post carried a picture of the unsuccessful candidate in the famous pre-war by-election cradling sticks in an attempt to cajole votes. The landlord of a pub in Garsington claims that the equipment was discovered (which must mean re-discovered) in the loft of Garsington Hall in the 1920s.
Mr E. F. Whitbread, the secretary of the Oxford Association read in a book that people at Henley Regatta in 1863 were throwing stunted bludgeons at an Aunt Sally. In his book Under the Parish Lantern the now-famous country writer Fred Archer, noted that at a fete in his beloved Cotswolds someone had an idea 'that to be different, we would throw rick pegs at coconuts instead of the usual balls; this proved quite successful, the coconuts falling more by luck than judgement'. None of which proves much, except to reinforce the local theory that the pub game was adopted originally from country fairs.
It is possible, of course, to go further back than this, and the essential clue here, besides the basic simplicity of the game, is the club, stick, baton or cudgel used as the missile.
Strutt describes 'the barbarous and wicked diversion of throwing at cocks' which waas formerly very popular among the young. A cock was tied by one leg to a small stake in the ground, and embryo marksmen paid for the privilege of throwing cok-steles, or clubs, at the unhappy bird. If the bird's leg was broken, it was supported on sticks to prolong the enjoyment. Whoever killed the bird took it home for the pot. 'Magistrates have put a stop to it', says Strutt. 'It is nearly, if not entirely, discontinued in every part of the kingdom.'
The sequel is worth quoting in full, since it provides some sort of an historical link with throwing at cocks and Aunt Sally. 'Upon the abolition of this inhuman custom, the place of the living birds was supplied by toys made in the form of cocks, with large and heavy stands of lead, at which the boys, on paying some very trifling sum, were permitted to throw as heretofore.'
Strutt goes on to say that the new pastime never became popular and was soon discontinued. Perhaps he didn't keep his eye on the Oxfordshire fairgrounds and pubs of the nineteenth century. He was, after all, wrong about dominoes".