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George Selwyn Marryat

James OgdenIn April 28th, 1879, a chance encounter changed the entire course of fly fishing history: Frederic Halford dropped into John Hammond's fishing shop in Winchester to buy some flies. There was another angler in the shop and although Halford may not have known him by sight, he would have known him by name, because the other fisherman already had a formidable reputation as a dry fly man. Halford wrote very little about the event, but it must have made a deep impression upon him, even allowing for the fact that he couldn't have had any idea of what would follow. It is easy to imagine the pair standing before the counter, Halford extending his hand, and the expression on his face when the other was introduced as George Selwyn Marryat. Later, Halford wrote later that he was much impressed with Marryat's personality, and went so far as to admit that he was loath to leave the shop.

It is hard to think of any other encounter which has had more influence on the subsequent course of fly fishing, with the exception perhaps of Izaac Walton's meeting with Charles Cotton. Between them, Halford and Marryat would change the face of dry fly fishing out of recognition, developing patterns that catapulted it into the modern age. Fortunately, they were both in the prime of their lives, perhaps at the peak of their intellectual and fly fishing skills. At the time, Halford was thirty-five years old, Marryat only a few years older.

Marryat is a shadowy figure, and unfortunately we know relatively little about him beyond anecdote and a few references by Halford. He was born in 1840 and won a scholarship to Winchester in 1854 - after leaving school he joined the army, where he served in a cavalry regiment during the Indian Mutiny. He returned to England in 1870, and, having no need to work as a result of an inheritance, quickly applied his abundant talents to building up a reputation as a skilled dry fly fisherman. After Marryat met Halford in Hammond's, the two quickly became firm friends; a friendship which changed Halford's life. In 1880, after Marryat had taught him to tie flies, Halford took rooms at Houghton Mill, where the pair did everything they could to set out as much as possible about the theory and practice of dry fly fishing. Halford wrote that the motivation for the development of the series of dry flies to which he subsequently devoted his life was the many discussions he had had with Marryat about the lack of uniformity among the patterns sold in the shops:

Not only did the sizes, the shapes and the colours vary among different fly-dressers, but the same fly-tyer would make considerable variation in his flies, and at times a dozen delivered by the same man as the same fly would contain several varieties. The necessity of systematising our artificial flies in this way impressed itself very strongly upon us, and eventually I decided to publish a work on the methods of dressing the flies, with a considerable number of patterns described and illustrated in colours.

Halford's first work, Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, was published in 1886. Halford tells the reader that he drew heavily on Marryat's natural talent and experience and he never made any secret of the fact that he wanted Marryat to be joint author, but the latter, ever keen on avoiding the limelight, declined. The extent of Marryat's influence on Floating Flies can only be guessed at, but it must have been immense, given that Halford had comparatively little experience of fly-tying techniques - and, ironically, of fishing the Mayfly - at that stage. Indeed, in those early days, the majority of what Halford knew about fly tying was learned from Marryat. Dr. Thomas Sanctuary said, for example, that the idea of tying dry flies with paired upright wings was Marryat's, rather than Halford's, and although this was actually a much older idea, it shows how little Halford knew about fly design at the time of the pair's first meeting. You can download a copy of Floating Flies from the library.

After Floating Flies was published, Halford and Marryat pursued increasingly separate paths, possibly because, although Halford was a dedicated dry fly man, Marryat was not - and his fly wallet, which yet survives in the collection of the Fly Fishers' Club in London, bears witness to this. Marryat developed at least one nymph pattern and around a dozen of the patterns he invented have survived. Sadly, Marryat died during an epidemic on 14th February 1896, and he is buried in Salisbury cathedral. Many regard him as the most skilled dry fly fisherman that ever lived.

You can read more about the times that Marryat lived in in Terry Lawton's book The Life and Times of George Selwyn Marryat.