The Letters of Reverend E C Alston

John Bailey

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Part 1

I assume that one of the pleasures of collecting, or even handling, an item of vintage fishing tackle is imagining the anglers who used and enjoyed it in the past? I felt this when talking to the wonderful Michael Nadell a few months ago when we were looking at his unique collection of London roach poles. Yes, Michael relished their beauty, but it was their connection to those Thames and Lea fishers who had used them decades ago that brought him his real joy.

I felt something of the same yesterday when rummaging amongst one of the still unsorted boxes in one of my festering sheds. There, I came across some seventy or eighty letters that had passed between Fred Buller and the Rev Alston between the years 1971 and his death in 1977. Deciphering Alston’s handwriting is not easy, especially as it became visibly more frail as the years passed, but there are snippets of great interest in there which I will try to pass on to you as I translate.

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The letters

A little of Alston’s history perhaps to set us on the way. Edward Constable Alston, born 1895, was the second son of a Lincolnshire rector and a descendant of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Alston began life at as a boy seaman, and when war was declared on Germany in 1914 his ship was docked in Australia and he found himself in the Anzac army, fighting at Gallipoli. After a period on the Western Front in France, Alston went to Caius College, Cambridge where he prepared for a career in the clergy.

Alston’s livings thereafter were largely in Ireland in County Cork, and then on the West coast at Clifton. He was also vicar at East Wretham in Norfolk between 1927 and 1933. Wherever Alston served God, his rods (and his guns) were bound to accompany him, and he caught some extraordinary fish during his years as a sporting vicar of the old school. He died at the age of 82 in a Norwich hospital after a short illness.

Alston is, I believe, an interesting subject for several reasons. Like many other notable anglers in the history of British fishing, he was an all-rounder, loving his pike and salmon equally. He was furthermore the holder of the one-time tench record and, especially, the rudd record.

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Alston on his last fishing trip

Alston, too, was an avid collector and possessed what was considered by Buller the finest collection of early English fishing reels in existence. For some time, Hal Thirlaway of the Piscatorial Society tried to find a permanent home for the reels, and Alston himself championed the founding of a national fishing museum where collections like his could be housed. During WW1, Alston caught his first big pike and had it set up by Homer in Forest Gate, but most of his big pike thereafter were immortalised on brown paper silhouettes, especially those taken from his favourite lake, Nafooey in Western Ireland.

What, I wonder, has become then of Alston’s reels, and of course his silhouetted pike gallery? What, I wonder, would have become of Alston’s entire legacy if Buller had not made his acquaintance in this late period of his life – after all, Alston wrote no books, not even an article on his lifetime of experiences. And without letters like these, would any records of this friendship remain? It is hard to imagine emails existing fifty years after they had been pinged.

So, let’s see where my reading of the letters takes me, and anything worthwhile will be relayed to you as and when. In the meanwhile, if anyone out there knows of the whereabouts of Alston’s treasures, how exciting that would be. And, also, are there other angling heroes of the past whose memory we should rescue before it is too late? How nice to establish a gallery of our angling forbears, who are slipping slowly into oblivion.



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John Bailey

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The Letters of Reverend E C Alston​

Part 2 – October 1971

I spent a nostalgic Sunday assembling the Buller/Alston correspondence into some sort of order, and being generally appalled by the Reverend’s handwriting that makes the scrawl of a doctor look legible. But that is my problem, and you have to ask if emails rather than good old-fashioned letters would have survived half a century, almost to the month.

I am very aware that I am handling a minute part of 20th century history here, and this has made me realise how the sport really needs its own museum – after decades of thought and talk.

It would seem that the flow of letters began with Fred’s polite request for photographs of Alston’s record rudd for a book he was preparing – Rigs, Tackles and Methods with Notes on the Natural History of British Freshwater Fishes. I am assuming this was a work that was to become Freshwater Fishing by Buller AND Falkus?

(Please, at any time during this delve into the 1970s, do not hesitate to put me right when required. This is a piece of history for us all to share, and there is a requirement to get it right.)

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Repeatedly I am struck by the courtesies of the past that have been lost so quickly, and by the appearance of names that are so close to being lost in present-day angling. Especially, I am breathtaken at how close I am to some of the issues raised.

For example, Fred asks for a photograph of Alston’s cased, record rudd. My story is that ten years ago, by sheer chance, a friend of a friend put me in touch with an immensely old lady who lived in a tumbledown Norfolk hall not far from Cromer.

There, in a back passage, completely forgotten about, was the historic case of rudd. The fish, four pounds and four and a half pounds, were in good condition and I took a raft of pictures – which I have lost but will endeavour to find. I made tentative enquiries about a purchase, but the old lady died before deciding and I believe the estate was broken up.

(A friend went to view a house for sale in Blakeney, around fifteen miles away, at around the same time. There he found the cased record tench that Alston had caught from Ringmere near Thetford, on the same day as the rudd I believe. He did not take a photograph.)

The talk of burbot is an interesting one too. If my memory serves me right, the picture of this fish appeared in Freshwater Fishing, but I cannot be sure as I have lost my copy, as I have written previously. Did Alston catch this fish? I think so, probably in the Thirties when burbot were still quite common in the Thet and other Fenland rivers.

The letters are reproduced for your own studies, and as a record of this fascinating relationship at its inception.



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The Letters of Reverend E C Alston​

Part 3 – 11th January 1972

Edward Alston is now safely ensconced in Warminster, and on good enough terms to start the letter “Fred”. (Though he appears to go back to the more formal “Mr Buller” on the 14th of the month.)

The handwriting is becoming more familiar, and I am able to deduce that Edward was given a German silver and nickel multiplier reel for Christmas. He cleaned it up and writes that it was American.

I could not deduce the makers’ name from the handwriting but thankfully, our tackle guru John Stephenson could, and helpfully goes on to give us chapter and verse on these reel-making brothers. His history of the reel follows this piece. Thank you hugely, John.

My only other question is this. Edward offers Fred the chance to photograph the reel, and I have an inkling I have seen an image of it somewhere. Or have I imagined this?

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John Stephenson adds: The reel maker is B. F. Meek, high-end USA makers and very collectable. Brothers Jonathan and Benjamin Meek were watchmakers in Frankfort Kentucky in the 1830s. Around 1840, the Meek Brothers started building high-quality casting reels in several small sizes for fishing freshwater lakes and streams.

They also made Meeks-made reels in larger sizes to include reels for striped bass and muskie fishing, as well as a line of larger tarpon and tuna reels.

Over the years Meek reels were stamped differently, you will find Meek reels marked “MEEK”, “J.F. & B.F. MEEK”, “B.F. MEEK”, “B.F. MEEK & SONS”, and “MEEK & MILAM”.

B. F. Meek moved to Louisville, and the markings on their reels reflect this change from Frankfort to Louisville. Later Meek reels were mass-produced and had “BLUEGRASS REEL WORKS” or “BLUEGRASS” stamped on them, often along with the “B.F. MEEK” stamp.

Meek also made a German silver fly reel which was stamped “B.F. Meek & Sons No. 44”.



The post 'The Letters of Reverend E C Alston Part 3 – 11th January 1972' first appeared on Thomas Turner Fishing Antiques.

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John Bailey

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The Letters of Reverend E C Alston​

Part 4 – January 14th 1972

It seems that we are back to the formality of “Mr Buller” once more, and the handwriting is even more spidery than usual. That does not detract from the contents of the letter which relate to the iconic Endrick pike head of Loch Lomond. For the background to this letter, we have to go back to the events of 1967 on the Loch, as written up in Buller’s book Pike, pages 208/213 and pages 65/69.

That was the year that Buller, Richard Walker, Ken Taylor and Pete Thomas mounted their first (I think) pike expedition to Loch Lomond, inspired by the capture of a 47.11 lb pike there in 1945. There are two well known episodes of note during the trip. Firstly, Buller hooked, played and eventually lost a mammoth pike there, estimated to have weighed upwards of forty pounds, perhaps even fifty pounds or more. Buller’s gear was stout, a 3.5lb tc rod and big multiplier holding 200 yards of 25lb bs line. Finally, after a monumental battle the line gave at the swivel and Buller blamed his knot for not being a “hangman’s noose”. The loss of this fish is perhaps the most famous in the annals of piking history.

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Secondly, the group of famous anglers made an evening trip to Ross Priory on the South bank of Lomond. There they met the owner of the Priory, Major Christie, and were shown one of the elderly man’s treasures, the fabled Endrick pike head. In 1934, a vast pike had been found dead on the Endrick marshes and the head was preserved, measuring an impressive 12 5/8th inches. Condition is all-important in pike weights, but all things being equal, at some stage in its life, this huge female pike must have weighed forty pounds, perhaps well over when in spawn, having eaten half a kelt!

When news of this ‘67 expedition filtered through to the South, Buller became an instant pike hero and Hardy were to bring out a pike rod to his design, bearing his name. Secondly, an army of young pike anglers began to dream of their own journey North and the Seventies saw Lomond emerge as the number one pike venue in the UK. You have to remember that this was half a century back, when cars were fallible and a four hundred mile drive was a major undertaking. This was at the start of the specimen hunting age, and these young piking Turks really did see themselves at the cutting edge of the sport.

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The Endrick head

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Famous big pike heads in history

Back to the letters! Unfortunately, Buller’s letter to Alston is not in my collection, but evidently the situation at Ross Priory had changed between 1967 and 1972. It appears that the University of Strathclyde bought the Priory in 1971 and it is quite probable Buller knew about this and worried about the future of the Endrick head. Alston’s letter suggests that at that time the aged Major Christie was still in residence and that the treasure was safe. As it still is! Today, this head that inspired so many young, aspiring pike anglers, myself included, can still be seen at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

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Thomas and Buller on Lomond

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Ken Taylor and Richard Walker on Lomond

Did Loch Lomond in fact ever hold leviathan pike? Tommy Morgan’s 47lb pike from 1945 and the Endrick head would suggest so. I ask this question because to my knowledge, thirty pounders were caught post-1970, but nothing to make the 50 pound mark tremble. The 1980s saw a new breed of pike angler emerge, anglers who were ruthlessly logical, with little truck for myths and legends. Their take was that the stories of Lomond monsters had been exaggerated over time, and that a 35 pound pike would always have been perhaps the normal limit for the water. Personally, I doubt that. Waters, even huge ones, are very volatile and can change dramatically over even twenty years or so. Just because we youngsters did not catch a fifty in the 1980s does not mean to say that they had not been there twenty years before. Powan numbers? Runs of salmon and sea trout? The food sources for Lomond pike have never stayed constant, and their ultimate weight limits would have fluctuated as a result of this.

As a conclusion, I first talked about the lost pike with Fred Buller in 1989. He was adamant that fish, clearly seen, could not have weighed less than forty pounds, and probably much more. I believed him then as I do now.




The post 'The Letters of Reverend E C Alston Part 4 – January 14th 1972' first appeared on Thomas Turner Fishing Antiques.

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iainmortimer

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I’m enjoying reading these updates John and so please keep them coming until their natural conclusion. With this age if instant communication I think we have lost a great deal of our patience and intrigue which is perhaps worthwhile given the speed of learning permitted. However, I can’t help feeling that it is more negative then positive as we just don’t maintain interest for long enough to perhaps dig a little ourselves and so reach a conclusion or learning that is missed by others.
 

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The Letters of Reverend E C Alston​

Part 5 – January, February and October 1972

I do not want to spin these out, and the following three letters are not perhaps of the utmost importance. However, there are points of interest that I will try to highlight – if my deciphering skills are up to it – and there are some issues now and later where help and further information might be forthcoming from the readership I hope. Talking of which, thank you for some nice comments on these letters. They will not change angling today, but they do take us back to a calmer age and perhaps reintroduce us to the giants of the recent past.

January 15th (18th?) 1972

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January 15th (18th?) 1972

Alston talks about a photo “of the instrument used to make hair lines”. Any ideas?

February 8th 1972

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February 8th 1972

Any ideas, too, about the “diary of Lord Carnarvon” that Alston talks about? He and his parties had “some wonderful bags”. I presume of salmon?

The Reverend also talks of Buller’s trip to Scotland in search of “that large pike”. Is this the trip that he made to Lomond with Richard Walker, Pete Thomas, Reg Sandys and Bill Giles? If so, I have a story here. Reg and Bill were Broadland pike heroes of the old school, and Buller mentions them in his book, Pike. I fished a lot with both of them in the Eighties, during the great days of piking on the Norfolk Fly Fishers’ lake at Lyng. For many winters this was perhaps the most productive big pike stillwater in the country, with two fish at 39 and several more thirties taken during very limited fishing opportunities.

I became especially close to Bill who eventually gave me a Christmas present in around 1989. In the carefully wrapped box were a dozen hour-long cassettes that Bill had recorded during a trip to Lomond, as I have just mentioned. It seems that the five of them lived in caravans but came to Bill and Reg’s van for dinner and chats. Hence the tapes produced by Bill’s machine, placed on the table.

It took me time to realise what was going on. 70% of the conversation was dominated by Walker, often speaking in different dialects and accents, which explains my confusion initially before I had realised fully the extent of his personality. Buller and Thomas contributed around 10% each and Reg and Bill simply talked about putting the kettle on!

Around 1995, I gave the tapes to Buller because he requested them and I felt they were going home, so to speak. I haven’t seen or heard them since so I can only say that, from memory, there was pike talk but not exclusively so. The Ouse cropped up a lot, as did the Thurne, which had just suffered from a prymnesium disaster. Obviously, I wonder where those fascinating tapes might be now..?

October 19th 1972

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October 19th 1972

Well, speaking of Walker, here he is again, this time brought by Buller to meet the Reverend himself. Obviously, the event went well, with Alston liking him hugely, and what a coming together of greats took place in Warminster that autumn.

The majority of the letter is about a picture of a fox and a pike in 1723, and I would have liked more on Walker! It would seem that a good-sized pike was attacked by a fox, and to defend herself, fastened her teeth into the animal’s snout. Did this happening take place in Germany… ”the Countship of Waldslum”? Somewhere the story rings a bell in my mind but I cannot place it. Once again, I hope a memory is stirred out there.




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The Letters of Reverend E C Alston​

Part 6 – The 1973 Letters

I have to admit that deciphering Alston’s handwriting does not get easier, and I hope that anyone interested will find more in them than I am commenting on. I have to say, I always experience a sense of spine-tingling magic when I handle these pieces of paper, and read words that probably would not mean a great deal to those on the modern angling scene. Still, I hope there is interest enough for readers in 2021.

January 24th 1973

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The January 24th letter is still concerned with Fred’s researches into mammoth pike, especially from Scotland, which in those days seemed to promise monsters beyond belief, certainly beyond what you might find here in England. If you doubt my word, the Reverend is talking about John Murray’s pike from Loch Ken caught in 1798. It weighed SEVENTY TWO pounds… perhaps!

Alston is evidently still in thrall to Richard Walker, and talks of stocking the river near to his home in Warminster. Of which more later.

March 15th 1973

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The March 15th letter is especially long, covering four pages. Alston does seem to have stocked the river with a hundred trout, as Walker presumably suggested. He laments that the river is not in the best of health, and I presume he is talking about the Wylye perhaps, with large deposits of sludge and evidence of pollution. He mentions that Bristol University have undertaken surveys, and found sticklebacks, loach and bullheads. Not especially inspiring stuff, so perhaps this is not the Wylye at all, but a stream or tributary.

Mind you, in the late 1700s, the painter and traveller William Daniell described the Wylye as poisoned by filth and being the source of typhus, so perhaps it wasn’t that much better in 1973? It is interesting also that Alston has joined the Anglers’ Co-operative Association, as it was inspiringly called then, but doesn’t appear to think much of it! What would he have made of Fish Legal today?

The saddest part of this correspondence is the fact that Alston appears to have lost his wheels. All advice, including his brother-in-law’s, seems to suggest that at the age of 77 he shouldn’t expect to get a licence to drive. You can taste the sadness in this letter from an old man starved of fishing opportunities. He writes “it makes me think I made a mistake in coming to England again. I might have got through the storm in Ireland and had plenty of fishing”. Little wonder Fred did all he could to get him out fishing again when possible.

March 16th 1973

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I have covered the March 16th letter in part for the extravagant signature at the end! I am also interested in Alson’s “collection of old floats. I got them from the old tackle shop in Norwich before they were bombed in the last war. They have bone tips and some are made of Norfolk reed.” I’d love to know more about this tackle shop if anyone has information. Bone tips and Norfolk reed… was Andy Batchelor working in those distant days!?



The post 'The Letters of Reverend E C Alston Part 6 – The 1973 Letters' first appeared on Thomas Turner Fishing Antiques.

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