George Selwyn Marryat

George Selwyn Marryat

The Dry-fly Box Mystery.- Part 1, By Simon J. Ward.

You may wander the banks of the river Test today, or stand on the Sheepbridge, which is, arguably, the most famous landmark on the river. Gazing upstream towards the, now long gone, thatched fishing hut with the broad stream racing toward you across its gravelly shallow, you might notice the grayling sipping at something invisible on the surface, and linger awhile.

You have little difficulty, perhaps, in imagining yourself back in the not too distant past, when the great dry fly revolution was unfolding within the Test valley. Little has really changed, or has it? Who might this be appearing out of the autumn mist from the direction of the old fishing hut, rod in hand? It can’t possibly be, but! The spectre shambles towards me. Might he speak? I stand very still; the air around me feels disturbed. The alders opposite shiver, on a morning that is windless. Something, or someone, has brushed past. Rooted to the spot, my eyes make out a figure passing around the bend below and out of sight. I feel drawn and follow at a respectful distance hoping, just hoping, to witness the ‘Master’ at work. But at the bend there is no one to be seen, merely trampled rushes and crushed grass where someone has knelt, out of sight, to stalk a fish. Could it have been ‘He’, returned to his old haunts. Might I have felt the merest tap on the shoulder? Come on Ward; snap out of it, time to get back to the car. With a wistful glance over my shoulder and with thoughts of my next visit, I wander back.

Sheepbridge - River Test, Hampshire
Sheepbridge - River Test Hampshire

Flights of fancy perhaps, but this very place is so steeped in fly fishing folklore, that you would have to be pretty insensitive not to detect something of the atmosphere that pervades this hallowed place. Together with Abbott’s Barton and the Old Barge, both on the river Itchen Itchen, the Sheepbridge beat and the rest of the Houghton water on the Test are among the most celebrated trout fishings’ anywhere in the world.
The dry fly revolution, for that is what it was, spread from these tranquil valleys. The ghosts, or figments of my imagination, haunt me each time I am fortunate to be by one of these lovely streams

Why should we hold on to what is past?  Fly fishing has moved on so much.  Modern advances have largely overshadowed all the development work undertaken with the dry fly during the nineteenth century.  This is no bad thing, as move forward we must.  However, I do feel the importance of remembering our history. We are very fortunate that fly fishing has, perhaps, the richest, most inspired literature of any country sport.  Join any gathering of knowledgeable chalk stream fly fishers today, be it in the fishing hut, hotel or pub, or just by the river. 

Joyous gatherings  of anglers
Joyous gatherings of anglers.

The conversation will never be far away from mention of the great names from the past, either as a point of reference, or to emphasise a reasoned argument relating to the many parts that go to make up this intriguing, if sometimes frustrating, but never dull, pastime.

This was how it was for me ten years ago when I became interested in Mr. Marryat, not only as a fly fisherman of renown but, later, as a person and family man.  He has had a marked impact on my life.  I developed an unquenchable thirst to know — to find out.  The irony, however, was that I started with the end rather than the beginning, when I unearthed his death certificate.

Just who was George Selwyn Marryat and what was he like.  Major Turle referred to him as: “unconventional, vigorous and vivid”.  William Senior called him a “Prince of fly fishers.”  To Francis Francis he was always my “friend M.”  Frederic M. Halford called him his “constant companion.”  To myself, nearly ten years ago, and historically, Marryat was merely one of a crowd of wealthy gentlemen who appeared to have spent most of their time fly fishing on the rivers Test and Itchen in Hampshire, drinking good port and smoking after-dinner pipes of tobacco.  Dr. Thomas Sanctuary, his life long friend, said this of him.

1 “He was reserved by nature, essentially the student, and disliked above all things to be “drawn” or totted out for the edification of any but his most intimate friends; though when he chose to let himself 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 imagined what an acquisition he was to any social gathering”.

Marryat was born on 20th June 1840, at Chewton Glen, a large country house on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire.  How did this infant grow up to be the expert and most accomplished dry fly fisherman of his time?  Marryat’s family were of the officer classes, Army and Navy, where son followed father into the service after schooling at the same colleges.  It was against this background of restrained affluence, that the youngster grew into boyhood.  George, or Selwyn as his family and close friends knew him, was educated at Winchester College in Hampshire between 1854 and 1857.  During his time at Winchester, where the river Itchen glides through the college grounds, it is on record that the college students fished with dry flies at this time.  The young Marryat became very skilled with the long fly rods in use then.  He quickly appreciated the need to cast his fly upstream to rising trout.  Learning on the Itchen to listen to his betters when it came to the intricacies of fishing the early dry fly, he must have been a willing student.  In 1857, Francis Francis who, as angling editor of the Field, commanded great respect, wrote of the dry fly for the first time, calling it, “an established institution on that river”; he was writing of the Itchen.   Reference to ‘dry-fly’ fishing, at this time, hinges on the use of well dressed, but dry, wet flies as described by Pulman in 1841.  These should not be confused with the later Marryat patterns being specifically designed to float more positively, in short, the modern dry-fly

The Old Barge Water - River Itchen

1857 was Marryat’s final year at the college he was 17, and Francis 37.  That they became acquainted at this time does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility.  He would, I think, have been a reader of the Francis articles and college work notwithstanding, fished on the Old Barge water of the Itchen whenever he could. 

The Old Barge Water

Francis came down from Twickenham frequently to fish the same water.  It is not difficult to see that their paths may have crossed at sometime.  I would suggest that these meetings, quite possibly, were the catalyst for Marryat’s initial interest in the development of the chalk stream dry fly.

From Winchester, he entered the Army as ‘Cornet’ in the 6th Dragoon Guards, he served in India from 1859 to the end of 1861, this was in the aftermath of the ‘great mutiny’ by the native forces.  Resigning his commission of 2nd Lieutenant at the end of 1864, he now travelled to Australia where he became a stock rider in the bush.  During his time in Australia and having scant financial resources, Marryat was alone and living on his wits, earning money where he could as many a well born English gentleman had done before.  He would travel from cattle station to sheep station riding considerable distances every week rounding-up stray sheep and cattle.  Lonely as Marryat may have been at times for his mother country, perhaps in search of some inner-strength that would serve him in later life upon his return; he almost certainly lived a lonely and nomadic existence in the outback.

It is a fact that many of flyfishing’s most valuable historical artefacts have been allowed to pass unnoticed into oblivion.  The need to have these gems from our flyfishing past documented, and available for study, must always, it seems to me, be paramount.  One past, distinguished, member of the Flyfishers’ Club of London recognised this need and it is through him that we have today more than an insight into our chalk stream heritage.  G.E.M. Skues was disturbed by the receding history of flyfishing.  This master of the nymph recognised too that, before recent history became ancient history, he could do something to ensure that we always had in our modern minds the very essence of this history.  Skues has now become part of this history and, hopefully, looks down upon us from his lofty stream-side seat with some satisfaction.  In the Spring and Summer numbers of the Flyfishers’ Club Journal 1923, Skues went to extraordinary lengths to analyse a fly book and its contents.  This was no ordinary fly book; there is irrefutable proof that it once belonged to George Selwyn Marryat — Marryat’s friends called this book the ‘Portmanteau’.  H.S. Hall tells us what Marryat said to him in jest:—

2 “I can just lay this down (the Portmanteau) on the bank till the fish crowd round and I can pick the big ones, saying, ‘Shoo, fish, you are only 2lbs.’ To the smaller ones.”

This fly book, passed from Marryat to his good friend Basil Field, thrice President of the “Flyfishers’ Club”.  When Field died in December 1908 the fly book was acquired by James Rolt KC.  Skues gained permission from Rolt to review the contents of the ‘Portmanteau’ and he concluded this review with the following.

3 “There may, however, be members of the Flyfishers’ Club or others who occasionally or possibly frequently fished with Marryat in those great days and it would be of immense interest to angling history if any of them would recall for the benefit of posterity whether Marryat continued to rely on the book under review to the end, or whether he latterly carried a fly box for chalk stream and used the book (the Portmanteau) for the rough water fishing of other rivers.”

In the early 1980s ‘The Portmanteau’ was sold on behalf of the Flyfishers’ Club to an anonymous buyer and has, unbelievably, become lost to research.  If it could be traced then much could yet be discovered about Marryat’s, evolving, fly dressing practises all those years ago.  And in light of my own new discoveries about Marryat and his chalk stream fly box, postulated on by Skues in 1923, many fascinating comparisons could still be made.

In October 1892, F. M. Halford writing in the Field under his pen name of “Detached Badger” wrote the following; unaware that Marryat would be dead within four years.

4 “I first met F. F. (Francis Francis) 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 (Marryat) and learnt from him, all I know of dry fly fishing.  Of those departed it is permissible to sing the praises; but of him, the most unselfish of men, all good and honest fishermen should wish that he may long be spared to give benefit of his varied experience to another generation of dry fly fishermen.”

Marryat, David Wilson, Nat Lloyd and Halford on The Sheepbridge 1893 Marryat, David Wilson, Nat Lloyd and Halford on The Sheepbridge 1893

Over the decades since Selwyn Marryat’s untimely death, the memory of this mighty fly fisher has rested on the testimony of the people who knew him.  One hundred and four years ago on 14th February 1896, he passed from this world.  Marryat had perhaps the greatest influence on English fly fishermen and fly fishing in his time.  He died leaving behind him the most uncontested reputation in the history of trout fly fishing on the chalk streams of southern England.  William Senior, then, angling editor of the Field, recalled his:

5 "Wholly beautiful character, a more agreeable companion in short, there never was than GSM.  It is not too much perhaps to state that Mr. Marryat was practically the father of the now fashionable dry fly school of trout fishermen.”

He was only fifty-six years old when influenza struck him down.  After three weeks of delirium, he lapsed into a nine-hour coma; finally succumbing to a stroke that left him paralysed down his right side.  His ashes now rest beneath a simple marble tablet under the cedar trees in the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire.  Even in death, modest and reserved — as he had been in life.  He passed from this earth without leaving any generally known published work on fly fishing.  There is only one proper title for this man of genius.  He is truly the “Father of the Dry Fly” as we know it today.  Marryat’s ethos was at the cutting edge of dry fly fishing knowledge on the chalk streams of Southern England for nearly thirty years.

The Southern chalk streams, where the dry fly was rehearsed and finally given its command performance, were spoken of in almost hushed tones by the bucolics that fished on them.  The dry fly pioneers were an extraordinary band of wealthy dedicated fly fishermen.  The Victorian fly fishers’ leisure time was unlimited, but they were not idle.  Although there were others, if we look upon Marryat and Francis as perhaps the earliest two gentlemen at work on this method of catching chalk stream trout, then the third man, thus forming a triumvirate, must be Henry Sinclair Hall.  Hall reinvented the eyed hook, for which he claimed most if not all the credit for himself.  The truth, however, is somewhat different.  In the mid 1870s Hall was working with George Bankard who solved many of the problems connected with the eyed hook.  Bankard, probably through exasperation, gave up the unequal struggle of trying to work with him, Hall being a blatant self-publicist.  I suspect Bankard simply went fishing.  The same can be said of the split-winged dry fly.  Hall was quick to point out in the many articles and letters he wrote for the Fishing Gazette and the Field, that he had worked it all out for himself and deserved all the credit.  It was some years later, following Marryat’s death, that he finally admitted the true way that his hooks were married to the new fly dressings.  Marryat’s criterion for the perfect hook was “the temper of an angel and the penetration of a prophet; fine enough to be invisible: and strong enough to kill a bull in a ten acre field.”  The truth of the matter is that the split-winged floater, both single and double dressed, evolved under the skilled hand and watchful eye of Marryat in the late 1870s and early 1880s.  Viewed by many people today, Hall is seen as the originator, Marryat’s pivotal roll seems to have been largely forgotten, that view must surely change.  Long before Halford arrived on the banks of the river Test in 1877 Marryat and Francis Francis had enjoyed a very close friendship.  William Senior wrote of this brotherhood.

6 “The manner in which two eminent dry-fly fishermen became acquainted suggests 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 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 sense of humour and marvellous reserves of knowledge, and Francis with his dogmatic ideas and sturdy John Bull way of expressing them, were the life and soul of fishermans messes and gatherings, wherever they might be.”

The spring day in 1879 that saw the start of dry fly fishing’s greatest partnership 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 river Test.  It was in this hut that Halford confessed 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.

Over the years, there has been much speculation as to just what kind of relationship Marryat had with Halford.  Some have said that after their near six year collaboration on Halford’s first book Floating Flies and How to Dress Them published during March 1886, their differences were so great they never had anymore to do with each other again.  This is not so.  I have evidence that places Halford as a house guest of Marryat in 1891.  Just as in any partnership, I am sure they did have differences of opinion.  Halford first came to fish the river Test in 1877 from the river Wandle where it was the practise to fish with the dry fly in the mid 1860s.  Whereas Marryat learned his craft on two rivers.  First with the wet fly on the river Frome in Dorset fished in the George Pulman way in the early 1850s, and while at Winchester College (1854-1857) he fished with the dry fly upstream on the River Itchen.  The choice between dry fly, wet fly, right or wrong, was years later, and some have said, began the parting of the ways and the break up of his partnership with Halford.  Marryat liked to fish on the rain fed (freestone) rivers of the North and Southwest of England, where even today the traditional wet fly sits alongside the dry fly as normal practise.  Marryat was still a boy of 13, perhaps even younger, when he first began fly fishing, Halford however, started fly fishing on the Wandle as late as 1867, when he was 23, knowing only the dry wet-fly from the outset.  I do not believe that Marryat’s liking for the wet-fly on more turbulent streams turned Halford against him.

One man who was to become the provider of the new dry flies and read all the early letters and articles of Hall’s in the fishing publications was George Holland, a fishing tackle manufacturer who lived far away from the chalk streams of Hampshire at Failsworth in Lancashire.  Using Hall’s written descriptions, Holland set about tying these new dry flies which he sent to Hall for his opinion.  They entered into a lengthy correspondence about the merits of the new hooks and the dressing methods for them, which we must remember, were worked out largely by Marryat.  Poring over Hall’s articles one might think that he alone was responsible for Holland’s expertise at the tying vice but this is not so.  It was Marryat and his life long friend Dr. Thomas Sanctuary Jr. who were instrumental in bringing Holland south to Salisbury in Wiltshire in the latter half of 1885, soon after Marryat had moved there himself.  They housed Holland and his family, first in Crane Street and later in Bridge Street.  Dr. Sanctuary tells us that this was Marryat’s most scientific period of fly tying, in which every detail was studied and worked out by Marryat himself and Holland under Marryat’s instruction.  It was with Marryat’s sole tutoring that Holland was inducted into the world of the commercial dry fly dresser.  It is well noted that Halford’s name is not mentioned in any way with this period of work. 

Marryat was highly proficient in the use of the microscope.  He was expert at specimen mounting and in the general application of the instrument.  In latter years, his special study was Karyokinesis.  In the 1880s and 90s, Marryat began working with the camera, taking many chalk stream studies, if only these early plates could be found they might prove to be a unique record of the nineteenth century chalk streams.  Marryat posessed a variety of splendid instruments with which he constantly worked, linking his abilities with the camera together with the microscope and Karyokinetic studies.  During this period, photo-micrography was at the leading edge of micro-biological science.  Karyokinesis is a biological term — it means, (I am advised) the division of the cell nucleus by mitosis.  Cytology is the branch of biology that deals with the structures and functions of the cells, and mitosis, the division of the nucleus to produce sister cells, is part of this.  Heavy stuff and I do not for one minute fully understand it.  Goodness knows where this study would have led had he lived longer.  Whole stretches of river re-populated, by rearing ephemerids artificially perhaps?

Nor does Sanctuary ever talk of Halford in connection with this work, all he says is that “Halford was an occasional visitor to Marryat’s house in the Cathedral Close.”  Before Holland moved-on to Winchester in 1893, Salisbury was the centre of the dry-fly world.  Dr. Sanctuary spent many hours of many days with Marryat dissecting and mounting entomological specimens for the microscope.  Sanctuary further states that Marryat “got bitten by a mania for microscopical research.”  This research went in concert with the work Marryat was involved with while teaching Holland the intricacies of fly dressing, and, it has to be said, the work Marryat was doing with Halford on both the Test and Itchen.

The top of the Sheepbridge Shallows on the Test.
The top  of the Sheepbridge Shallows on the Test. 

In 1897, just over a year after Marryat’s passing, his eldest daughter married.  Marryat and his wife had been blessed with three children, all girls. It was through this marriage that I, at last, had a male line to follow.  September 1906, Marryat’s third grandchild was born, following in his grandfather’s footsteps he went to Winchester College in 1920.  He too was an avid fly fisher. In 1948, they settled in South Africa.  Sadly, Marryat’s grandson died in April 1988.  And his widow passing from us early in 1999, just before my second visit to South Africa.

Coincidentally, I too have a family connection with South Africa, during 1994 my South African relatives were in the UK on holiday.  At the time I had not connected Marryat with South Africa.  During a family gathering, a lengthy conversation with ‘Taffy’, my cousin’s husband, enabled me, three months later having linked Marryat with South Africa, to request ‘Taffys’ assistance in locating any descendants.  Shortly after New Year 1995, after a good deal of detective work, he found the offspring that I was already sure existed.  And Eureka! they did have artefacts handed down from Marryat himself.

After some delay, I learned that two of Halford’s books from Marryat’s own library had survived.  Halford had inscribed both books and presented them to Marryat upon publication.  A further six months passed until July 1995 when I was made aware of the most important discovery of all.  And this was to be my, metaphorical, ‘pot-of-gold’.  I discovered with undescribable elation that ‘Taffy’ could confirm, it was a fact,  the chalk stream dry fly box that Skues alluded to back in 1932 was a reality — it definitely existed!

Another six months were to drag by before I learned about the contents of the box.  In all there were 178 of Marryat’s own dry flies within the 48 compartments of the box.  Twenty more months slowly passed before my wife and I touched down at Cape Town International Airport.  I now had three weeks (or so I thought) to study the fly box and its contents.  ‘Taffy’ had been given permission by the family to take the books and the fly box back to Cape Town to await my visit.  I leave the last lines of part one to Major Turle, who thought up the knot that bears his name.  The Turle Knot that kept many a strong fish from escaping with those intricate split-winged creations embedded in their jaw.

7 “For twenty or more years Marryat and his Tam O’ Shanter were a regular institution on the Test, and great was the sorrow expressed by rich and poor when it was heard we should see him amongst us no more. — A remarkable man, and one, perhaps, who has helped on dry fly fishing as much if not more, than any other man during the latter part of the century; and Marryat’s doing’s and Marryat’s sayings will be remembered and repeated wherever the gentle craft is known and practiced in Great Britain, and possibly in many a distant colony besides.”

The Dry-fly Box Mystery.- Part 2

Reference Material:
  1. Dr. Thomas Sanctuary Jr. Stray Memories of Selwyn Marryat. The Field, March 4th 1896.
  2. G. E. M. Skues, “Side-Lines Side-Lights and Reflections”, London, Seeley Service & Co. Ltd., 1932. Chapter XII, “The Portmanteau”, page 86.
  3. G.E.M. Skues, “Side-Lines Side-Lights and Reflections”, London, Seeley Service & Co. Ltd., 1932. Chapter XII, “The Portmanteau”, page 92.
  4. Detached Bager (Halford’s pen name) “Houghton A Retrospect” The Field. October 15th 1892
  5. Red Spinner (William Senior angling editor of The Field) George Selwyn Marryat: “In Memoriam”, The Field, February 22nd 1896.
  6. Red Spinner (William Senior angling editor of The Field) George Selwyn Marryat: “In Memoriam”, The Field, February 22nd 1896.
  7. Major W.G. Turle, “Some Reminiscences of George Selwyn Marryat” The Fishing Gazette, February 29th 1896
copyright © 2018 -