Fly fishing history

A cast from the past


Some months ago I was given an old fishing catalogue from a company called Foster Bros, of Ashbourne in Derbyshire (‘Makers of the World’s Finest Fishing Tackle’):

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It’s an intriguing little publication and throws an interesting light on the past. There’s no explicit date, but I’ve estimated that it was published in around 1964. The foreword states that Fosters ‘have now modestly celebrated their bi-centenary. The firm was selling tackle in 1763‘. So spool forward 200 years and add a bit and you come to 1964. That was my rationale.

I was curious to know the cost of fly fishing 50-odd years ago, so for a bit of fun have tried to ‘update’ the prices. This is a crude exercise and almost certainly flawed. What I’ve done is to calculate the ‘modern’ price based on the average weekly wage in 1964 as compared to today’s. The average weekly wage in 1964, according to somewhere or other on the that great Oracle we call Google, was £16. Today it is £520 or thereabouts. So if something cost £16 in the catalogue, that’s a week’s wages, ie it would be equivalent £520 now. As I say, no doubt a flawed analysis as it takes no account of actual disposable income and so forth, but whatever.

First stop, the rods. The majority of the rods in the catalogue are of built cane of this ilk:

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There’s a wide range of sizes and styles, as one might expect. The priciest trout rod is the FJ De Luxe. ‘This rod is named and dedicated as a tribute to Mr Fred Jones, a master craftsman, who has been building rods of unsurpassed quality whilst in our employ for over 55 years‘. Go Fred!

A 9.5 ft, three-piece it is ‘Built of finest selected “Duracane. Solid cork “Easy Grip” handle with screw grip reel fitting and rubber button, spiral lock joints, Agatine tip and butt ring, full open bridge rings. Closely silk wrapped. Spare top joint. Aluminium carrier tube. An ideal outfit to take when fishing abroad.’

Yours for a mere £20. So on my calculator that’s equivalent to £650 today. The rest of the range varies between around £10 and £14 (£325-455 in today’s money. ish) The least expensive is their 7ft Air Sprite. ‘A delight to handle‘, and a steal at £9 (£290).

Salmon rods are a bit pricier, as expected. The 14 or 15ft ‘Perfect’ (‘They are light in weight, but the power developed is astonishing‘) comes in at £24 (£780).

I was fascinated by the ‘all steel fly rods’, which I gather were referred to as ‘tank aerials’. These are apparently ‘Unaffected by climate and very popular abroad as they withstand extremes of temperature and rough usage‘. The 9ft, 3pc Apollo Berwick would have set you back £14 17s 6d (around £480 today. Blimey).

Peppered throughout the catalogue are customers’ testimonials, which are entertaining. One happy angler was AEB, who wrote, “I should like to compliment you on  the wonderful performance of your 9ft 6in ‘Champion’ Rod, and during the season I have caught 385 trout with this rod.”

And this from THB: ‘I am delighted with the salmon rod I had from you in the spring. It’s a beautiful weapon‘.

Apart from cane and steel (!) the firm also offered some state-of-the art rods made from a new hi-tech material called fibreglass. Their ‘Glasslyn’ range of hollow fibre rods (‘A wonderful invention’) are ‘of superior quality and finish and should not be compared with an inferior type which are sometimes offered for sale‘.

The fly rods in this range started at £9 9s 0d for a 7ft, to £15 10s 0d for the 12ft salmon rod (£300-500 now). Interestingly the firm also offered a ‘budget’ range of fibreglass rods, the Fidelity series. ‘Hollow fibre glass fishing rods have returned to favour and they fulfill a need for a general knockabout rod for holiday fishing or for those who have only the opportunity to fish on a few occasions each year. To meet this demand we offer a variety of rods at popular prices.’

It continues with a fantastic euphemism: ‘They serve a very useful purpose and for those who must of necessity study economy...’ Brilliant!

But if you consider that today we can get a ‘budget’ rod for about thirty quid, the cheapest fly rod in the Fidelity range, aimed at the ‘economy-studying’ class is £7 7s 0d. That’s almost half an average weekly wage – about £230 according to my dodgy calculator!

When I first saw the prices and ‘translated’ them to something akin to a contemporary equivalent I was rather shocked and assumed that it was massively more expensive to buy a rod then than it is now. But in fact a hand-built cane rod will today set you back anything from about £400 upwards, and probably closer to a grand. I suppose what is interesting is the relative lack of anything that is genuinely inexpensive – something we have the luxury of these days presumably due to new materials, technology and the opening up of global trade.

Anyhow, Foster Bros didn’t just sell rods.

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The catalogue has a somewhat limited range of fly reels. I counted just seven models, ranging from £2 0s 6d for the Condex (‘light aluminium, splendid value‘) to £6 16s 0d for the salmon version of the Beaudex. That’s about £65-220 today. Maybe not too out of kilter with today’s prices.

They also did fixed spool reels and multipliers. The most expensive of the latter, indeed the costliest reel in the book, was the Ambassadeur 6000,  ‘without doubt the most wonderful piece of equipment any angler could wish to own‘. And at £12 17s 6d (£450) probably not that many anglers did get to own one.

Fly line was mostly silk:

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It didn’t come too cheap either. Thirty yards of Acme No. 3 metal centred double tapered pure silk line would have set you back £3 11s 6d, about £110 today. I’m not sure what the metal centre is, but presumably for a sinking line.

There’s a brilliant testimonial to the strength of the line: ‘Two lives have actually been saved from drowning by the Acme line, and the drowning men brought safely to the bank‘.

As far as leader material was concerned, Foster Bros swore by their patented camauflaged silk worm gut. ‘Have you tried Camouflaged Gut? You will be astonished at the sport it brings.’ Nylon gets short shrift (though they did sell it): ‘The dry fly purists still prefer silk worm gut to nylon. It presents the dry fly on the water more naturally than the limp nylon monofilament product‘. So there.

Three yards of gut cast with two droppers would set you back 7/6 (£12!).

The company stocked a selection of fishing bags:

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These ranged in price from 48 bob (£75) for the Lochinver (‘An entirely new design in fishing bags…’) to £5 10s 0d (£180.00) for the splendid combined fishing bag and wicker creel. Actually, if these were quality products those prices aren’t that eye-watering. Take a look at some of the Hardy bags today and the prices are not too different.

Finally the catalogue cleverly had the four centre pages given over to colour and to flies. There’s nothing more alluring to the fly angler than ranks of flies in all their technicolour glory:

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The catalogue makes a strong case for the effectiveness of their fly range: ‘With over 200 years’ experience in practical fly dressing, a series of fly dressings have been evolved that have proved again and again to be the most successful artificials known to the fly maker’s artSituated as we are, close to the River Dove with its crystal clear water, on which the father of angling, Izaak Walton, frequently plied his art, it has been found that flies that kill on this water where the trout and grayling are “educated” will kill elsewhere on any water where trout abound‘.

A dozen split-winged dry flies would have set you back 14/-, or £22 in today’s money (sort of…).

Anyhow, as I said the catalogue provides a great little glimpse into the past. Foster’s no longer seems to exist, which is a pity as it comes across as a really solid family firm. Last word to happy customer KWG: ‘I notice that when local firms fail to help, Foster come to my rescue every time. Congratulations.’



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