The Nottingham reel

‘Wide arbour’ reels were the big new thing in fly fishing a few years back, with new ranges being launched by every major manufacturer in a blaze of publicity, which were earnestly promoted by fresh-faced sales teams who hadn’t the slightest idea that their designers had come up with a new idea that was a century old.

Nottingham reel by Manton of CalcuttaThe wide-arbour reel has been around ever since the first wooden Nottingham reel left Joseph Turner’s lathe in his Pomfret Street workshop a hundred and fifty years ago; although it must have done so to the accompaniment of a certain amount of gnashing of teeth. The idea behind his new reel was so good that Turner had barely placed it on the market before his product was being imitated by another reel maker, a chap by the name of Lowkes.

The Lowkes reel was by no means perfect, but it was better than anything else that was available and in no time at all a small community of reel makers had grown up in the Nottingham area, turning out variations on the same theme: a wide arbour reel, typically with a four inch diameter, made almost entirely out of wood apart from a skeletal metal reinforcement braced across the back, which was found to be necessary to prevent the reels warping and to allow attachment of the foot and the central axle.

The spool on a Nottingham was attached to the reel using a brass nut, but by the very early 1880s, a style called the centrepin had put in its appearance, the key feature of which was a sprung latch which allowed the spool to be released by pressing a button in its centre; on no account refer to Nottinghams as centrepins, especially in front of a certain type of collector. Lacking even this refinement, Nottingham reels tended to be very simple, most of them having no form of check whatsoever, but this was part and parcel of the “Nottingham style” of fishing and generations of anglers used them to catch vast quantities of fish. By the last quarter of the century, the big tackle makers had begun to muscle in and what had started as a cottage industry had been taken over by firms like Allcock, Farlow and Slater. This didn’t prevent a lot of fun being had along the way and despite their homegrown origin, some Nottinghams are absolute works of art, there being a surprising amount of room for self-expression in the making of these deceptively simple reels. The chief opportunity for variation lay in the metal skeleton, which quickly evolved its own personality with the result that you can find every type ranging from stars, through cruciforms, to “frog” and diamond backs; while the more expensive reels boasted rosewood with a grain that wouldn’t have disgraced a best-quality shotgun and some even had metal let in by way of decoration and reinforcement. For reasons which are hard to fathom, Nottinghams have never made particularly high prices on the collectors’ market until recently and so it isn’t too difficult to build up a representative set.

Nottingham reel front detailAlthough they were used for just about every type of bait fishing, the raison d'ĂȘtre of the Nottingham was spinning. Artificial baits had been around since Walton’s day, but until the last few years of nineteenth century, for most anglers “spinning” meant fishing with a dead bait mounted on a flight and there were two different ways of doing it, “Thames” or “Southern” style and the Nottingham way. The most obvious difference the two methods was that the northern anglers cast direct from the reel, hence the lack of a check, because they relied on the inertia of the bait flying out to pull the line from the reel, which perforce had to run as freely as possible. Casts of thirty yards or more were made by the experts, although this sort of distance was only possible if a heavy bait was used, lighter baits being cast by pulling loops of line down between the rings and shooting them as the cast was made. The very nature of the method meant that very light twisted silk lines were necessary and these tangled instantly if they were released before the cast was made, so there was no choice but to cast off the reel.

By contrast, the southern anglers, who used metal small arbour reels which were fitted with checks, stripped heavier eight plait silk line from their reels and then cast in much the same way as a modern fly fisherman does, in as much as they shot line that had been coiled beforehand on the ground, or was held in loops in the hand. The Thames men had no choice but to cast like this, because their spools didn’t run freely enough to allow them to cast off the reel as northern rivals did; even the style of retrieval differed between the two methods, with the Thames men retrieving line by hand, while the northern fishermen wound in the line directly onto the reel. One of the more subtle, but important differences between the two methods was that many of the Nottingham men used a much finer line than their southern counterparts, which was made of silk not that much thicker than cotton and, according to J. W. Martin, was known as “Derby twist”.

Irish linen braided lineThere were bitter arguments about the merits of the two techniques, but although the Nottingham style demanded a somewhat heavier bait, and the Thames men, if they managed to prevent their lines snagging, could on average cast a little further, there really wasn’t much to choose between them - the practice of casting light baits long distances belongs to the twentieth century and the invention of the threadline reel, which inspired the fixed spool tackle we use today. If any judgement is to be passed on the two methods, it is that the Nottingham style worked so well that it was still in widespread use right up to the moment when nylon became cheaply available after the Second World War and when the Fishing Gazette printed F. W. K. Wallis’ description of his new Nottingham-style cast in 1927, it was big news - interesting when you reflect that thread-line spinning reels had been around for twenty years by then and the Thames method was decidedly old-fashioned. So as a method of fishing, it has considerable strengths and although the Nottingham reel is long gone, the style has survived to the extent that modern centrepin fishermen still use it.

Wooden Nottinghams were cheap and practical, but they had their drawbacks, chiefly the weight of the hardwood spool and its vulnerability to warping. The obvious solution, which was to build the whole reel out of metal, wasn’t practical until the industry got its head around aluminium alloys - other metals being far too heavy - so various interim measures were tried, including binding the spool with brass and experiments with just about every other method of reinforcement you can imagine.

Aerial from Chris Sandford collectionThe breakthrough came when Henry Coxon, a journalist who fished with J.W. Martin and F.W.K. Wallis, had the ingenious idea of building a lighter, but still wide-arbour spool out of ebonite, supported by thin metal spokes, the assembly being mounted on a walnut or mahogany back. This might seem a strange choice of materials until you appreciate the problems that were being experienced with early aluminium alloys, which were incredibly expensive at the time and far too brittle to be used in delicate components which had to take any kind of punishment. Coxon didn’t have to look far to make his discovery - his brother made bicycles - and he took it to Allcock’s who began making the design as the Aerial reel in 1896. A measure of the soundness of his original idea is that wooden backed, ebonite spooled Aerials were manufactured until 1928 and had a tremendous following among coarse fishermen because they were light, silent, incredibly free running, and thanks to the ventilated spool, dried the line into the bargain. Needless to say, aluminium Aerials eventually appeared and modern centrepins still use the same basic design, which has never been substantially improved upon. Fly fishermen, meanwhile, were condemned to use narrow arbour reels until the fluff-chucking industry suddenly discovered the merits of the Nottingham design, only a century after Henry Coxon had perfected it.

One of the greatest ironies of this story is that when the Nottingham reels shown in the illustrations were built, powered flight was an impossible dream and aluminium cost nearly as much as gold, yet a bunch of practically-minded men in the Midlands, most of whom had left school as soon as they could, managed to solve a problem that had baffled some of the best minds on the planet. The materials they used were nothing out of the ordinary - rosewood and brass - and yet they paired them with a sense of style that modern reel designers struggle to match. These reels were the heralds of a revolution and the names of the men who made them are virtually unknown; but their products were fished all over the world and if you look hard enough, you will find Nottingham big game and even mahseer reels. Not a bad result for the back-street boys in Pomfret.