Of all the companies who have ever been involved in the manufacture and supply of fishing tackle, there is no doubt that Hardy Brothers of Alnwick stand out as the foremost maker. Now, this is a sweeping statement that certainly will be challenged by many people.
Yes, there were better reel makers, better rod makers, and more inventive designers. David Slater and Percy Wadham did make reels that were more aesthetic than Hardy’s, Gregory was possibly the finest bait maker, and Allcock and Milward produced more rods, reels, and tackle. However, no other maker managed to fuse so many attributes into one company over so long a period.
Even I, with very few Hardy items in my collection, must admit to their greatness and recognise their preeminent position in the world of tackle makers. How did this situation occur and what has sustained it?
The company was founded in 1872, according to the companies official history and unlike so many tackle makers of the past it is still in business today. I know that there are other companies in business that have been established many years, but do they still make tackle today?
As John Drewett points out in his book the first advert placed in the Alnwick Mercury on 26th July 1873 states that they will commence business on Saturday 2nd August 1873.
In 1873 Hardy’s were making and selling reasonable quality tackle that was slightly more expensive than the average available. This is still the case today, a 9-foot graphite fly rod costs a little over £200 (February 1996) and although they have had their ups and downs over the years they survived.
Almost from the first few years of their existence, they have identified the particular market that they wished to sell to and stuck at it. On the few occasions that they have tried to compete against the mass-produced items at the lower end of the retail spectrum, they have failed.
They returned to the market that they knew, where people demanded quality items and expected to pay more for them. There is the famous picture of a Rolls Royce outside Hardy’s shop in Pall Mall London, used by Rolls Royce for their catalogue. Quality car, quality tackle.
They produced tackle guides that not only listed the various items that were for sale but also contained articles with advice on aspects of fishing. This meant that the guides would be kept, read over again and less likely to be thrown out Hence years later these books would be available to modern collectors and researchers. Only Allcock and Farlow’s come anywhere near Hardy’s in the number of catalogues available today.
In this way, people could be informed and much more likely to collect something that they knew something about. Consider the well-known reel the Cascapedia and the relatively unknown Archemedian. The Cascapedia was a Hardy copy of the Vom Hofe multiplier, made for the export market of Canada. There were about 100 made in four different sizes and at auction make between £4500 and £6000. (£24,000 plus premium October 2022)
I know that Jamie Maxstone Graham had one on his list a few years back at £8000. During the last three years, I have seen about twelve.
The Archemedian was a reel made by Fredrick Skinner in Sheffield about 1848 with a registered design number. In the last three years, (October 2022 and I have seen two more) I have seen three examples, all different, and priced around the £2000 mark. Now, this could be one of the most important reels that has ever been made. So why is the Cascapedia worth two to four times more than the Archemedian? In my opinion, the magic name Hardy is on a well-documented, well-known, reasonably scarce, reel used for game fishing.
All that is known about the Archemedian is what I have said in the above paragraph. No one has found the registration documents, a tackle guide, or a review of the reel. Skinner did not write a book extolling the virtues of the reel. No other writers of books or articles for newspapers wrote about it. It might have been reviewed in some obscure article somewhere who knows? So why invest in an unknown quantity? Anyone who buys a Cascapedia at the going rate can be reasonably confident of getting his money back if he has to, from one of the thousands of Hardy collectors throughout the world. Archemedian collectors that I know can be counted on two fingers.
All Hardy tackle is marked with their name. You don’t have to look at something and say “is this an unmarked, unknown rare Perfect variant”? No, it is more likely to be a copy of the Perfect made by one of the many people who worked for them over the years. The same applies to many unidentified reels people are more inclined to buy or collect something they can at least identify.
The company made or sold a very wide range of tackle from the 1 ½ ins boys reel through to the 9 ins extra wide Fortuna reels. They produced tackle for game, coarse and sea fishing. Rods ranged from the 4 ft. 10 ins Palakona trout fly rods thought to the 20 ft. Gold Medal Salmon rods.
The accessories numbered in their hundreds including such rarities as the “Third Arm” for disabled anglers returning from the First World War, the Halford 1904 Dry Fly Reservoir, and the crystal decanters in an oak reservoir that I once saw.
They applied for more British patents than any other company. There are sixty-four patents listed in the patent book.
When the company was founded, the British Empire had not reached its peak and was still expanding. This overseas expansion ensured that the firm Hardy Brothers would grow also. In every part of the Empire rulers and civil servants would be needed to administer it. They would want to carry on with the same hobbies and pastimes they enjoyed in England. They would bring their fishing tackle with them or send to England for it.
So, with thousands of different items of tackle to collect there is literally something for everyone. All these factors combined to produce more books and articles on Hardy than any other company. With more access to information, it is easier to collect Hardy tackle.
Some years ago, it dawned on Hardy Brothers that there was a marketing advantage to be gained by emphasising the past and the traditions of the company. They started a museum unfortunately, they realised too late that old tackle was valuable. Money, that they did not want to spend, or could not spend on old tackle, was required to furnish it. Most of the items on show are borrowed from individual private collectors and from the Hardy family.
Speak to any auction house, they all know Hardy. Go to Newark Antique Fair and you will see items of tackle with ridiculous prices on them. When you ask why it is so expensive, they say, “well it’s Hardy isn’t it” As I have said earlier the company was founded in 1872 when William Hardy started to trade from Paikes Street in Alnwick in the county of Northumberland. He was the eldest son of John James Hardy the county coroner.
There is some doubt as to whether John James, William’s brother, joined at the same time or one year later. I tend to go for the idea that they both started the company together as the advert in the Alnwick Mercury on 26th. July 1872 “intimate that they have taken premises in Paikes Street.” At the same time, they announced that they intended to carry on the business of “gunsmiths, whitesmiths, cutlers etc.”
Hardy’s were just another average provincial gun maker competing against their peers for the run-of-the-mill business. For quality guns, they would lose out to the major London makers. When they turned their attention to rod making it was a different matter.
Many people who shot and hunted also fished and it was not long before they were making split cane fishing rods and selling reels. During the first twenty years of the company, most of the production and marketing thrust was in rod making. The reels sold were almost certainly bought in.
Hexagonal split cane rod making was established in this country in the middle of the nineteenth century having been firmly established in America first. During the first few years of the business, the best split cane rods came from America and it was this situation that Hardy’s set out to challenge either by design or accident.
In 1881 the first patent was taken out covering the “W” fitting and the lockfast joint for rods. Two years later Hardy Brothers took part in the Great Fisheries Exhibition. They came away with orders that would ensure the future of the company and launch them on the world stage. The trout rod that they displayed won the Gold Medal, beating fifty-two other entrants.
The premises in Paikes Street were too small and a move was made to Fenkle Street. This again proved to be too small and eventually, they settled in Bondgate in 1890. At this time, it is more than likely that reels were not made but bought in from wholesalers. A good example of this is the Hardy Birmingham, possibly made in Birmingham by either Heaton, Slater or Malloch and sold to many other retailers.
In January 1891 one of the world’s most famous patents was granted when Forster Hardy applied for patent 612 for the Perfect reel.
Forster was the third brother to join the firm and he was by training a marine engineer. It is possible that with his arrival at the company they had gained the expertise to work in metal. Not only would the manufacture of reels be possible but also fly tins, baits and bait mounts, and countless other items.
The perfect reel was a radical departure from anything previously known to the angler. It was available in various sizes from 2 1/4 ins. through to 5 1/4 ins. Throughout its seventy-six years of existence, there were many changes and variations and it is these that help us to date the reels accurately. However, it is not the purpose of this article to delve into the ways of dating reels, especially as the definitive book on Hardy reels has been published. Hardy Brothers, The Master The Men and Their Reels.
It was whilst looking at the various patents that I noticed something strange. All the early Hardy patents were in the name of W and JJ Hardy except the one for the Perfect reel which was in the name of Forster Hardy and this has caused much discussion and speculation over the years. I do know that Forster did give up the reel department to L. R. Hardy and moved to the London premises in Pall Mall.
In February of 1891, the brothers were back at the patent office with a design for a creel which naturally was called the Perfect Creel. Three Years later and another patent for a reel was taken out and the Combined Fly and Spin was introduced.
This was the great age of tackle inventions and Hardy’s were regularly at the patent office along with many others entering their latest inventions. Everyone was trying to invent something to catch more fish and, in some cases, make money out of it.
It is just the same today; we are all looking for that magic item that will give us the edge. The latest fly, reel, rod, or spinner will catch more fishermen than fish even today. If thermodynamically, independently sprung, and balanced underpants were a proven fish catcher I would wear them. Forget the fact that they would not work, I would try them.
Many members of the Hardy family joined the firm and specialised in various aspects of fishing. Harold Hardy became a member of the Tunny Club, in 1934 he joined the committee and was no doubt instrumental in getting Hardy tackle accepted as the right tackle to use for Tunny fishing. The fact that a prize, The Hardy Cup, was awarded for the heaviest fish caught on Hardy tackle also helped. Harold Hardy was based for a time in Scarborough and his company would also hire out Tunny tackle.
The company could not survive as an independent tackle maker when the downturn came in the late 1960’s it eventually ended up as a subsidiary of Harris & Sheldon. With its many assets. including some wonderful salmon fishing, the company would continue. Today it not only makes fishing tackle but products for the aerospace industry.
You can visit the museum and by prior appointment have a factory visit I have, and it is well worth it
So how do we go about identifying and dating Hardy tackle? The first thing to remember is that every item of Hardy tackle that left the factory legally would be marked with the Hardy name. Let’s deal with rods. All Hardy rods would be marked with a number until 1904 when they would also be pre-fixed with a letter.
|A 1900-16||B 1916- 20|
|C 1920- 22||D 1922- 24|
|E 1925- 55||E20023 – 1931|
|E22841 – 1932||E25142 – 1933|
|E38699 – 1934||E32130 – 1935|
|E36205 – 1936||E40003 – 1937|
|E45446 – 1938||E49493 – 1939|
|E52332 – 1940||E53645 – 1941|
|E55131 – 1942||E56091 – 1943|
|E56400 – 1944||E56856 – 1945|
|E57501 – 1946 E63837 -1948||E60700 – 1947 E67201 – 1949|
|E70091 – 1950||E75101 – 1951|
|E81001 – 1952||E86201 – 1953|
|E91001 – 1954||E96203 – 1955|
|H101 – 1955||H4601 – 1956|
|Hl0122 – 1957||Hl4128 – 1958|
|H20679 – 1959||H27534 – 1960|
|H35184 – 1961||H48466 – 1962|
|H52738 -1963||H59558 – 1964|
|H66421 – 1965|
In 1966 rods were given a year letter. Now, this is all very well if you are a game fishing rod collector of split cane rods. What about greenheart and bamboo rods? They have a G prefix to a number. In my own experience, this has very little meaning to the accurate dating of these rods. I originally thought that it referred to greenheart rods, however, when I acquired a Hardy Wallis whole cane and split cane top rod it also had a “G” number on it and I eventually worked out the Hardy Brothers fishing rod dating information.
In 1927 the “G” number was introduced to distinguish rods that were made of split bamboo, from Greenheart, whole bamboo, or a combination of materials. The records for the period September 1938 until June 1945 are missing.
1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944 – missing
With reels, it is a little easier as we know dates when Hardy’s either introduced something or dropped it.
On the inside of reels made from about the mid-1900s, there are two or three initials. These tell us the name of the person who made the reel. So WS stands for Wilf Sinton who mainly made fly reels. The practice of putting initials inside reels was dropped in the mid-1950s. (This has subsequently been re-introduced)
The feet of the early reels were usually brass and fixed to the reel frame by brass pins. Alloy was used for the feet of reels but was not universally adopted until the 1950s. In 1928 the design of the foot was changed from a smooth one on both sides to a ribbed one on the side nearest the reel and a smooth one nearest the rod. The reason for this was to give the reel-fixing rings on the rod a better grip.
I do not know if they used ivory on any of their reels for handles. The Birmingham, Hercules and half-ebonite reels have to be discounted as I am certain that they were bought in. Ivorine, a man-made material used also for piano keys was the main material for handles and was joined by ebonite around 1908.
The finish on the reels was either bronzing or black leading. This was replaced by enamel staving in the early 1950s.
The check mechanism found in the fly reels changed over the years with the original 1891mechanism being modified in 1896. Changes to the check mechanism also took place in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1921 when the duplicated MK II was introduced. So, any reel with a MK I check can be dated to between 1917 and 1921.
We can also date reels by optional extras that were only offered for a specific time span. From 1924 until 1939 you could have an auxiliary brake fitted. This was made by cutting away a section of the rim and replacing it with another piece of metal pivoted at one end. By applying pressure, a slowing of the drum could be achieved when a fish ran with the line.
Between 1911 and 1917 it was possible to order an ”L” shaped agate line guard for the perfect reel. At the same time, the screw tensioners had a protective strap over them that was abandoned in 1918. On some of the perfects and St. George reels, there was a locking nut on the screw tensioners as well, this also was stopped in 1918.
The famous rod-in-hand trademark seems to have disappeared in about 1912. I think that it is also around this time that the practise of stamping reels on the front of the drum disappeared and was confined to the back of the reel. Remember also that a patent would only last for 16 years after that it was usually dropped from the marking. It would therefore be easy to look up the patent and place a reel within 16 years. Combine this with some of the known dates of major changes and we are getting close to accurately dating a reel.
I recently came across a fly reel that looked exactly like a Uniqua reel but there was no Hardy name. On the inside were the initials WS, so I knew it was a Hardy reel. I also know that the chances of it being a rare variant were practically nil.
After a little more thinking and speaking to a friend it soon became apparent that this was two different halves joined to make one reel. The first Uniqua had the name on the drum. The back of the reel was an early one, the drum was later. It was more than possible that it was replaced by Hardy at a later date.
There is much documented evidence regarding Hardy tackle, and this is just a short attempt to give some of you a taster of what is known. It is not to be the definitive work on Hardy’s- that is nearly ready for publication and we will inform you when it is.