A brief history of the hook

Hooks are buried so deeply in the heart of angling that it is impossible to guess who invented them, or to do more than hazard a guess at when. The predecessor of the hook was almost certainly the gorge, examples of which survive from prehistoric times, usually simple devices carved from bone or flint, although more complex examples have been found; the process of improving on the gorge almost certainly led to the discovery of the hook.

Roman hooksThe earliest true hooks date back to the Neolithic age and were usually made from bone, shell, horn, bird’s beaks, or constructed with a wooden shank and a flint point, which meant that they had to be quite large; despite that a few double hooks from this period even exist and in some cases the shank was carved to look like the body of a fish. Some of these may well have had barbs, which were in widespread use on arrow heads - just in case you are doubting how effective they were, Edward Lovett fished with restored flint hooks back in the nineteenth century and confirmed that fish weighing up to 15 pounds could be landed using them. The Bronze Age saw the appearance of smaller hooks, made from an alloy which contained much more copper than modern bronze and consequently would have been much harder. Iron hooks also have a long history, the Romans, for example, created networks of small iron pits to sustain the huge demand for swords and spear heads that their armies created, making hooks like the ones shown here almost as a by product, but the history of the modern hook really begins with the discovery of how to make steel.

The first mention of the use of steel to make hooks is in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, published in London in 1496. Steel had known for a very long while by then, but until the blast furnace was invented in the early 15th century, most of it was quite soft, apart from small quantities produced from precious Swedish ‘osmund’. The author of the Treatyse gave a very detailed description about how to make spade-ended hooks from square needles and unless a reader knew a friendly blacksmith, he would have had no choice but to follow the instructions, because tackle shops lay several hundred years in the future. In practice, local communities were quite well set up when it came to meeting their own needs, but a book like the Treatyse must have come in uncommonly useful when it came to explaining how a hook ought to look.

Treatyse hooks

Hooks first became available in British tackle shops in the seventeenth century. Although the general standard of hooks was miles better than it had been when the Treatyse hooks shown above were made, the quality was still pretty low by modern standards, but everything changed when Charles Kirby set up his shop in Harp Alley in London in 1650. Kirby sold the best hooks on the market for decades and didn’t lose his advantage until the crucible process that he almost certainly used became widely known. Outside the capital, it was much harder to get hold of good quality hooks, but by the eighteenth century the situation began to change and Kirby hooks like the ones shown below were being exported around the globe in competition with many other suppliers.

Kirby hooks

By the nineteenth century, the British hook trade had taken itself out of London and settled at Redditch, a move which was accompanied by the first, rather chaotic attempts to standardise hook sizes. In parallel with this development, at some point during the eighteenth century, anglers had begun to move away from the spade-ended hooks they had used for so long and adopt the eyed hook instead. Eyed hooks were nothing new and the archeological record indicates that they have been around since Neolithic times, but they didn’t exactly set the market aflame overnight and they didn’t become the rule until the early twentieth century. Part of the explanation lies in the problems involved bending fine metal around small curvatures, though much of the delay was due to way hooks were sold, already whipped onto gut.

Redditch hooksBy 1823, there were 17 firms of hook makers in Redditch alone and in their attempts to rival each other and competitors in Aberdeen, Dublin, Kendal and Limerick, a wide range of different patterns had evolved some of which survive yet: Needle point; Round bend; Sproat; Kendal; Limerick; Aberdeen; Sneck, O’Shaughnessy; Kinsey; and Kirby to name but a few.

Hook making was very labour intensive and the larger companies often farmed it out as piece-work, with local families earning pennies by bending the hooks, while the sharpening and polishing was carried out in nearby mills. Enforcing any kind of quality control in this environment was problematic, the main problem being the unreliability of batch tempering, which meant that anglers had to test every hook before they used it, a source of much annoyance. However, the Norwegian firm Mustad, which was founded in 1876, paved the way for modern and reliable hook production to begin by introducing hook making machines to its factory.

Britain sustained a considerable hook making industry until the late 20th century, when Partridge, the last major player, was taken over by Mustad. Nowadays many of the hooks used by British anglers are made in Japan, a company with as long a hook making tradition as our own and one that has been rather better at sustaining it.