The Houghton Fly Fishing Club
1878 - 1892

The Engine Room of the Dry Fly

George Selwyn Marryat Remembered (part 4) by Simon J Ward

One of the oldest fishing club's in the world is acknowledged as the "Houghton Fishing Club" formed in 1822 by Cannon Beadon and Mr. King, he was the landlord of the Grosvenor Arms, in the sleepy Hampshire town of Stockbridge. It was King who told the Cannon that the water at Houghton was for rent. By and by the club was set up, originally as a pike club to fish the waters of the Test around the village of Houghton. The thirteen original members would only come down about twice a year, for the Grannom in April and again in May for the Mayfly, they would stay for about three weeks at a time. This is all very straight forward, nothing really changed, until 1873, when this club lost over three miles of the very best fishing on the river. From this time until the beginning of 1893 the club was called the "Stockbridge Fishing Association".

A new club called 'The Houghton Fly Fishing Club' was formed after Dr. Wickham took over the lease of the water from the club in Stockbridge. By 1875 the new club was created, and made up of twenty gentlemen. Bossington Mill became their base, and until the end of 1892 had over 3 miles of the most productive water on the Test. Through the pages of the Field, which in those days was published weekly, many of the members wrote of their doings. Having the angling editor of the Field as a member helped in getting all their jottings published. Francis Francis joined the Field in 1856, and remained as the editor of angling for over twenty-five years, William Senior taking over the post in 1881, eventually taking over as editor in chief. The members were able to chart the history of the club from the very beginning to the very last day, New Years Eve, 1892. For all the members it was a very sad ending, for there had been seventeen years of close companionship, with many joyous gatherings of anglers. Apart from the mill there was one other meeting place, the old thatched fishing hut, just upstream from the Sheepbridge.

The walls of the hut were made from railway sleepers obtained when the railway came to the Test valley. In this hut was kept the club's portly note book, hanging from its own bracket. It was only in the latter years of the club that proper records were compiled. Until this time, the members must have entered all the information into their own diaries and journals.

This hut has passed into fly fishing history as the place where Halford became acquainted with Francis and Marryat, in the Spring of 1879. When Halford got to the Test in 1877, he found (as recorded in his autobiography) the quotation from Major Carlisle that —

"of those who fished the Houghton waters only half—maybe fewer—had any idea of dry fly fishing, and it was a common thing to see an angler flailing away with two big flies on the thickest of gut downstream."

It has been assumed by many people that in 1877 F. M. Halford became a member of the club in Stockbridge, this is not so, as he makes clear in his autobiography. —

"In 1877 I joined the Houghton Fly Fishing Club."

Twenty-eight April 1879 as recorded in Halford's autobiography is the generally accepted date for the first introduction by Francis Francis between Marryat and Halford. But, I have unearthed an article written by Detached Badger (Halford's Penname). This piece was published in the Field October 1892. Halford made this statement. —

"I first met F.F. on the 1st May 1879 during a snowstorm in the Hut of the Sheepbridge shallow. It was Houghton too, that I made the acquaintance of M., and learnt from him all I know of dry fly fishing."

If Halford met Francis for the first time on 1st May 1879 at Houghton, and the inference is that H. met M. sometime after this. How could Francis have introduced him to Marryat on 28th April 1879 in John Hammonds shop at the square, Winchester. What happened on 28th April seems to be this: Halford was invited down to fish the Old Barge water on the Itchen

At the end of the day Halford and his host called at John Hammond's tackle shop to buy some flies. It begs the question, who was the host that Halford fished with on the Old Barge? Was it Francis, I don't think so. My view is that Halford's host was Major Carlisle. But, was Marryat in John Hammonds shop on 28th, he couldn't have been if we are to believe Halford's article from October 1892. The Major, Hon. Sec. of the "Houghton Fly Fishing Club", was to join Francis and Marryat for some fishing on their club water on the Test at Houghton two days later on 30th April 1879. Could it have been the Major who said to Halford while they were in the shop, ''why don't you come and join me on the 30th, and I will introduce you to Francis and Marryat." So which of Halford's versions is the correct one, was it on 28th April 1879 or 30th or 1st of May 1879 that brought together these three gentlemen of the chalk streams. I know I will be accused of nit-picking about who met who, and where, and only a day or two either way. But, I do think it is important to get the dates as accurate as possible, and preferably from the participants themselves.

Which ever day it was, as so often happens in early Spring, that day 117 years ago brought a howling north easterly gale with heavy snow showers. No flies were cast, but the first of many discussions took place in the fishing hut hard by the Sheepbridge shallows on the Test. It was in this hut that Halford admitted to Marryat, his many shortcomings with the intricacies of fly tying. Knowing of the growing reputation that Halford had as an entomologist, and Marryat, being the finest entomologist, fly-fisher, and fly-dresser of his time, M resolved to help in any way he could.

In the preface to the first book Floating Flies and How to Dress Them published in 1886, Halford writes:

"About this period I took the council of a friend, whose acquaintance I had made some short time previously, and who, in addition to being one of the best, if not the best dry-fly fishermen in England, was an adept in all the minutiae of dying, selecting, and preparing the materials, as well as the construction of artificial flies. To this friend George Selwyn Marryat, I desire to express the deepest gratitude for the unwearying patience and perfect unselfishness with which he gradually inducted me into every detail known to him, and gave me the benefit of his invaluable experience, concealing nothing which would tend to perfect me in the art of imitating the various winged inhabitants of the stream."

'Red Spinner' (William Senior) wrote about the meeting in the Field:

"The reference in the above quotation to the manner in which two eminent dry-fly fishermen became acquainted suggest the intimate friendship that existed before Mr. Halford came into the circle, between Francis Francis and G.S. Marryat. The latter had just the right qualities that would attract the liking and establish the loyalty of Francis who was not impulsive in his friendships, but who knew a sterling man when he met him, and became his steady comrade thenceforth. Those were halcyon days by Test and Itchen, when the famous angling editor of the Field and his young friend met together, each with his own special characteristics, both originals, both splendid fishermen. Marryat with his dry humour and marvelous reserves of knowledge, and Francis with his dogmatic ideas and sturdy John Bull way of expressing them, were the life and soul of fishermens messes and gatherings, wherever they might be. The anecdotes they could tell, the hot discussions waged over a wing or hackle or the general principles of dressing and using a fly were something to remember."

Marryat was a hard man to get to know really well. He was essentially a loner who minded his own business. If the first contact was favourable and the newcomer was a friend of a friend of Marryat's, then, as in the case with his first meeting with Halford, a long and fruitful alliance was possible. Thomas Sanctuary gives us a glimpse of Marryat the private man when he wrote this in the Field, March 1996;

"Marryat's death is the greater loss inasmuch as he was such a many-sided man. As a reader and raconteur he was not often excelled in private life. He wrote some good sonnets, delighted in such books as "Problems of Life and Mind." "Phantasms of the Living," &c., and knew his Shakespeare pretty much by heart; he also played a capital game of billiards. He was reserved by nature, essentially the student, and disliked above all things to be "drawn" or trotted out for the edification of any but his most intimate friends; though, when he chose to let him self go, he was the life and soul of the party, and enjoyed as he did an unlimited command of facial expression and original phraseology, it may be easily imagined what an acquisition he was to any social gathering."

In fishing messes all over southern England and especially in the mill at Houghton, Marryat was something of the court jester. He could be relied upon to entertain his friends, he was a great practical joker. It was during the days and nights spent at the old mill, and around the time that Marryat was introduced to Halford. I will let 'Red Spinner' explain:

"This was about the time when Marryat, who was full of spirits and harmless jokes as a boy, seized the opportunity of Francis being late for breakfast to place empty eggshells with the unbroken ends turned upwards, before Francis's plate. Loud was the explosion of laughter when the latter discovered the little trick that had been played upon him. He knew at once who was the author and with a "what a confounded child you are Marryat", joined in the merriment".

The mill was a hot-bed of dry fly angling fervour and long were the discussions that waged over the properties of hackle and hair, and how best they could be used to imitate the natural insect. Halford's thirst for knowledge, and Marryat's expertise at the vice were just the right combination for the mammoth task they had set themselves. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at the mill during the long summer evenings, with dinner being over, the port flowing and the pipes burning. What stories the old place could tell. Marryat's life had been a busy one, and in the early days an adventurous one. He had gathered an enormous amount of knowledge in his travels, and in a more serious vein, could be persuaded to expound on his theories, not just on fishing, but also on natural history and even more obscure subjects of science — what he called — "the teleology of the infinite". — In the convivial atmosphere at the mill, and surrounded by his friends, this was one of the few places where Marryat felt comfortable and able to cast off his inhibitions and reticence. A typical day at the riverside, and with breakfast at the mill being over, Marryat and Halford would set off on foot or bicycle to the river and the surrounding water meadows. Loaded down with bug nets and specimen jars, magnifiers, and all the other equipment they needed for the collection of the insects upon which the fish dine. In the course of the morning, hundreds of tiny winged insects would be gathered for further study back at the mill. This was the first time that such a comprehensive study had been undertaken on the invertebrate life of the chalk stream. The river Test was their main laboratory in the 1880s, the mill at Houghton was the ideal base for the study — of course, the river flows right past the door, well almost!!

When the two celebrated piscators ventured out with their rods, all the fish caught would go through an autopsy for examination of the stomach contents to see how good the choice of artificial fly had been when compared with the natural insects the fish had consumed. "Red Spinner" made these observations in the Field:

"I have heard men lightly joke about these two worthies going about the meadows with a bug net — it meant collecting hundreds of tiny insects, selecting the fittest preparing preserving and mounting them. It meant endless autopsy of fish. To stand by while Halford and Marryat with their scissors, forceps and whatnot laid out the contents of a trouts stomach was most fascinating".

There was no warning that the 'Houghton Fly Fishing Club" was coming to the end of its existence on 31st December 1892. It was a shock to everyone connected with the doings of the club. All the members would disperse to new fishings around the chalk country. Halford would end up on the Kennet, and come back to the Test at Mottisfont and the Oakley stream. Marryat had his fishing on the Avon above Salisbury. The club had come to its end after nearly twenty years, it is not too much to say, it was on these waters of the Test at Houghton, that the modern dry fly was hatched. M. and H. conducted most of their work on the dry fly along its banks and meadows. Marryat had fished there for over twenty years, although, before the club was formed in 1875, he did most of his work on the Itchen at Abbotts Barton and the Old Barge.

Marryat's views are not surprisingly, unrecorded, how I wonder did he feel about the end of the club. Halford writes in his autobiography, I think, for all the members about the shock and the sadness felt at its passing:

'The end of the Houghton Club. Truly Houghton was a pleasant place to live near. Words fail to express adequately the feeling of delight those never-to-be-forgotten days and evenings at glorious Test side created. Grim winter had vanished, the month of April, all smiles and some tears, reigned. Lovely was the walk through the Marsh Court water meadows by the riverside."

"Those who live near a river, and are constantly on its banks, see many interesting things, and some very strange ones. Kingsley truthfully said the ordinary wayfarer in the country saw but the outside of nature, whereas the angler saw the insides as well. - Below the place, some little way - was the charming and well - known mill, at which one of the members had quarters and dispensed lavish hospitalities to his friends, in fact, it may be said to have kept open house. The big waste water pool was noted for its heavy grayling, and many a goodly trout lived there as well" - "But our pleasant times on the beloved Test were coming to an end. Happily we did not know it. Eighteen halcyon seasons had flitted by all too rapidly, and then, without warning, the blow fell! The Houghton Club died suddenly. If one could, on December 31st 1892, have seen what was passing in the mind of him, who homeward bound with fish - bag full of grayling, as he crossed the bridge at boot island for the last time - a blended picture of present sorrow and past pleasure would have presented itself. Even as he stepped on the island and closed the wicket - from force of habit - the destruction of the bridge had already commenced on the far side. The Houghton Club died when in full vigour. At the time of its dissolution the list is full and with four names down for any occurring vacancies."

When the "Houghton (Stockbridge) Fishing Club" regained the water lost in 1873 on the 1st January 1893, they did not rent it back, it was bought lock stock and barrel. The club's journal recorded the event.: "This day will be forever memorable in the Club Annals. A lasting debt of gratitude is due to those members of the "Houghton Club" who at the very critical moment, provided the greater part of the capital necessary for the purchase of our long lost water. This day we re-enter on the choicest part of the best trout river in England, with the satisfaction of knowing that we are no longer the lease holders. Our work, however, is not yet finished. Further purchases (small in comparison to this) must be made to make our position secure. In taking the fishery over we find the banks in a shameful state of neglect, and the stock of fish very much smaller than when we gave up possession. All this is being remedied."

I am not suprised that the stocks of fish were smaller than in 1973, the members of the disbanded club were some of the best dry fly fisherman in the Country. The shameful state of neglect the "Houghton Fishing Club" found the water in, is due in part I think to the desire of the "Houghton Fishing Club" to have as natural a fishery as possible. So perhaps it was somewhat overgrown in places and the banks broken. The was evidently some animosity between the two club's. The club at Stockbridge cock-hoop at getting their old water back.

While the defunct club, very sorrowful at the loss, though I think reasons were the lack of having enough finance to out bid the gentleman from Stockbridge, and not any lack of commitment to the continuation of their twenty year union. All through the tenancy of the "Houghton Fly Fishing Club" through the pages of the Field and the Fishing Gazette the activities of the dry fly pioneers, and the workings of a chalk stream fishery were laid bare for all to read about. This to a large extent stopped when the downstreamers and blowers from Stockbridge took the water back, and being the very private club that they are, went about their business as if the intervening years had not happened.

So instead of having today the two club's guarding the history of the dry fly. One is almost forgotten, and the other so hushed that it would take more than this humble writer to prise the truth from them, even if it were possible (which it is not) to do so at this late date. So much of the history of our sport died with the loss of "The "Houghton Fly Fishing Club". Why, Oh why, did they (the Stockbridge Club) not realize at the time in 1893, that, what they had taken back at Houghton and all that had happened in the preceeding twenty odd years, would be lost for ever.

This is the last in this series of articles. The telling of this extraordinary gentleman's life is not finished by a long way! There are many areas of research that I am still involved in regarding Mr. Marryat. What we must never forget, is that all those years ago, he was the leader of the pack in the development of chalk stream dry fly fishing.

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