origin of ‘Aunt Sally’ (name of a British game)



Aunt Sally – from The Modern Playmate: A book of games, sports, and diversions for boys of all ages (new revised edition – 1875?), by John George Wood (1827-89)



The Oxford English Dictionary (first edition – 1885) thus defined Aunt Sally:

a game much in vogue at fairs and races, in which the figure of a woman’s head with a pipe in its mouth is set up, and the player, throwing sticks from a certain distance, aims at breaking the pipe.

The following poem, published in The Belfast Morning News (Ireland) of 29th December 1858, describes both game and players (and probably alludes to the Duke of Beaufort – read below):


Of all the games for peers to play,
There’s none that beats “Aunt Sally;”
Although ’tis fitter, some may say,
For small boys in an alley.

You say you do not know the game?
Then I’ll describe it, shall I?
The Times has lately spread her fame,
The Courts have known “Aunt Sally.”

“Aunt Sally” is a doll, like one
Of those which ragmen hang up:
The nobs pronounce her “rawther fun.”
The snobs declares [sic] she’s “bang up!”

Between her lips a pipe is set,
Stout sticks are thrown to break it;
The game is slightly vulgar, yet
E’en dukes their pastime make it.

’Tis sweet to note the simple taste
Of our superior classes;
No idle fear of losing caste
Across their mind e’er passes.

’Tis sweet to see peers condescend
With ’prentices to rally,
And dukes their lordly leisure spend
A playing of “Aunt Sally!”

England was compared to Aunt Sally in the beginning of a letter published in Reynolds’s Newspaper (London) of 11th December 1859:


Sir,—England, in a Congress of European Powers, resembles a certain stuffed figure to be seen on every racecourse, at which dukes and swell-mobsmen, in genial fellowship, hurl wooden projectiles. I allude to the celebrated “Aunt Sally,” who lately obtained a fashionable notoriety on account of her name being associated with that of the Duke of Beaufort. “Aunt Sally” is a helpless target, whereat countless missiles are thrown. She is stuck up in a prominent position, for the sole purpose of being pelted, battered, and knocked over. And in this ignoble predicament, say I, England will, in all likelihood, find herself at the approaching Congress, unless represented by a man whose patriotism, firmness, independence, and fearlessness are impregnable to the attacks of diplomatic craft.

The author of this letter was alluding to an incident involving the Duke of Beaufort which had taken place the previous year; The Standard (London) of 13th December 1858, for instance, reported the following:

The Court of Queen’s Bench was engaged on Saturday with trials of special interest to sporting circles. Two cross actions, “Weatherley v. the Duke of Beaufort,” and “The Duke of Beaufort v. Weatherley,” the first for assault and the second for false imprisonment, were tried by Lord Campbell. It appeared that Mr. Weatherley was riding on the Brighton racecourse, while the Duke of Beaufort, in the interval between the races, was amusing himself, in company with some other gentlemen, by throwing sticks at a dummy negro’s head, called “Aunt Sally,” with a pipe in his mouth. Mr. Weatherley’s horse rode against the Duke of Beaufort, and the duke threw three sticks at him, and afterwards pulled him off his horse. For this Mr. Weatherley gave the duke into custody. A great deal of evidence was given on both sides. The jury found a verdict for Mr. Weatherley in the action for assault, damages 100l.; and for the Duke of Beaufort in the action for false imprisonment, damages, one farthing.

The earliest figurative use of Aunt Sally that I have found is from Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post (Devon) of 20th September 1871:

I hear all manner of rumours about contemplated changes in the Ministry. […] Next Session Mr. Bruce is to come out in fresh colours, and to show us what a distinguished statesman in mufti he is after all. All I can say is that he ought to have a chance at least. Hitherto this tough and hardy little Welshman has been the Aunt Sally of the Ministry. Everybody has been shying sticks at him, at the rate of ten a penny; but next Session—?

As John S. Farmer wrote in Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1890), “the origin of Aunt Sally is wrapped in mystery”. The word aunt was probably chosen because it used to be a familiar form of address to any old lady. The doll was sometimes described as representing a black woman, so that J. S. Farmer added:

Nor is it know whether she is any relation to the black lady whose effigy some few years since was frequently to be met with suspended outside the shops of rag and ‘marine store’ dealers.

But in Passing English of the Victorian era: A dictionary of heterodox English, slang, and phrase (1909), James Redding Ware expressed no doubts:

Aunt Sally (Low London). A black-faced doll. Early in the century the sign of a rag-shop; afterwards adopted as an entrancing cock-shy, a pipe either forming the nose or being placed between the teeth. From Black Sall and Dusty Bob, characters in the elder Pierce Egan’s Life in London, and probably adopted owing to the popularity of that work, precisely as in a later generation many of Dickens’s characters were associated with trade advertisements. Aunt Sally is vanishing, even at race-courses. Soon, but for a portrait, she will be only a memory. Very significant of Pierce Egan’s popularity, which from 1820 to 1840 was as great as that of Dickens, whose fame threw Egan into obscurity.

J. R. Ware was referring to Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq. and his elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (1821) by the sporting journalist and author Pierce Egan (1772-1849). Black Sall appears in the following illustration and passage:

LOWEST “LIFE in LONDON”—Tom, Jerry and Logic among the unsophisticated Sons and Daughters of Nature at “All-Max” in the East. – illustration by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)


Logic, (as the Plate represents,) appeared as happy as a sand-boy, who had unexpectedly met with good luck in disposing of his hampers full of the above household commodity in a short time, which had given him a holiday, and was listening to the jargon of Black Sall, who was seated on his right knee.

Nowadays, Aunt Sally is an Oxfordshire pub game played by throwing timber batons at a wooden skittle, known as a doll or dolly, on top of a post.

One thought on “origin of ‘Aunt Sally’ (name of a British game)

  1. Aunt Sally is also played in neighbouring areas of Berkshire and Wiltshire, hence the reference in the XTC song ‘The Wheel and The Maypole’.


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