Interviewed by Malcolm, added on 12/12/2007
The name John Drewett is widely recognized in vintage fishing tackle circles, most notably as an authority on early Hardy Brothers reels and the history of the company. In 1996 he published Hardy Brothers: The Masters, the Men and Their Reels, 1873-1939 . This lavishly designed and illustrated 586-page book is now regarded by many Hardy reel collectors and dealers as their main reference source. It is written in a straightforward, yet deceptively simple style. Along with much background information about the founding of the company itself, the book contains a number of interviews, biographies and photographs of the surviving reel-makers. One who stands out is Jimmy Smith, who apprenticed at the Alnwick factory in 1908 and was still working making reels in the 1970s (albeit part-time) after his retirement.
In this book, there are many fine photographs of most of the pre-war Hardy reels and their variations. Interestingly, at the back of the book production records of all the pre-war reels have been reproduced, showing how many of each modelwere made in the given years leading up to the second world war. John notes, however, that there were a few mysterious omissions made by Hardy's themselves, namely some of the 'specials', which were custom reels made to an individual's requirements. It is also surprising how few - often just a handful - of some models of reels were actually produced, although they were sometimes advertised in the catalogues for years. The Sea Altex is but one example. Reading John's book, I was amazed at the industriousness of Hardy Brothers in those far-off days, when their reels were mostly handmade using the very finest materials and top-quality engineering.
John Drewett has been in the tackle business for many years, starting his career alongside Fred Buller in his Edgware tackle shop, then going on to open a shop of his own in London. He remains a passionate coarse and game angler whose recent fishing partners have included (UK) angling notables Fred Taylor and Pete Thomas. John has spent a good deal of his time of late building his riverside 'fishing shed'. Having seen photos of this building, I am amazed by how lavish this 'shed' actually is.
Q: John, those with an interest in Hardy reels are indebted to you for researching and writing the definitive book on the history of Hardy Bros. reels. Can you explain your fascination with this subject?
I first started to collect, albeit on a very limited budget, whilst working for Fred Buller at his fishing tackle and gun shop Chubbs of Edgware. I had worked part time for Fred from about the age of 14 eventually leaving school to take an apprenticeship as a printing ink colour matcher. I continued to work for Fred weekends whilst doing 5 days in the laboratories. It was whilst travelling one Friday evening the 13 miles from the works to Chubbs that I suffered an accident on my motorcycle. This put me in hospital for 3 months and although I returned to the laboratories for a further 6 months I was behind on the day release college work and bored with industry. Fred had wanted me to take over running the tackle shop from a very competent lady fisher who was leaving and I thought "what the hell" it is better to work at something you are interested in rather than being bored in a laboratory. A few vintage items came into the shop during the next few years, nothing mind boggling but I acquired some vintage fixed spool reels and centrepins. After 5 years the opportunity arose for me to purchase a Fishing Tackle and Gun Shop 4 miles away. The owner had died unexpectedly at the age of 38 and fortunately for me the stock was minimal. Five years later and after a few 100 hour weeks I started to have a bit of spending money. This coincided with my acquisition of a 1934 Hardy catalogue. It was like opening Pandora`s box. It was crammed full of illustrations of top quality tackle. I remember being particularly impressed with the 9 inch Extra Wide Fortuna with the auxilliary hand brake and thinking someone should write a book about this fantastic gear and how it came to be produced. Fishing tackle auctions were less sophisticated twenty five years ago. It was all there to be sold as opposed to individual items being
"marketed". Rather than collecting say all the sizes of the various Perfects I chose to spend my funds acquiring a representative example of the various Hardy patterns. I was fortunate that a customer brought a Hardy 1913 catalogue into the shop and this kick started me into trying to acquire the Ebona Farne and Pomeroy tarpon reels. I think that most of the other collectors thought I was eccentric buying "sea"
reels however by now I had taken to making a couple of trips per year to Hardy`s factory in Alnwick where the late Bill Hardy kindly allowed me to make a study of the Company`s collection of catalogues. As most collectors are aware these sea and Tarpon fishing reels surface but rarely. However as I knew exactly what I was looking at and how long ( or in some cases short) a particular model had been in production I had the courage to buy some particularly scarce examples when they came to auction.
Q:What made you decide to publish the book yourself and what was the reasoning behind the 1939 cut-off date?
A good friend of mine` Alan Vare (now sadly deceased), introduced me to a book publisher whom he knew. I will mention no name but an appointment was set up and Alan I ventured into London for the meeting. I took with me the manuscript and some photographs to give this guy some idea as to what could be done. He gave me a contract to sign which essentially amounted to 10% of what the book retailed for with the proviso that should the book be remaindered - then I would still get only 10% of the knock out price. The contract also said that in the event of my doing another book then I had to offer it to this publisher first. I was not entirely happy with this and took the contract away unsigned. I gave it to Fred Buller to look at and Fred subsequently put a red pen through a number of clauses in the agreement. Possibly because of the ammendments my enquiry as to "what about the promised advance"? was met by the remark "oh you can`t get money out of a publisher that easily"
and that maybe I should find myself another publisher. I resolved at that point to publish the book myself. I was conscious that a lot of the material I had gathered was unique and was anxious that the photographs complimented items produced by the finest of British tackle makers. A publisher has to look at the exercise purely as a means of making money. He will determine at what price he wants the book to sell and then ensure that his publishing costs relate. It is of course a sound business formula but does not necessarily encourage the publishing of high quality books. Another friend pointed me in the direction of Dave Watson, who had worked on a number of projects for the author and carp fisherman Kevin Maddocks. Dave was a collector of tackle, had experience in the printing trade and was also a first class photographer. I had envisaged only a handful of photographs in colour but Dave asked if he could come over to my home and do some test shots. With one or two exceptions (gleaming black ebonite is challenging where the lighting is concerned) the results were fantastic and I resolved to get as much as I could pictured in colour. It was whilst "borrowing"
a number of my reels back from Hardy`s museum that the carriers managed to lose the parcel. Twelve years later I am still awaiting delivery so I had no choice at the time but to use the black and white photographs which I had taken. The answer to your question on the 1939 cut off date is easy. It appears a logical time when one is told we cannot make this book any bigger you must stop!
Q: Do you feel that collecting early Hardy reels has been affected as a result of your book?
For many years I had quite an advantage over many collectors which allowed me to acquire at auction some really oddball reels. Many collectors upon purchasing my book have had their eyes opened to some of the more unusual reels which Hardy made. In some instances I suspect that only one reel is in existence (the only prototype Perfect known to have survived to date is one example and Hardy`s attempts at a 7 1/2" multiplying Tarpon reel is possibly another) so the book enables collectors to enjoy in a limited way some unique tackle. A close friend and collector once said to me, "You can`t own it all." This is true but in my opinion the next best thing is to know about these items and appreciate their beauty and in some instances quirkyness through books. Without doubt I have had to pay higher prices when adding reels to my collection since publishing the book. A classic example is the auction of two White - Wickham Big Game reels. I had been looking for an example for years as I had conducted considerable research on White- Wickham. Why I don`t own these reels is a long story and I am not going to recount it here!
Q: You have mentioned that you have been ‘pigeonholed’ as having an interest in only Hardy reels, but that you are interested in all quality tackle. Given a choice, which vintage tackle do you find interests you the most?
Yes, I think I have been "pigeonholed" by some collectors which is not surprising really. I analysed what was likely to happen before I published the book and decided that my tastes were broad enough to enable me to sidestep on to other items of tackle if need be. I think my criteria is, if you can afford it always collect items of quality. Knowledge is very important when collecting and I have managed to put together a comprehensive collection of catalogues from numerous British tackle makers. The five Hardy reprints which I published give superb insight into what Hardy were doing between 1883 and 1905. The 1883 catalogue is the only known copy in existance and I was concerned that the information it contained might become lost in the event of fire. They were not published with a view to making money but because collectors would have little chance of acquiring examples of the originals. Regrettably an individual in the states has pirated my scans of these and began selling them on CD. Catalogues, in my opinion, are so much better produced in book form. However as a result of this experience I cannot see me reprinting any more.
Q: With much more information available and online auctions making tackle available on a worldwide basis, plus ever-increasing prices for some choice items, what do you see as the future of collecting vintage fishing tackle? And do you think that there are any more Hardy surprises waiting out there?
I would not like to predict what will happen in the future regarding all forms of collecting. The internet has certainly changed things and some not necessarily for the better. It appears to be much easier to hoodwink the unwary online, which brings me back to the point about knowledge. I certainly think there are lots of Hardy surprises still to surface. Last month I attended a vintage tackle fair which is held twice a year in Redditch, here in England. I had been looking for an example of Hardy`s "Vibrating Sensitive Boom and Lead" for twenty five years (an illustration is on page 381 of my book Malcolm) and I was surprised to find someone with two on his table. I really dont think that a lot of people realise how few some items of tackle were actually made. We tend to apply our modern day standards when trying to access the quantity sold. How I ask myself, when one has trawled through thousands of items of fishing tackle can you possibly wait twenty five years to see something as mundane as a sea fishing boom? I have no doubt whatsoever that there is still a lot more to be seen if only I manage to live long enough!
Q: Do you use vintage tackle for your fishing?
I certainly do use vintage tackle where applicable but I am selective. I often use a pre-war 4 1/2 inch Aerial reel and have managed to master the art of casting directly off the revolving drum. I have even acquired the confidence to use it after dark but cannot guarantee the accuracy of my casting, partuicularly at the beginning of the season. I often use a cane carp rod with this reel. When dry fly fishing on small rivers and streams I take my 7ft cane fly rod and a 14ft Hardy salmon rod is definitely making the journey to Scotland next August when I go to fish the Tay. I really like to use a pre-war Super Silex when drift fishing for Steelhead on Vancouver Island and many years ago I did use a circa 1909 Hardy Captain Pomeroy Tarpon reel and contemporary "Coquette" greenheart rod when fishing in the Bahamas. Sadly I had no Tarpon on that trip but I did manage to catch a shark on the outfit.
Q: You have fished with some well-known British anglers over the years. Are there any trips in particular that stick out in your mind?
Actually the image which I have little trouble bringing to the fore was not when fishing but shooting. Fred Taylor, Peter Thomas (he who netted Richard Walkers record carp) Peters son Paul and myself had ventured out for the dawn flight. The weather was horrendous. The wind was about force eight and the sleet was travelling horizontally. We were sheltering in the lee of a barn endeavouring to summon sufficient courage to stagger out along the sea wall. It is Fred`s comment which will always stay in my mind, "Well", he said, "I shall be glad when I have had enough of this."
Q: I have noticed that British angling in general seems to have changed a great deal since I moved to Canada in the mid-1980s, especially the cult of the carp and barbel. Do you think that , generally speaking, angling in the UK has changed for the better?
Sadly I do not think that angling has changed for the better in the U.K. As with most sports the majority of kids do not appear to be participating. Where there is a father to take a son on the river bank another angler is often born however too many parents are content to let their child sit in front of a computer screen. There has been a boom in carp fishing on commercial fisheries or carp ponds as they are often referred to. The fact that many anglers are fishing these lakes can be beneficial as far fewer anglers are fishing the rivers which I prefer. Unfortunately many who fish the commercial fisheries are conditioned to expecting "instant success and become disillusioned if they cannot catch fish when the weather becomes colder and the stillwaters are less likely to produce. The angling shops, always a mecca for those wanting information on local waters, now accept that they have just one hundred days in a year to earn a living selling fishing tackle so their numbers are now in decline. All this said the average weight of many of our species of coarse fish appear to be significantly increasing due to the throwing in of large quantities of high protein baits. Many younger anglers look at what previous generations have "stuffed" in glass cases and wonder why do that to something so small!
Q: You have been spending long hours working on your riverside 'fishing shed' recently . Now that it is complete, what type of fishing are you looking forward to?
I certainly have been throwing time at my fishing shed for the last 2 years. It is 40 yards from the River Severn which would normally produce most species of what we call coarse fish. Unfortunately it was in flood from mid June to mid August last summer with the result that it has not fished well since. This stretch of river includes a weirpool which in the past has offered excellent fishing. This year I have come to the conclusion that since the floods the pool now sustainins a fraction of the previous fish population. I can only conclude that the high water has essentially scoured the bottom of all small forms of life upon which fish feed. I am hopeful that things will return to normal next summer and I have a couple of methods which I would like to try out using old gear. The first would be using an old Hardy 15ft dapping rod and dancing an imitation daddy longlegs (or crane) fly across the surface for Chub. The second involves using an 11ft Hardy "special match" rod which I have acquired. The butt of this rod is made from some form of reed whilst most of the top is of split bamboo spliced into whole cane. It does not have any metal ferrule, merely allowing the whole cane to fit snugly into the reed. It is fantastically light both in weight and action and I want to trot (swim a float and bait down the stream) for Roach. This will involve using a pre-war Hardy Wallis centrepin and a 2lb test line. I have the appropriate swim picked out and I want to wade out in the river and let the current take free offerings down under the trees to where I know the Roach are lying. They are extremely shy fish and their population is declining in our rivers at present so I would hope to gain their confidence to the point where they will take my presented bait. However, I would have to somehow evade the 5lb Chub which also lie under the trees as they would not do this lightest of rods much good at all. I am also hoping to give my pre-war Super Silex another trip to Vancouver Island for the Steelhead and my son has located some 25lb plus carp on a stretch of the River Thames where we have a punt moored. One of them definitely has my name on it!
Q: I know that your first book took fifteen years to put together. Have you considered writing a sequel covering the years beyond 1939?
I have been asked this question on numerous occassions and certainly at present it does not appeal. It would be relatively easy as there are still a few people drawing breath who remember how and what was made in the Alnwick factory. I have all the post war catalogues plus a number of unusual post war Hardy reels in my collection which I possibly acquired with the subconcious thought that someday they would make good book material. My wife, who heroically proof read the 1872 - 1939 tome suggested that the next book should be along the lines of a "steamy novel".
When I suggested that it would require a lot of specialised research she did however appear to go off the idea. Actually a book on victorian fishing tackle appeals but it would require a vast amount of research work and definitely would be a book which could only be written if I ever retire.
Malcolm and all at PurePiscator would like to thank John for giving his time for this interview.