The Missing Links

George Selwyn Marryat's "Portmanteau" and his Chalk Stream Fly Box - Simon J. Ward

The Author fishing the Upper Barton, Abbotts Barton - River Itchen

It is a fact of life that many of flyfishing's most valuable historical artefacts are 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 distinguished member recognised this need and it is through him that we have today more than an insight into our flyfishing past. G.E.M. Skues was fascinated 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 make sure we always had in our modern minds the very essence of this history. Skues has now become part of this history, and looks down upon us from his lofty stream side seat with some satisfaction, I am sure. In the Spring and Summer numbers of the Journal in 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 it the "Portmanteau". H.S. Hall tells us what Marryat said to him in jest:

"I can just lay this down 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."

Upon his death in 1896, Marryat left the book to Basil Field (three-time President of your Club) who passed away in December 1908; Skues deduced that Field hardly used the book at all. The book now passed to another member of the Club, James Rolt, K.C. It was through Rolt that Skues obtained permission to study the fly book. There are between eight and nine hundred flies contained within the book, all but one tied on up-eyed hooks of the "Snecky Limerick" type; these hooks were not on the market until about the year 1880. My understanding is that this very important historical artefact passed into the care of the Flyfishers' Club upon the death of James Rolt. At this point things get a little bit foggy. It seems the Club had the fly book right up until the late 1970s or early 1980s; around this time, the Master's fly book was sold. No record of who the buyer was, exists, as far as I know. Until this fly book can be found and re-evaluated, we have to rely on Skues's words from the 1923 journals. One passage is very interesting. "

Another feature of Marryat's fly book, and a very noticeable one, is the large size of the flies. There are few duns to be found smaller than No.0 and many run as big as No.2 long and the majority are larger than No.0 and on long wires. In fact one might draw from their size and indeed from some of the patterns, the inference that their owner was in the habit of fishing the rough streams of Devon, Wales and the Northern Counties as well as the chalk streams of Hampshire. Possibly it was so. Indeed I am informed by H.S. Hall that Marryat had a friend with a water on the Eden and used to fish with him. If he did so on the Eden and other rough waters, he might quite well have gone on using the patterns in question to the end. H.S. Hall tells me, however, that flies for chalk stream fishing were dressed bigger in those early days than would now be thought appropriate. The flies in the book (a variety of bumbles) are all large and no doubt tied for the grayling fishing with Francis Francis in Derbyshire which H.S. Hall tells me Marryat used regularly to take in October. Otherwise the evidence seems to paint either to Marryat's having practically giving up fly dressing for his own use after Floating Flies was published or else having ceased to use this book and perhaps having taken to a fly box or some such container."

Skues is very perceptive when he writes about Marryat using a fly box instead of a book. At the end of this mammoth investigation into Marryat's doings, Skues made this request:—

"There may, however, be members of the 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 streams and used the book for the rough water fishing of other rivers."

Now 74 years later I can reveal that, Mr. Skues was right in his deductions! Yes, Marryat did use a fly box dedicated to the storage of tiny split-winged dry flies for the chalk streams. My research has led me to send letters, faxes, and e-mails to many parts of the world. One such letter posted three years ago has put me on to one of the branches of the Marryat clan. So in the year of 1997 I will be making a journey to South Africa where I will meet some of Marryat's descendants, but it is the fly box that is drawing me like a magnet. There are 178 dry flies contained within the box's 24 compartments which have individual spring loaded lids. There are further internal sub-divisions, to give a total of 48 compartments.

Marryat with Nat Lloyd, 'William Senior and Frederic Halford
Marryat with Nat Lloyd, 'William Senior and Frederic Halford

The overall measurements of the box, are 6 in long and 3 10/16 in wide. The depth of the base is ¾ in, and the lid depth is ½in. The box is made of metal, with a black painted exterior with cream interior (probably weathered white). The box is divided into 24 compartments in rows of six, 12 in lid and 12 in base, approximately 1 inch wide by 1½ inches long and ½ inch deep. Each compartment is divided by a metal strip into two sections one above, one below. Each lid is hinged along the top and spring loaded. Catch is a formed metal strip acting as a lip over lid. Each lid has a round hole cut out as a window, and is covered by a rectangular piece of clear celluloid which slides into two metal lips on the back of each lid. Each compartment is hand marked by Marryat on the celluloid windows in black ink, with the names of the flies contained therein.

The overall impression I get from the box is that it is very old, and of home construction, certainly not mass produced. There are no manufacturers' marks or stamps on it. In fact Marryat's great grandson tells me that, as far as the family is concerned, the knowledge that it is of Marryat's own design and manufacture has been passed down within the family since 1896. Hardy Brothers did offer in their catalogue of 1899 fly boxes with separate compartments, but these boxes did not have spring loaded lids. The fly boxes with springs in their lids made by Richard Wheatley, were first introduced sometime in 1908, and although similar to Marryat's box, differed in many respects.

Roy Darlington and I have a theory about the design and manufacture of this dry fly box. Three men, Marryat of course, H.S. Hall and George Holland, were involved. Hall was teaching at Clifton College in Bristol; he was head of the military and engineering side of the college; George Holland, fly dresser par-excellence and a fishing tackle manufacturer, came to live in Salisbury in 1885 very close to where Marryat lived. Engineering at the college means there were metal workshops; put this together with Holland's manufacturing abilities. It can be seen they had the skills and the facilities to make a small run of these boxes for their own use. Hall has told us how Marryat left no stone unturned in his quest to modernise the fly fisherman's equipment, and designing this new compartment fly box was, I think, just one of the many aspects of Marryat's flyfishing life. Dating this fly box is difficult, but the period from 1885 (when Holland was in Salisbury) to the early 1890s, is the most likely time that will give us the clues.

There is still much work to do on this fly box and its contents. Every aspect of the box, and the treasures held within will be photographed and very carefully documented. In the light of discovering one of the missing chalk stream fly boxes, that without doubt, once belonged to this giant of the stream it now becomes very important that we rediscover the whereabouts of the "Portmanteau." I do not think it or its contents have ever been photographed. In 1923 Skues did us all proud with his description of Marryat's book. Let us try and return the compliment, but first we have to find out what has happened to it.

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