Aunt Sally is played by throwing timber batons at a wooden skittle (known as a doll or dolly) on top of a post. It is one of those pub games which is played only in a confined locale and hardly at all outside of this area. In the case of Aunt Sally, the location is Oxfordshire and despite being restricted only to pubs in and around Oxfordshire it is an extremely popular game indeed that is taken very seriously by regulars and for which there are numerous leagues of some longevity.
Some authors have suggested that Aunt Sally goes back at least as far as the 17th Century. The vague assertion is that it may have been introduced by Royalist soldiers during the English Civil war when Charles set up court in Oxford. However, the earliest references to the term "Aunt Sally" only go back to the mid 1800s so unless someone comes up with something more concrete than historical speculation, we should assume that the game was invented along with so many others by the Victorians. If we accept that, there are more solid theories as to it's origin.
There are two 14th century manuscripts which show a game called club kayles (from the French "quilles" or skittles) which depict a skittles game in which one skittle is bigger, differently shaped, and in most cases positioned so as to be the most difficult to knock over. The throwers, in the pictures, are about to launch a long club-like object at the skittles underarm. Many skittles varieties of today still feature this extra large kingpin". Aunt Sally may be a development of skittles whereby this "Kingpin" became the sole interest of the game and the other skittles were dispensed with.
Here is a drawing from the 1911 edition of Whiteley's General Catalogue (with thanks to Stewart Russ). The author is not sure of the context of the picture but the doll has been dressed up to look like a woman of exactly the same as the picture below left.
An alternative theory ascribes Aunt Sally as a development of a game which was essentially a humane version of a barbaric blood sport called "throwing at cocks". In this horrible pastime a cock was tied by one leg to a stake in the ground and the participants would then pay for a turn at throwing a "cok-steles" (small club) at the bird. Whoever killed the bird got to take it home for dinner. If the bird's leg was broken, the sad creature would be supported on sticks until the bitter end. Joseph Strutt noted in 1801 that humane versions of this had been seen as fairground amusements wherein the cock was replaced by a wooden replica and people paid a small sum to attempt to hit it. He thought that this had died out but this theory believes it persisted and became Aunt Sally.
The third theory is my own and is more straightforward still. Can you think of another game in which the objective is to knock something off the top of a post? Of course - it's the traditional coconut shy which any self-respecting school fair would be embarrassed to be without. The Coconut shy is just the latest incarnation of a fair game that has been going on for at least two centuries. For instance, look at the 1818 Rowlandson cartoon to the right. The objects on top of the posts are different prizes. If you knock off the prize, you win it (presumably prizes were not made of bone china). The game was sometimes called 'Knock 'em down' and the exact same game can be seen in the Frost Fair print from 1814 to the left.
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that this is certainly the most likely ancestor of Aunt Sally but one shouldn't be too hasty. This "prize shy" is actually more akin to the modern game which didn't appear until around the 1930s and the aim of the original Aunt Sally fair game, as will be seen was not to knock the doll off the top of the post... So, all three theories seem reasonably plausible - in this author's view, more evidence is needed before one could justifiably argue for one theory more than another.
What is known for sure is that Aunt Sally rose to general popularity in Victorian times as a vulgar misogynist fairground pursuit. As you can see from the pictures on this page, it is apparent that the doll used to be dressed up to resemble an old maid and no doubt it was thought to be an amusing to chuck sticks at the ugly looking Aunt Sally doll. As can be seen from the examples shown, it seems that often the figure was painted black - the game was both mysogynist and racist.
At this time, too, the game was played quite differently to the modern game. A number of clay pipes were inserted into the mouth and hung from other parts of the doll and instead of knocking the dolly off the post, the the objective was to break the pipes or knock them off the doll.
Why did the old girl lose her clothes? Perhaps the participants couldn't be bothered to dress her up any longer, perhaps their game became too competitive to be trivialised in this way - or perhaps the landlord's wife objected...
Regardless, at some point the game started to be played in a few Oxfordshire pubs where it later began to be taken more seriously and all socially dubious connotations are now lost in the mists of time.
The source of Aunt Sally as a pub game is slightly hazy but the author has made some progress in narrowing it down. Firstly, in 1966 Timothy Finn asserted that the The Seven Stars in Baldon laid claim to "discovering" Aunt Sally and, by all accounts, there was an impressive Aunt Sally trophy cabinet on display at that tavern. The truth of this may never be known - as at July 2008, the pub landlord informed me that the pub has changed hands numerous times in the last five years and hasn't played Aunt Sally for some time. He is thinking of restarting the game there but any traces of the history would seem to be lost.
The Oxford Aunt Sally League has records that go back to the second world war - presently the earliest documentary evidence of Aunt Sally as a pub game. Thanks to Andy Beal for the following information. "The first singles winner of The Oxford Aunt Sally League was G.Smith from the Black Boy in 1938!! 1939 to 1941 no games were played, but from 1942 no years were missed. There are records of all the singles and pairs winners from then".
Approaching from the other direction, the latest reference found referring to Aunt Sally as a parlour game is from a 1935 Encyclopedia owned by the author in which instructions for making your own "home" version of the game are included. So it's seems almost as if World War II acted as a catalyst to metamorphose the game into a politically correct and more codified sport. This is the game that emerged after the war in various pubs around Oxford.
In modern Aunt Sally, the single white stubby skittle, about 6 inches high and 2 and 3/4 inches in diameter, is called "dolly" and the round-ended projectiles, of which there are six, are 18 inches long, 2 inches in diameter and are called "sticks". A hollow rod (the "iron") driven into the earth so that the top is two and a half feet above the ground and an iron swivel is inserted into the top. The swivel can rotate and is positioned to stick out to one side with the doll set on the little platform at the swivel's end. Each turn consists of six throws, a point being is scored for each doll knocked cleanly off the swivel. Players throw the sticks at the doll from behind a line known as the "ockee" which is 10 yards from the iron.
Normal league play has two teams each consisting of eight players and three legs or "horses" are played. Each horse consists of each member of each team having one turn so that each team makes 48 throws. It is believed that the record for a horse stands at 40 so it can be seen that hitting the doll is quite tricky.
The purpose of the swivel is a mystery to beginners but some reflection will show that it is vital to the game. Bear in mind that pub games need a level of clarity beyond normal umpired games - with a few beers consumed, judgements become impaired and a dispute can quickly spiral out of control. That's why skittle games are popular (a skittle is either down or not), dart boards have their segments separated by wires and quoits and throwing games with targets that are a hole work well.
For Aunt Sally a point is only counted as long as the stick hits the doll cleanly off the swivel. If the doll was simply balanced on top of the post, it would often not be clear whether the iron was hit before the doll or vice-versa. With the doll hovering away from the post, any doll that falls to the ground due to a stick hitting the iron is clearly not a point.
To most people Aunt Sally is only a vague recollection or completely unknown but in Oxfordshire, it is REALLY popular. See here for the large list of Aunt Sally pubs and leagues.