George Selwyn Marryat

The Dry-fly Box Mystery.-Part 2, By Simon J. Ward.

No insects hatched in the heat of the day, but come late afternoon, some activity by fish moving in the surface layer of the stream spelt the beginning of a magical sundown.  The timeless phrase of G.E.M. Skues summed it up perfectly — “The evening rise under apricot skies”.

William Senior (Red Spinner) called Marryat, ‘Prince of fly fishers’

It was against this backdrop that we fished hard into the after-glow.  Looking upstream into a Constable ether, the insects, hundreds of thousands of them, like specks of phosphorous, were caught in the dying embers of the departing sun.  Darting, now drifting, sinking, now climbing, finally their coupling and egg laying over, they fall, onto the thick cloying surface film, a sad end to their ephemeral lives. They float down on the current, transfixed and cruciform, their brief existence slowly ebbing away.

Under Apricot Skies

Large spent mayflies, tiny golden and amber spinners alike.  Then in a moment, a visible ring and a surface kiss tells us the trout are finning through this edible soup.  Another and another, until there are fish rising above us as far as our eyes can see.  We take turns covering fish, while the air feels charged with something special, ghosts from the past share our excitement — who really knows!  Some fish are missed due to our exhilaration, but a few are bought to the waiting net.

Returning to the fishing hut over dew-covered and mist-laden meadows, we were retracing the footsteps of past, master-anglers.  Just as they had returned to their “Piscatoribus Sacrumlower down the mainstream, the talk would be of fish caught and this or that four pounder lost at the net a week earlier, or simply the magic of the hour.  Or how the quartered moon seemed to deter rising fish as it climbed above the spinney.  It is at such times that one’s senses may become intensified at the transition of day into night, intoxicated by the scent of wild flowers and damp grass underfoot.  It is dark by the time the hut is reached.  We light the gas lamp and boil the kettle for a warming mug of tea, pour ourselves a measure of Scottish nectar and settle back in one of the old but comfortable armchairs.  Tonight the talk is of sea trout and the planning of a mid-summer junket to the Welsh hills.  For an hour or more stories roll around the hut about past escapades with the ‘silver-ghost of the night’.  For one of the party, it will be his first encounter with the sewin at night.  He is advised that it will be another important part of his fly fishing education.  He feels excitement tinged with, not a little, trepidation, and for him there are many questions yet unanswered.  The gathering breaks up, the spell broken for another day.  We take our leave and journey into the soft Hampshire night, already thinking of the next time we fish —

An Abbott’s Barton Sunset

“The evening rise under apricot skies”.

This fusion of the dry-fly and associated thoughts has only been possible for me because nearly a decade ago I became fascinated by the life of George Selwyn Marryat.  But what of all the other men who were active about the chalk streams more than a hundred years ago?  If only we knew more, and to paraphrase G.E.M. Skues; to inquire of Cotton and Walton the introductory clues to the dry-fly.  To confer with Pulman about his dry-wet-flies.  If only we could talk to Ronalds and Aldam about their respective methods of fly dressing and dyeing.  To discuss with Charles Kingsley the Alder, the Caperer, and the tiny flies he so detested.  To probe, perchance, the covert manoeuvrings of G.S. Marryat, and to memorise the impolite, haughty scholarship of Francis Francis.  Can we meet again with Carlisle, Turle, and all the other giants of the chalk stream from the golden age of the dry-fly renaissance?  It must be enough that we never forget them.  What will have become of our chalk stream heritage one hundred years thence?  Will our forebears still be revered as I think they presently are?  Today, Marryat’s proper place within the history of dry-fly fishing is undoubtedly obscured, because of all who have written about the “Dry-Fly Revolution”.  And since all the main protagonists have now passed-on, modern writers choose largely to ignore his vigorous contribution with a few scant sentences.  Rightly or wrongly, Halford, as the author, received all the accolades.  For me, Marryat because he wrote very little, makes him the grander, more fascinating character, and for most people who have found him interesting, an enigma. 

It was this ten-year fascination coupled with such a celebrated, if shadowy, figure and my research uncovering the existence of a dry-fly box, the property of Marryat’s South Afican descendants, which caused my wife and I to decide upon a change of holiday venue for 1995

A warm South African sun greeted our arrival at the airport in Cape Town.  Our first visit to the continent was special in many ways but, although principally a holiday.  I had agreed to give some illustrated talks about the chalk streams and Marryat, to some South African Flyfishers’ with, I was promised some fishing thrown in.  The prospect of actually holding ‘the’ fly box which Marryat had used on many a long summer’s day back in the old Queen’s reign, dominated my thoughts and emotions.  This was to be the culmination of my own ‘quest’ and soon I would have sight of, my personal, ‘Holy Grail’.  Or would it be?  Would I soon be disappointed?  Was I to be devastasted by the, possibly, bogus-nature of a mere item of old fishing equipment that had driven us all these thousands of miles?  Such thoughts were inescapable as we began our three weeks sojourn.  Anxiously, I awaited my first glimpse of the box.

Marryat’s descendants are quite sure that Marryat did indeed make the box himself.  It was, and still is, normal practise for the manufactures to put their company badge on the lid of their products, be it Hardy Brothers, Farlows of Pall Mall or others.  I expected to see such a  mark on the box.  But nowhere on the box are there any badge or serial numbers stamped into the metal.  Roy Darlington, the present custodian of the historic Abbott’s Barton water on the river Itchen, in my many conversations with him has a theory that I can only concur with.  The design and construction of the fly box could quite possibly have been a joint effort between Marryat, H.S. Hall and George Holland.  To them, it must have been obvious that something to contain and protect the dry-flies other than a fly book, which would crush, would have great importance. 

The Marryat Dry Fly Box

Faultless Engineering.

If we consider the various disciplines the three of them encompassed, Marryat - the great innovator, Hall the schoolmaster at Bristol’s Clifton College and head of the Military and Engineering side of the college; Holland, fishing tackle manufacturer and the purveyor of the new split-winged dry-fly.  They had all the facilities and skills at their fingertips for the manufacture of such, prototype, dry-fly boxes.  The box is well used and has that look of great age, and dates, I believe, from the early to mid 1880s, the period when Marryat and Hall were working on perfecting the split-winged floater and the eyed hook.  Tests on the paint, in the U.K. show it to be of the type typical of the period although failing to date it precisely.  There is now no doubt in my mind that this is Marryat’s chalk stream fly box.  Skues discussed its possible existence in 1923 and again in 1932 and it has impeccable provenance coming as it does from Marryat’s family.  And, most importantly, many of the dry flies contained inside correspond to his unique method of dressing the new dry flies of that period.  Remember too, he largely gave up fly tying after 1885 when George Holland moved to Salisbury.  It seems unlikely that Marryat actually made the box with his own hands, but almost certainly the box was fashioned to his exact specifications.  Another significant aspect of the box is that it has spring-loaded lids fitted to all the compartments, another innovation that predates the Richard Wheatley boxes by three decades.  It became clear very quickly that I could not do all the research and photography on the box in South Africa in so short a time.

The great day arrived when I met the descendants of Marryat in Johannesburg.  In a tranquil, tree-lined street in a suburb of the city, I found the large bungalow set in its own grounds.  And there sitting on the terrace by the swimming pool, for nearly four hours I talked with two delightful ladies about GSM and his life.  One was the widow of Marryats’ grandson and the other lady a great grandaughter.  M’s grandson and his young bride (who is South African), moved to SA from the UK as long ago as 1948, and their children were born there.  I telephoned the owner of the box from the great grand daughter’s home, his business commitments precluded our meeting at this time and it was to be a further two years before we met.  Over the telephone, I explained to him the important need to document and photograph the fly box and it’s contents and that the three-weeks that I had was insufficient time to do this work.  He very graciously allowed me to return to the U.K. with the books and fly box for further, in-depth, analysis.  Two years later almost to the day, we finally met the gentleman, back in Johannesburg, in order to return the artefacts.  My wife and I enjoyed a wonderful evening out at his farm.  It was here that he was to deliver the real bombshell.  Totally un-prompted he announced to us that he would be very happy for me to take the books and the fly box back to the U.K permanently.  I recovered my composure, as best I could, and thanked him profusely. The great grandson assisted my deep shock by commenting that this would be more fitting than simply gathering dust on his book shelves, I could, perhaps, gather more information about the box and its contents back in England.  There is one very important thing I must stress, these treasures still belong to Marryat’s great grand son and his family, they will never be sold by me or given up to anyone who would have little regard for their importance.  I have the books and fly box, only on extended loan, and have seen to their safe keeping.

The Author, fishing water known to Marryat

The two books, both leather bound Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice (1889) and Making A Fishery (1895), Halford inscribed and presented to Marryat upon their publication.  In presenting these two books to his “teacher”, Halford perhaps felt he was recording for posterity (privately at least) just how much in Marryat’s debt he was.  I firmly believe that without Marryat’s inspired guidance these books might not have been written.

Halford’s inscription to his friend.
Halford’s inscription to his friend. 

Look at the date. Three months later GSM was dead
Look at the date.
Three months later GSM was dead

The fly box is intriguing, as I have said. There are no manufacturer’s marks anywhere on it.  Nothing to show where it might have been made, further supporting the family’s statement that it was indeed made by Marryat himself, or at least I think, made to his specifications by makers long since forgotten.  I am convinced that the box is a prototype, and perhaps only two or three were ever made.  There are 178 dry flies contained within the box’s 24 compartments each having individual spring-loaded lids.  Furnished with further internal sub-divisions to give a total of 48 compartments.  The overall measurements of the box are 6” long and 3 &10/16ths“ wide.  The depth of the base is ¾”, and the lid is ½” deep.  The box is made of a rather heavy gauge of metal and is quite weighty.  With a black Japanned exterior with cream interior (probably weathered white).  The box is divided into 24 compartments in rows of 6; 12 in the base with the same number in the lid, each approximately 1” wide by 1½” long and ½” deep.  A metal strip, one above and one below, divide each compartment.  Each lid is hinged along the top and spring loaded.  The lid catches are a formed metal strip acting as a lip over lid.  Each compartment lid has a celluloid window to view the flies contained therein.

Is this the first fly box ever to have spring-loaded lids?  In 1899 Hardy Brothers did offer in their catalogue, fly boxes with separate compartments, but these boxes had no springs in their lids.  Fly boxes with such springs were manufactured by Richard Wheatley and were first introduced in 1908, but although similar to Marryat’s box, they differed in many respects.  The principle difference being that,  Wheatley fabricated their boxes of Aluminium and these had fewer compartments.  The Wheatley boxes were obviously made to a price.  It could be said of Marryat’s box that it is over engineered for its purpose, and clearly, the cost of making it was of no consideration, reinforcing the theory that it was a prototype.  The Marryat box certainly pre-dates any box of the type that Hardy’s, Farlows or Wheatley’s ever offered for sale.

It had already been suggested that it might be a good idea to carry flies in a box as early as 1860.  I have examined fly boxes that belonged to Francis Francis which date from about 1875.  They contain eyed flies, of the type found in Marryat’s fly box, but, unlike its contents, none of the double dressed, split-winged variety.  Richard Wheatley started making fly-boxes and fly-books in 1880.  They produced their first tinplate boxes in 1890, a company in Birmingham, J. Lawson were the sub-contractors and continued to make the boxes until 1922.  Companies around the town of Redditch were making fly books in the 1880s.  In 1887 some fly-boxes were made of cardboard and covered in leather, and by 1890, fly-boxes and fly-books were being produced with clips, these clips were the type that would have held wet-flies securely.

Hardy Brothers sub-contracted their fly box work out to Redditch, earliest known date is 1899, possibly a bit earlier.  These were made from lightweight tin-plate and had a black-Japanned finish; but they had no springs in their lids.  Redditch continued to make fly boxes for Hardy’s until 1937 when Hardy’s resumed their direct manufacture.  Fly-boxes had been made from extruded Aluminium for quite sometime by the 1930s.  I have it confirmed that Marryat’s box was not made by Richard Wheatley.  They are the ‘supposed’ originators of fly-boxes with spring loaded lids and I have seen an aluminium Wheatley of this type (circa 1910); their first box to feature sprung lids being introduced in 1908.

It is obvious that the Marryat box could not have been made in commercial quantities, it therefore must be a prototype, and probable that 12 or less were ever made.  Brian Guest of Wheatley’s examined the Marryat box. He was very impressed by the engineering quality of the box, and he felt this was not the work of an amateur. with no consideration being given to the cost of producing it.  Marryat would have had little trouble in financing a project of this kind.  The technology to construct a box of this type was available from the early 1880s, a period right at the very epicentre of Marryat’s work on the dry-fly.  This same method of construction was used, at this time, to manufacture tinplate toys, and watercolour painting sets, as well as general hardware.

It is quite possible that the intention was eventually to make boxes of this type in commercial quantities, and sell them perhaps in George Holland’s shop in Salisbury.  They would have proved to be expensive to produce, and only the wealthiest of fly fishermen could have afforded to purchase one.  The hypothesis of Marryat being the driving force, and George Holland being responsible for its manufacture, either making it himself, or sub-contracting it out, is still a water-tight theory.  While not forgetting the possibility that H.S. Hall could have been involved using his engineering facilities at Clifton College.  There was no statement that Brian Guest of Wheatley’s could make that in any way disproved this.  It was evident that the aluminium Wheatley box, which he showed me, had been made to a price, it was rather crude when compared to the older Marryat box.  As an example of this, the lids on M’s box are folded round making two channels for the clear windows to slide into.  On the Wheatley box the windows are simply riveted to the underside of the lid frame, a cheaper method of construction.


In conclusion what do we have?  This box comes directly from Marryat’s family in South Africa.  We know Marryat liked to dress his quill-bodied dry flies using a whip finish at the shoulder, as are the quill bodied flies in the box.  This gives us the irrefutable evidence that they were, almost certainly, dressed by Marryat himself.  The flies are dressed on the correct hooks, the up-eyed “snecky Limerick”, developed by H. S. Hall with input from Marryat in the early years of the 1880s.  What of the date, when did Marryat first put his dry flies in this box; my view is that it could not have been later than 1885.  So therefore, taking all these things into consideration; we probably have before us the genuine article.  Not only is Marryat the true originator of the fly box with spring loaded lids; it is the chalk stream dry-fly box that Skues alluded to, first in 1923 and again in 1932. 

Marryat became a legend in his own lifetime.  Charismatic, springs to mind, as the way to think of him.  I feel sure that Marryat would not have taken kindly to being thought of as having charisma, he would have been embarrassed.  All that Marryat did was to go fishing for his own pleasure.  That he could impart his knowledge to other fly fishermen, only added to that pleasure.  After the one hundred and four years since his death, we should remember him as our patron saint of the ‘modern’ dry-fly, for without his immense contribution to the development and fishing of such floating patterns, it is even doubtful that Halford would have written his books on the subject.

George Selwyn Marryat (1840-1896) may you never be forgotten for as long as fly-fishers cast a dry-fly over dimpling trout on clear streams.

Copyright © Simon J. Ward December 2000. Originally written for the ‘Museum of American Fly Fishing’ but withdrawn from publication by the author.

The Dry-fly Box Mystery.- Part 1

copyright © 2018 -