George Selwyn Marryat Remembered (part 3) by Simon J Ward

Apart from a very few writers today, the modern view of Marryat is that he took a secondary role in the development of the dry fly in the 1870s, 80s and 90s. Granted it was Frederic Halford who penned the books on the dry fly discipline, but all the ideas and pronouncements were by no means all his.

My view is that the vast amount came from the mouth of Marryat, Halford was the one to put pen to paper. Right up to his untimely death in 1896, these two giants of the stream remained the closest of friends, sharing more than just the fishing. Halford was a regular house guest of Marryat's at ''The Close" in Salisbury, while Marryat, when he travelled to London, would stay occasionally with Halford at Inverness Terrace. There is no evidence that I can find to support the widely-held view that Marryat and Halford had a parting of the ways after the first two books were published. Having said that, I am sure, just as in any partnership, there were differences of opinion. This was for the most part, a harmonious and very fruitful association. Halford was always ready to listen and learn from Marryat. Halford would refer to himself as the pupil and take his lead from all the information that came from his friend.

Changed Outlook

We can see that after Marryat died, Halford changed his outlook quite radically on what he perceived to be the right way to go about deciding what was right and what was wrong with the insect imitation theories and practices that Marryat and he had worked out years before. I believe that Marryat had such an influence over Halford, that he had no other way of knowing what was the best way of proceeding. The books that Halford penned after Marryat's passing showed that he had lost his way and become somewhat dogmatic in his views. This might in some hallowed bastions be seen as heresy on the part of the writer — I believe the substance to be true.

Split Wings

Halford had great difficulty with dressing the split-winged floaters. After meeting Marryat, he wasted no time in asking the master to instruct and guide him in the methods of dying the materials and tying these dry flies. Halford was so greedy for knowledge that he would, I think, have moved mountains to have acquired the wisdom and foresight of Marryat. I say this not as a disservice to Halford, but more as a compliment to Marryat — it was not a one sided partnership. We have to be thankful that Halford did not arrive on the banks of the Test from the river Wandle, full of self-importance, proclaiming: "here I am, the expert come and learn it all from me" (author's quotes). Marryat would, I am sure, have turned his back on him and gone about his business.


Although Marryat had all the knowledge of all things fly fishing and he gladly imparted all his wisdom, he only conveyed it on a one-to-one basis. M would remain silent if the person he was conversing with had all the knowledge, and was a know-all, bragger and a show off, and was not prepared to listen to any hint that he would have freely given. M felt that there was no point in continuing with the conversation. He would leave the boasting vainglorious fellow to his own ends, with a pointed remark that left the man feeling very small.

"Marryat was always fond of a joke. Once I remember we were fishing on the Old Barge, a dozen rods or so in a very limited amount of space, he being on the extreme right, and another great fishing authority (well known to readers of the Field in days gone by)" — (This was Francis Francis, authors note) — "at the opposite end, and whilst the rest of us were having very poor sport, Marryat, as usual, pulled out fish after fish. "What fly are you using?" Asked the great authority, passing the question down the line. Back came the answer, quick as thought, "The Driver'!" "The Driver!" Repeated the puzzled questioner. "Never heard of such a fly. What the dickens is the Driver?" 'The man who drives, old fellow, of course,' was the ready reply."

This was Major W. G. Tune's description of just one of Marryat's judgement’s, said jokingly, but meant with serious intent. It's not the fly, it's the driver — means quite simply, that, it does not matter which fly you have tied to your tippet if you the driver, do not fish it in the right way. Hear to, Marryat's description of the essentials of a good hook.

"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."

Popular Beat

The Old Barge water of the Itchen is always held by these piscators of the past, as one of the most popular beats to fish during the development of the dry fly. It wasn't the idyllic place, perhaps we like to think it was, looking back. It was on this water that Major Turle first came across Marryat. Turle writing in 1896, recalled the first meeting:

"It was about twenty-eight years ago that I first came across him, fishing in the Old Barge, for he had always an affection, dating from the days when he was a Winchester College boy. It would have been a really good piece of water if old John Hammond who rented it, had not crammed in so many rods, or the weeds had grown less luxuriantly, fed by the town sewerage, which at the time was allowed to find its way into the river. As it was, we considered ourselves lucky if we could get hold of a dear few yards of bank."

(This makes the year of their first meeting 1868.)

"I wasn't much of a hand at dry fly fishing at that time, which fact did not take him long to find out, and he gave me such valuable wrinkles that I may say that what skill I now possess is principally owing to his effective coaching"

Marryat was twenty-eight when he first met the Major, and obviously, an expert dry fly fisherman, even then! Turle again:

'At one time he went in largely for fly tying, in which he excelled as usual, but he gave it up to a great extent after he had coached Holland in the art, preferring to get his supplies from him. It was Marryat who gave me my first lessons in fly tying, and a most indefatigable teacher he proved himself to be. Many a time after keeping me up till all hours of the night yarning, and he was a rare one at telling a story, he would rout me out at seven o'clock the next morning to give me a lesson. And then on inquiring, I would find he himself had been up an hour before and down to the poultry yard, robbing some poor Andalusian cock of a few hackles, to which he had taken a fancy, and judged would make a killing fly.'

The reference that Turle makes to Marryat to a "great extent" giving up fly tying, happened when Lancastrian, George Holland moved down to Salisbury in 1885. It was Marryat and Dr. Sanctuary who found the shop, from where, Holland would make and sell the new split-winged floating fly. Ten Bridge Street, is just round the corner from Marryat's large house in The Close. Marryat made the acquaintance of Holland through H. S. Hall, after Hall had written about dressing the single and double-dressed split-winged floating flies in The Field, in 1882 and 1883. Holland tied some of these flies, and sent them to Hall for his opinion. Hall was impressed, and much correspondence past between them. This culminated in moving his business and his young family from Stockport near Manchester, to Bridge Street.

The methods for tying these dry flies had been worked out by Marryat in the late 1870s, although it was Hall who first wrote about them in the public domain. It was in the private correspondence between Marryat and Hall, that we can see, it is on Marryat's doorstep, where the true credit for these floating flies should be. In this one letter of Marryat's dated November 1882, we can see that this was so:

Sheffield Grange, Botley

''My Dear Hall, A slack morning, and the spirit moves me to discuss a new method of winging for eyed hooks. I have not practiced it long enough to say that it is quicker than the old, I certainly think it is better, now—take 2 right wing feathers corresponding to the same 2 left wing feathers, which rake also, cut them down the side of the quill till you have four bands of fibre thus—place 1 on 2 and 3 on 4 so that the points coincide all down as 4 and 5. Now lay 4 on 5 with points all coinciding—then take a pair of long jawed bulldog forceps (Weiss & Sons made me two pairs and will have the pattern) and grip the whole lot thus—Shift the whole lot each time you want to wing a fly till enough for one pair of wings is clear of the jaws of the forceps, take them between the left finger and thumb and they come away in perfect condition without breaking the fibre—now take them on four turns of silk on the bare hook close to the eye, adjust the wings to the right length and tie down the old way—half hitch now draw the refuse fibre down and back, half on each side of the hook and tie down behind wings along the hook. Snip the balance to the required taper-put the hackle on hard up to wings tie down & go to the tail tie in whisks and, bring your quill or what not back from tail to head till close to the hackle and tie in this and finish with the whip finish at the shoulder. I like the look of the fly enclosed as well as any tie I ever saw—the wings stand well up—nor to forward—they can't draw—there is no bother, the eye is clear and the taper of the body can be managed with comfort and satisfaction. I have only tied a dozen this way and think it is a good way—the difficulty is to get the refuse back tight and neat from the head but it is a matter of a little practice I think—of course one could tie a rougher fly quicker—that would kill just as well we know that, but would it not gold medalize a man in a crowd. I'm off to Cornwall on Wednesday to frighten the snipe. Yours truly Geo. S. Marryat."

Game, set and match to Marryat! — Well almost.

R. B. Marston, one time editor of The Fishing Gazette, had regular correspondence with Marryat. Marston once sent him what he thought was a rather good fly, with these remarks:

"I also send you a couple of flies which Mr. Ogden of Cheltenham, makes for me, and calls 'Marstons Fancy.' How do you like it? It is a combination of what I consider good features in a fly—iron-blue wing, hare's flax body, yellow silk head, yellow silk ribbing, silver twist at tail, blue dun whisks, and red cocks hackle at shoulder." — "I was with Mr. Marryat some time after, fishing our mutual friend Major Turle's water at Newton Stacey, with other friends, and asked him at lunch what he thought of it. He replied, "Oh, my dear fellow, it is not at all a bad sort of a—of a—common or garden blue dun." "Of course there was a roar of laughter, in which I joined, and never thought much of my fly afterwards.' "On another occasion, I remember, when dining in his company at the house of a mutual friend, and the May Fly was being talked about, I happened to say it appeared to be the oldest known form of life, being found in the old red sandstone— 'What", chimed in M., "old red sandstone! Old red fiddlesticks; who's your authority?' "Professor Geikie," I said, pronouncing the name as an Englishman often does, as if it was Guykie. "Oh, Geekie," he said, correcting me; "well, I suppose he's good enough."

Marryat had made a life-long study of the mayfly, so was quite an authority on the insect himself.

William Senior was a great friend who spent many a happy hour with Marryat,

"Many a time I have been kept to the armchair when the bedroom candlestick should have been lighted, by his recollections of the days when he had to earn the best living he could by stock riding in the bush, as many a well born gentleman has done"

Major Carlisle ("South-West"), of the Field, could speak of Marryat after a friendship of twenty years:

"I can safely say that during a long life of very varied experience in many lands, I never met a more upright, unselfish, thorough going English gentleman that George Selwyn Marryat. It needs not my pen to extol his prowess as a fisherman, that is widely known. In that sport , as in shooting, he was equally proficient in both. His great unselfishness stood out prominently.

I have enjoyed many a days shooting in his genial company, and know what a thorough sportsman and good shot he was. I have frequently known him, in covert shooting, when a gun was required inside with the beaters, to volunteer for the post, saying that he preferred it. It is not a position that many of us would choose, and I feel convinced that he was actuated by a desire to force his host's hand in placing the guns in the best places. Marryat was one of the safest shots I ever knew, and I always felt happy when he happened to be next gun to me. I have stayed with him in country houses, where he was the life and soul of the party. Whether at the dinner table, in the billiard room, or the smoking room, and never once did I hear him say an ill-natured thing of anyone -- he could not do it -- it was not him. His life might be justly written as sans peir et sans reproche."

Marryat was an extremely good manipulator of the microscope. He was expert at mounting, and in the general work of the instrument. This he concentrated on after largely giving up fly dressing. In his later years his special study was Karyokinesis. In the 1880's and 90's, Marryat started work with the camera, taking many chalk stream studies, if these early plates could be found, they would be a unique record of the nineteenth century trout streams. Marryat had magnificent instruments at which he was always at work. He linked his abilities with the camera together with his microscope, and Karyokinetic studies. In the 80's and 90's, photo-micrography was really at the leading edge of micro-biological science. Karyokinesis is biological - it means, (so I have been told) 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 don't for one minute understand it. Goodness knows where this study would have led, had he lived longer. Whole stretches of river re-populated by rearing ephemrid's artificially, I wonder ?

Out of all the material I have unearthed about Marryat and his doings on and around the chalk streams, there is one aspect his close friends hardly mentioned, only William Senior wrote of it. This was all the work Marryat did helping F.M. Halford gain the knowledge he needed to write his books.

Was it perhaps, because men like, Hall, Turle, Marston, Carlisle, and Sanctuary, they knew full well that it was Marryat, and only Marryat who should be acclaimed as the true leader of the dry fly on the chalk stream? Did they, intentionally put the metaphorical boot in, by omitting Halford from their text?

Although Halford dedicated his second book Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, 1889, to Marryat, (perhaps he thought that was enough). I have yet to find any tribute about Marryat from Halford, after Marryat passed away. This is just an observation I make, please don't think I am trying to make mountains out of mole-hills, I just find it odd, that's all.

Major Turle

I leave the last lines to Major Turle, who thought up the knot that bears his name. The Turle knot that kept many a strong fish from escaping with these intricate split-winged devices embedded in their jaw:

"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. The worthy nephew of his famous uncle, he had a wonderful power of attraction to all who came under the sway of his genial manner and strong individuality. 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 half of the century; and Marryat's doings 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."

Turle was not wrong was he!

George Selwyn Marryat Remembered (part 4)

copyright © 2010 -