A Town Like Aberdeen

William Brown Ebonite and Brass Plate Wind Reel. Possibly Slater Made.

Many people have an eclectic tackle collection, others will specialise in one make, or only reels, or a specific area. I know one collector who only collects Hardy split cane rods under 8 foot.

Some collect within time lines and other, like Colin Innes collect tackle from Aberdeen

“Why collect tackle from Aberdeen?” is a question I am sometimes asked. Well – I was brought up in the area, fishing mostly on the rivers Don and Deveron, so when I started collecting it seemed to be the most obvious place to concentrate on.

I had a brief flirtation with Hardy tackle but luckily managed to trade most of that on a couple of years ago. I still get tempted by some of those wonderful Perth style wooden reels, Sun and Planets and, oh yes, a Malloch trout in a biscuit barrel case and a Pirn would be nice too! But in the main I stick to Aberdeen tackle and the old tackle catalogues.

Robert Catto & John Davidson Reel
Robert Catto & John Davidson crank wind reel

So why collect tackle from a particular area? An advantage is that your collection can comprise the whole spectrum of piscatoriana, rods, reels (including fly and spinning), flies, lures, gaffs, nets, ephemera etc. You could amass a selection of the major British manufacturers.

It is no secret that some “makers” merely stamped or engraved their names on to reels made by others (for example reels made by Dingley, Malloch, J W Young and Reuben Heaton’s can all be seen with the name William Garden stamped on them). Having said that, most major towns have had a few indigenous makers over the last couple of centuries.

There is no date restriction to the collection. A further consideration is that you will soon develop a knowledge of the relative rarity of an item and hence, will be in a better position when buying.

Graham Turner’s book “Fishing Tackle – A Collectors Guide” contains the results of some research into tackle makers from Scottish towns, London and some of the more famous names in tackle making. There are however gaps such as tackle makers from English and Welsh towns plus Scottish villages and smaller towns.

I have found the research into Aberdeen makers relatively easy by going to the reference library and looking up street indexes published for Aberdeen each year since about 1824. Anything before this date seems difficult to obtain information on.

Another confusion is that clock makers also made brass reels as well as clocks. A reel owned by Roger Still is by a chap (one assumes) called G. Gill and the only reference found so far is of a clock maker by this name operating in the 1770’s – this reel would seem to support this date.

Also, it is difficult to find out much about tackle made in the outlying villages of the Aberdeen area, such as William Blacklaws of Kincardine O’Neil (reputed to have made salmon rods for Kelson), finding only items of tackle or the odd advert in old books and regional magazines.       

Street directories are a good source of information, but they are not definitive. For example, I have a 4 5/8 -inch brass crank wind reel with a narrow drum, curved crank wind handle, pinned to the spindle with “H” shaped foot bridge and a convex plate that is inscribed “Robt Catto Junr. Abdn” and “John Davidson.” The engraving is by the same hand and would seem to have been done at the same time. This style of reel would have been made about 1840 – 1880, but can I find out anything about it?

Well I have some ideas. Robert Catto was a city councillor, describing his trade as merchant in 1842, but was John Davidson related to Alex Davidson (see list of makers) or was he a solicitor as suggested in a directory of Aberdeen businesses? So, who made it and what was the connection between the two worthies? Any help would be appreciated.

The picture is of the Catto reel as previously described. This seems to be the dominant style of earlier reels marked with a North East of Scotland tackle shop name. Examples can be found with names from both Aberdeen and Inverness. For the purpose of this article I will call this size the NE of Scotland pattern. Brass plate wind reels were first patented in Scotland and from the 1880’s to the 1920’s mostly made by Malloch in Scotland and are called “Birmingham” reels.  

One problem I have with reels made, say pre 1800, is whether the name on a reel is that maker, retailer or that of the reel’s owner. The style of engraving in each case is usually the same. It is obvious with recognised makers such as William Brown but what about a recently acquired reel that is inscribed “CB Williams, 122 North Broadford, Aberdeen” I can’t find a record of a maker with this name, so I will have to find out if North Broadford was in an area of private houses or in a more commercial area. Back to the reference library!

David Henderson Brass Crank Reel with Serpentine Handle
David Henderson Brass Crank Reel with Serpentine Handle

The list printed later in the article summarises the tackle makers of Aberdeen since 1821. This is a shortened version of one I originally produced for the Heritage Tackle Collectors Club (ed. now defunct) that contained address details, name changes and transfer of ownerships.  I have also noted the type of tackle I have found by these makers to illustrate the variety of tackle available.

David Henderson Brass Crank Reel Name on the Foot Inside
David Henderson Brass Crank Reel Name on the Foot Inside.

An item of note is a reel by David Henderson (1846 – 1870) that must be one of the rarer items of Scottish tackle (you can keep all your Ustonson and Coxon reels – this is it for me!). It is a 3½ inch brass serpentine handled crank wind, convex plated checkless reel with hot lacquer finish and is named on the upper part of the foot.  

Robert Wilson (1864 – 1881) is also of interest. I have two brass crank winds by him that are of the typical NE of Scotland style and a most unusual 4 1/8-inch plate wind in the same convex style with a silent check system and five pillars; this must be one of the earlier plate wind reels.  

For the remainder of the article I will concentrate on the three companies that seem to have produced most of the interesting old Aberdeen “made” tackle that appears on the market. I have excluded JS Sharpe for the time being as much has already been written about him. There may be scope for an article about his reels in the future.

Playfair of Aberdeen D Minnow.
Playfair of Aberdeen D Minnow.

Charles Playfair started trade as a gunsmith, the first advert I have found mentioning fishing tackle was in 1842 and reads:  

“Charles Playfair can with confidence recommend his present stock of fishing tackle, consisting of London made rods; as also of his own manufacture reels, lines, flies, silkworm gut, Dublin & Addlington hooks”.

On 12th August 1955 the following appeared in the local press:

“Charles Playfair & Co gunmakers and fishing tackle manufacturers thank their customers for their patronage over the last 134 years and intimates that with effect from 5th August 1955 they have sold their business at 18 Union Terrace, Aberdeen to William Garden Limited 216 Union Street”.

Charles Playfair & Co Advertising Envelope.
Charles Playfair & Co Advertising Envelope.

The name of Playfair appears mostly on rods and the rods in question are called “Grants Vibration”. These were designed by a Mr. Grant of Inverness and manufactured by Playfair in Aberdeen. The special features of these fine greenheart rods are a swelled spliced joint designed with a turned-up end that reduces the amount of vibration usually associated with this type of rod. The rods are individually numbered on the splice joint and this can be used to help date them.

The following comes from some of Playfair’s original record books. They have information such as who the rod was made for (it’s great to find out the rod you have just bought for £20 was made for an Earl!) what action it has, how long, how many tops any special features, actual weight (with or without fittings) and when the rod was made. The books also record any repairs that were carried out on the rods by Playfair. Some of the earlier Vibrations were made to order with nickel silver fittings, which look great when polished up. As to fishing with them I find that they have quite a slow forgiving action and when balanced with a brass reel can be fished with in comfort for almost an hour!

Charles Playfair & Co Advert.
Charles Playfair & Co Advert.

The first record I can find for a Vibration rod is in 1896 and date details are a bit vague till about 1925. Two of the more interesting rods in the record books are as follows:

Charles Playfair & Co Advert for the Vibration Rods
Charles Playfair & Co Advert for the Grant Vibration Rods

Rod no. 4614 is a 13-foot 6-inch three-piece Salmon Rod, weight 15½ oz. 2 drams made 15/1/46 for HM the King.

Rod no. 4615 is a 12-foot three-piece Salmon Rod, weight 10½ oz. 2 drams made 15/1/6 for HM the Queen.  

Charles Playfair & Co Advertising Envelope.
Charles Playfair & Co Advertising Envelope.

It is interesting to note that Playfair usually refers to Scotland as NB, North Britain. The manufacture of these rods eventually passed to William Garden and then to J. Somers. Playfair also manufactured lures such as Phantoms (marked with “C” and “P” on the fins) and the Dee minnow, a fairly early metal devon as illustrated in the article.  

The majority of reels I find from Aberdeen seem to be marked with William Garden’s name. The following is from the 1890’s:

“William Garden, Gun Fishing Rod, Reel and Tackle maker 122 1/2 Union Street Aberdeen. This business has now been before the public since the year 1869, at which date it became established by the present proprietor. The premises consist of a handsome granite building, having a frontage of twenty-four feet, the interior covers an area of thirty by twenty feet and is fitted out in a superior style, the workshop occupying a position at the rear of the premises. This business as conducted by Mr. William Garden enjoys a first class, influential and widespread connection, goods being forwarded to all parts of the United Kingdom and exported to India* and North America. Lovers of the sport may be very materially consulting their pleasure and interests by devoting a careful attention to the stock at all times by Mr. William Garden. Fishing rods, made of well-seasoned and carefully selected wood and salmon and trout flies in great variety, or dressed to any pattern. Fishing tackle is a subject to which Mr. Garden has devoted very careful consideration. His celebrated “loch flies” are prepared from a special pattern. Mr. Garden employs a staff numbering twelve workmen. He takes the active persona superintendence of this important undertaking and his long practical experience renders Mr. Garden in a very valuable and exceptional friend”

William Garden Fishing Gazette Advert.
William Garden Fishing Gazette Advert.

* I have never seen a Garden Mahseer reel, so please let me know if you’ve got one!

Garden retailed a vast amount of tackle for Malloch in the period 1880 — 1920. I have found eight different sized brass plate wind reels, as illustrated in the Malloch catalogue, in sizes from 2½ to 4½ inches. All stamped W. Garden Aberdeen. Malloch catalogued this style in fifteen sizes from 2 to 6 inches (ref 1912 catalogue)

William Garden also seemed to be a bit of a star in the fly-tying department. George Kelson, author of “The Salmon Fly”, attributed the dressing of the following Dee style flies to him:

Balmoral, Bumber, Glentana, Cluny, Gardener (!), Lady Grace, Goran (variation), Lizzie, Empress, Sherbrook, Clark, Double White, Winged Ackroyd Variant.

Kelson also states “William Garden is reputed to tie the Dee strip wing salmon fly better than anyone else in the whole of Great Britain” He carried on to say that an Ackroyd tied by Garden had survived 9 years of fishing and remained “in the best of condition”.

The following quote from Cecil Braithwaite’s book “Fishing Vignettes” illustrates the early mail order side of Gardens business; Braithwaite was fishing on the Sundial River in Norway in 1897.

“The catching of this salmon encouraged us to use smaller flies, but the difficulty was to get them. We wired to Garden, Aberdeen but although I put Union Street, ‘the red tape telegraph people’ returned it to us because I had not put the number. If I had left out Union Street, it would have been delivered. The result was, I had to wire again; after this delay it was nearly ten days before we got the smaller flies”

William Brown is, I believe, the longest operating fishing tackle shop in Scotland and if I had a favourite maker it has to be him. The quality of the tackle bearing his name always seems second to none. The finish on the reels always seems richer and deeper and the quality of his phantom minnows speaks for itself.

William Brown Phantom Minnow Address 1892-1908.
William Brown Phantom Minnow Address 1892-1908.

Brown was also something of an inventor of lures and flies. His most famous invention must have been the Phantom Minnow, which produced a series of imitators. However, the genuine Brown’s Phantom has a quality in manufacture and paint job that is seldom equalled by other manufacturers. A “B” and a “W” on the metal fins can identify them. Francis Francis seemed to be a fan, referring to the Phantoms in his books.

From “Lake & River”, 1874 “I looked up my old acquaintance Mr. Brown the inventor of the Phantom Minnow which is the very best artificial bait yet invented”  

William Brown Ebonite and Brass Plate Wind Reel with Nickel Silver Rims and handle Receiver. Possibly Malloch Made.
William Brown Ebonite and Brass Plate Wind Reel with Nickel Silver Rims and handle Receiver. Possibly Malloch Made

Locke’s “Tweed and Don”, published in 1860 had the earliest reference to the WB Phantom that I can find; the passage may be long but is worth repeating here.  “The trout here (on the river Don) are large and plentiful, and the water is good for partail and minnows, or Browns phantom minnows, of Aberdeen, can be used with great success in some of the rapid places. And you will seldom fail to hook large trout if the water is heavy or discoloured. Since this implement came into use, I have seldom failed with it, except when fishing the Tweed, the waters of which run much smoother and over a less rugged bottom, in most places here the fish harbour, but neither in Tweed nor Don do you need to throw it twice in the same place. If they do not seize it at its first visit, do not repeat it. Not so the partail, however; they will follow it and take it at the side, when you are recovering it to pitch it forward again. There can be no doubt it is the smell that attracts them in this case, and also the real nature of the bait. They only dart once at the phantom, which they decry to be a substance having dangerous qualities. I have taken salmon on both Tweed and Don, but I would not like to affirm that they were clean ones. The phantom may now be bought at the principle tackle shops of London. [it would be better named the phantom smolt]”.

Brown's Phantom Minnow Card Box.
Brown’s Phantom Minnow Card Box.

These lures ranged in size from about ½ inch to a whopping 7 inch (well, that is the biggest one I have seen), the range of paint style covers a huge range from plain silver or gold through to a very accurate brown trout pattern. Some Phantoms are marked with a “W.B & Son” on one fin only — I suspect that this stands for William Bartleet & Sons not to be confused with William Brown, can any lure collectors out there confirm this?

William Brown Ebonite and Brass Plate Wind Reel. Possibly Slater Made.
William Brown Ebonite and Brass Plate Wind Reel. Possibly Slater Made.

William Brown like William Garden was a renowned fly tier. Kelson attributed the following flies to him in “The Salmon Fly”; Gordon (variation), Silver Blue, Blue Charm, Yellow Eagle, Jeannie, Grey Eagle, Jockie, Gled Wing, Logie, Tartan, Sailor.

William Brown Review from the Field and Adverts.
William Brown Review from the Field and Adverts.

Reference to William Brown as a fly tier can also be found in Francis Francis “A Book on Angling” published in 1867. This quote is from a discussion on flies for the river Dee:

“Most of the flies are from Mr. Brown’s patterns, the well-known tackle maker of Aberdeen, the inventor of the phantom minnow. He dresses them as few others can”

William Brown Sale of the Tackle Business Notice.
William Brown Sale of the Tackle Business Notice.

The most important items of tackle to come from Aberdeen that I know of were sold at Sotheby’s sale on the 6th November 1985 and were catalogued as follows;

“A crank handled salmon reel, brass with convex plates and curved crank, free running, the back plate inscribed “Used by Wm. Brown for 30 years, Fishing Tackle Maker, Aberdeen, died 24th Jan. 1877, 3 7/8in” and a four piece Fly Rod by Wm. Brown, Hickory and Lancewood and horn or whalebone tip piece, 18ft 3 in.”

As I was an impoverished student in 1985, I could not afford to buy the above, but, a few years later, I discovered who did. I’m still trying to do a swap.  

In summary, the above is a taste of some of the tackle makers and retailers of Aberdeen and apart from the items in quotations, it is all my own opinion. If you disagree with any of it, for example the NE of Scotland pattern definition, please comment through the letter section; or with me direct. I am still very vague about the actual manufacturers of reels mentioned here and would really like to know readers thoughts. I hope I have shown that Aberdeen was an important town in the development and manufacture of tackle especially in the latter half of the 1800’s.

I have tried not to go into details of the characters themselves because (a) I don’t know that much about them and (b) I don’t want to add to the lengthy nature of this article.

If anybody has further information on any of these makers or has a reel from any of the earlier makers such as James Stratton or Ludovic Sandison please let me know. I am also interested in any information/photographs of folding handle winches, multipliers, clamp/spike winches or reels named on the feet from Aberdeen (even better would be some early catalogues).

Fishing Tackle Shops of Aberdeen Post 1820.
Fishing Tackle Shops of Aberdeen Post 1820.

Colin Innes  –  First Published in Issue 8 May 1995

Footnote. In April 2001 Colin finally got hold of the William Brown tackle when he bought it at auction.