On The Trail of the MasterGeorge Selwyn Marryat

On 14th February 1896 the world in general and that of fly fishing in particular became the poorer for the passing of George Selwyn Marryat. He died leaving behind him probably the most uncontested reputation ever enjoyed in the history of trout fishing for supremacy as a practitioner of that art and having, on the confession of F. M. Halford, exercised upon that writer the predominating influence which gave us the body of his great work on the dry fly and its entomology.

G. E. M. Skues wrote this in 1923 in your journal. Just who was George Selwyn Marryat, and what was he like? Major Turle called him, "unconventional, vigorous, and vivid." It was Marryat who gave Turle his first lessons in fly tying, "and a most indefatigable teacher he proved himself to be." Why hasn't more been written about Marryat, this genius with the fly rod? Six years ago, to me, Marryat was only one of a crowd of wealthy gentlemen who seemed to spend most of their time fly fishing on the Test and Itchen, drinking port and smoking after-dinner pipes of tobacco. Over these six years, I have been able to build on my sketchy picture of him, by finding out how his contemporaries regarded him. H. S. Hall wrote of Marryat — "He was eminently practical and original in everything he took up, and the invaluable assistance I received from him in perfecting the smallest sizes of hooks has placed the present generation of dry-fly fishermen under an obligation that they will not be slow to recognise — and it would be impossible to say how much I learned from him." Marryat and Hall became acquainted in 1876, but to start with these were just chance meeting: down on the Old Barge water of the Itchen. By August 1879, their common interests had drawn them together. Hall had been developing the eyed `Snecky Limerick' hook, with George Bankart, and at about this time Hall and Bankart went their separate ways. All through this development Hall had gained all his fly dressing knowledge from books, until he received, in his room at Winchester, his first practical instruction from the skilled hands of Marryat.

Hall had the right hooks for the job, but it was Marryat who showed him the way to wing them. Skues only realised many years later, in 1923, that it was Marryat who worked out the method of winging for the double dressed split winged floaters, and then invented the long-nosed bulldog clips, to speed up the winging process.

On 5th January 1885 R. B. Marston wrote to Marryat — "to ask him if he could help us with the Flyfishers' Club, just then established. He replied in his humorous way that he could not join, but that he would be happy to contribute a big wooden spade as a prize for the biggest fish story-teller." Marston again —"It was good to see Marryat saying something excruciatingly funny and trying to look serious; and then, when the point was reached, how the twinkling eyes and moving muscles of the face burst into laughter! It was most difficult to know exactly when there was some joke in anything he said; he was so full of them, that it was not safe to take him in earnest." — "Everyone who knows Marryat remembers how on one occasion he ruffled the feathers of an aristocratic angler who was fishing in vain a fine stretch of the Itchen. He was walking past on the opposite side, and called out, 'Find 'em middling silly, eh! which was his quaint way of hinting that the fish were not to be caught too easily."

I did not set out from the start of my researches to find living descendants of Marryat. He had three daughters and this made it doubly difficult, not having a male line to follow. Through finding his eldest daughter's marriage certificate, (she married in 1897) I could at last follow the husband's line right up to the present day. I cannot say more about this, (I have to respect the family's privacy), than to say, I have found two Great Grandsons, and the widow of Marryat's Grandson who sadly passed away in 1988. The family are very much aware of Marryat's prowess as a fly fisherman, and still treasure some of the master's equipment.

In the course of my searching I have come across things, which while not directly concerned with Marryat, are nonetheless fascinating. George Holland moved down from Stockport to Salisbury in 1885. He admired all the chalk stream pioneers so much, that he named his first born son, Fred Halford Holland. Halford himself was a regular house guest of Marryat right up to his untimely death at The Close in 1896.

George Selwyn Marryat was only 56 years old when influenza struck him down. After nearly 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 are now resting beneath a simple marble tablet, under the cedar trees in the Cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral.

Marryat, Francis and Halford at Houghton
Marryat, Francis and Halford at Houghton

My wife and I spent the morning, a few months ago trying to find Marryat's final resting place. To start with, we obtained the grid number from the Clerk of the works office. It just wasn't within the grid we had. So what to do, leaving Jane to continue the hunt, I went walk about, into the cathedral, but whom to ask. A cathedral guide told me the verger might be able to help. Knocking on a great oak door, it transpired that the grid number we had, was the wrong one. Armed with the right number, back in the Cloisters, we still could not find it. After about 20 minutes of fruitless search, the verger turned up to help. Laying his grid map on the ground, we narrowed the area of search to about 6 square feet. There was still no tablet showing. Down on my hands and knees I started, (with my fingers) to scrape the earth and debris from the cedar trees away. Catching my finger on something hard, I dug deeper. There, low and behold we found it. From nowhere the verger produced a bucket of water and a sponge. With this we were able to clean away all the muck from the tablet. It is very weather worn but luckily the lettering is in lead, so has survived the years.

Over the past year, I have at last, started to find some lost and forgotten letters and articles. They are directly to do with Marryat, his fly fishing, and his fly dressing; these date from 1880. I have barely scratched the surface of what there is waiting to unearth, it is only a shallow pocket that holds me back. What were the reasons for his not wanting to get on the bandwagon and join in with all the other Worthies who were leading the crusade towards the perfect imitation of the natural insect? I have asked myself this many times. I doubt we shall ever know!

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