Few flies can tell such an interesting tale as this one, which has been a favourite for 130 years. At least four anglers claim to have invented it, legend has it that at one time the pattern was banned because it was too effective, the Alexandra we fish today is quite different to the original, and one version was tied with a propeller attached, but there is no accounting for taste.
What makes the Alexandra particularly special, apart from its outrageous history, is that it is one of the few patterns we have that is tied with peacock herl wings. Peacock herl has been a popular fly tying material since at least the fifteenth century, but only for bodies and heads, and you will have to search very hard to find patterns where it plays more than a minor role in the wing. The reason for this becomes blindingly obvious the first time you fish an Alexandra—the wings look great, but they don’t last—yet this defect has never dented the popularity of the fly. The pattern might be old, but it has tremendous staying power: Sportfish are selling it on their website in sizes 6, 8, 10 and 12 and there are numerous variants, including a lure for sea-trout. According to R. B. Marston, editor of The Fishing Gazette, there was dispute about the Alexandra’s origins as long ago as 1880. The first time that Marston saw the fly was when he went fishing with John Manley and Alex Jardine:
The water was at a nice height, but a little too coloured, caused, we afterwards found, by some workmen who were clearing the bed out above us. There was scarcely a fish moving, and I was beginning to think that my last day’s trouting in 1880 would be a blank, when I heard Mr. M. shout, “There’s Jardine,” and when I turned, I was just in time to see that gentlemen strike and commence playing what appeared to be a good fish. We were soon on the spot, and found Mr. Jardine in the water, with the tops of his waterproof long boots about two inches underwater, his rod bending double. “I thought so! He has run me a yard or more up under that weed. Lend me the landing net, perhaps I can stir him out.” So said Mr. J., and suiting the action to the word he commenced probing the weed, and after some trouble, to our general wonder, he got the fish out still on the line, and speedily had him in the net. On the bank was Mr. J.’s fishing bag, and from its bulky appearance I concluded Mr. J. had got at least a three-pounder in it. After general hand-shaking, and a good laugh at Mr. J.’s waterlogged appearance about the legs, that gentleman solved the mystery of the three-pounder by producing a bottle of the most excellent claret. To my inquiry as to what fly he was using, he [Jardine] replied, “the Alexandra, the only chance with the water like this.” I had never used the “Alexandra,” nor seen it used before, though from many quarters I had heard wonderful accounts of its killing powers. I soon had one on, and determined to try it for the half hour remaining before dinner at two o’clock. Mr. Jardine had arranged this indispensible item in the day’s arrangements and it would have made a City Alderman hungry to have heard Mr. Jardine’s, “Two o’clock, mind, at the ‘Acorn’ Inn;” and then in a half whisper, “Mrs. Nutmeg is preparing two of the finest ducks you ever set eyes on.” We then parted, Mr. Jardine going up and I downstream. Who invented the Alexandra and first discovered its killing powers? Captain Turle informed me that he believed he invented it, and I think it is quite likely. Dr. Brunton told me that he invented it, and I think it is quite possible. I know others who lay claim to the idea. The fact is that it is just one of those things that might be invented by half a dozen people independently. It is simply a lake-trout fly dressed thus:—take a hook No. 6 or 7, wrap the shank round with silver or gold tinsel down nearly to the bend; take a bunch of inch-long fibres of peacock feather, steel, blue and bronze colour, and tie them to the head for the wings and with a few of the same about a quarter of an inch long for the tag the fly is complete.
So even when Marston wrote there was considerable disagreement about who invented the fly, which is curious, given the way that the pattern would shortly became so notorious. W. G. Turle was familiar for inventing a knot that allowed eyed hooks to be tied securely to gut; while John Brunton was best known to readers of the Fishing Gazette for his articles on pike fishing and would later became the president of the Flyfishers’ Club. It is interesting that two such relatively prominent men should have claimed to have invented the same fly, but as it turned out, they were not alone, because there were two other claimants.
A week after the piece appeared, a correspondent writing under the non-de-plume ‘Old Fly’ wrote in to say:
Sir,—The enclosed is a pattern of the Alexandra Fly, made and used by me the first time in May, 1863. It was named after H.R.H., from its being so taking. The pattern was given to the present firm of Bowness and Bowness, then managing for a relative, E. Dawson, at 34, Bell yard. Many were tied for a particular customer (Mr. F.), who used to say they would not kill well after June. It has been said that the inventor ought to be hanged, so I’ll relinquish my claim as inventor, for fear of meeting my deserts, and hope the other claimants, as first introducers, may escape also. After the first very successful trial I rarely used it unless I wanted a fine trout for home, or a present, as it afforded so little pleasure in working with it. I always tied mine upon eyed hooks, and sometimes a larger than the enclosed.
Marston footnoted this letter, as was his habit, ending with a remark that he had shown the pattern Old Fly had sent to ‘an old angler’ who told him that he had seen it forty years previously. If true, this puts the origins of the Alexandra as far back in the 1840s, but remember this letter, because 1863 happens to be the date that Alexandra of Denmark married Queen Victoria’s son, Albert Edward, and became the Princess of Wales, a title she held until 1901, when her husband was crowned Edward VII.
In June of 1881, Marston wrote again about the Alexandra, commenting that by then the dressing for the pattern had been published ‘on the continent,’ triggering a considerable demand, such that at the time of his writing one of the London fly-makers had orders in for more that 700 copies, which wasn’t bad business, considering that they retailed at 4d. each. Reading between the lines it seems that the Alexandra hadn’t been a commonplace prior to the publication of Marston’s piece, although its virtues as a lure were clearly well understood by the likes of Mr. Jardine. After this, unless I have missed something in the Gazette, the trail goes cold, until in 1882, David Foster gave a pattern called the Alexandra in his book The Scientific Angler, telling us that the body should be silver twist, hackled with a bright green or blue feather from the neck of a peacock, and optional turkey wings; clearly a very different pattern to the one quoted by Marston et al.
After gaining superstar status in 1880, the Alexandra’s star seems to have waned somewhat, although its distinctive looks meant that it was never quite forgotten. Perhaps the greatest tribute to its effectiveness was the appearance of Hardy’s Halcyon ‘fly spinner,’ which crept into the baits section of the company’s 1883 catalogue and remained a regular feature of the Anglers' Guide right up to the Second World War. If the Halcyon wasn’t an Alexandra, it most definitely was the Alexandra’s first cousin, even if it couldn’t quite make its mind up whether it was a fly or a bait. Hardy’s were very much on the ball as far as fashions in flies went and listed a trout version of the Alexandra from 1883.
There were some interesting twists to come. Cummins of Bishop Auckland, forgotten today, but a well known tackle dealer before the First World War, started advertising the Alexandra at some point between 1882 and 1888 (I would guess around 1883-1884, and if any readers have catalogues for the intervening years please let me know). So far, so what, but Cummins headline for the fly was ‘…from Hobbs’ original pattern’, which can only mean A.E. Hobbs, of Trout of the Thames fame, unless it was his father, who was also a well-known fisherman. Given that Hobbs was one of the few anglers alive during the period who didn’t claim to have invented the Alexandra, this one is a puzzle, especially given that Cummins’ headline implies that Hobbs was the inventor. No details of the dressing were given, but the Hobbs Alexandra is different to the Brunton version and just about everyone else’s—and it would make good sense if the pattern had evolved as a Thames trout lure. By 1911, Cummins had dropped any mention of Hobbs and were selling three different variations on the Alexandra, including one with the Jungle cock eyes that had become part of the standard dressing; just for good measure, the tackle dealer was also selling Halcyons.
Alert readers will have noticed that I have only mentioned three of the claimants to the title of inventor of the Alexandra—this is because the fourth waited until 1908 to make his pitch. In January of that year, in one of the letters which formed part of the astonishing chain of correspondence concerning the Little Inky Boy salmon fly, George Kelson made this aside:
I certainly remember your telling me that other people laid claim to the Alexandra trout fly, but I would repeat that I and my father introduced the original pattern into use before those people were born. It is the fashion for some people “to claim.” But though I pride myself on several things, I do not wish to take credit for any single article associated with my name.
Even by Kelson’s standards, this was an amazing statement, bearing in mind that he had made a career out of claiming things. Kelson also wrote that his father had invented the Black Dog, the Black Dose, the Wilkinson and a fly that Kelson named the Donkey, but which everyone else called the Jackass. The origin of all these patterns was so well established that Kelson senior had the most extraordinary cheek to even think of claiming them, but to add the Alexandra to their number was breathtaking. Every tackle dealer and his mate was selling the pattern by that time and nobody seems to have believed this claim; certainly, I have never seen it repeated in print.
The next clue we have about the origins of the pattern comes from Courtney Williams, who claimed in 1932 that the Alexandra was originally called the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ and that it had been renamed in honour of Princess Alexandra. Williams noted that the fly had been barred from some waters in the past, but left us no clues about the source of his information. If this story is correct, then (as long as we ditch Brunton, Turle and Kelson’s claims) it is just about possible that it was Old Fly who renamed the pattern when he sent it to Bowness in 1863, and that the fly that Marston’s old angling friend remembered from the 1840s was the original Lady of the Lake. This is skating on vanishingly thin ice, but just for the fun of it, I will go one guess further and wonder if Foster’s pattern isn’t the Lady of the Lake as it was before it was transformed into the Alexandra, and that the Ashbourne tackle dealer had got as far as changing the name, but not the dressing? It is speculation of the very worst sort, but the timing fits, if nothing else. Foster’s book was published after his death, so his manuscript would have been completed before the new dressing for the pattern became common knowledge—I cannot think of another good explanation for why two relatively similar trout flies should have ended up sharing the same relatively uncommon name. After all, if the editor of the Fishing Gazette had never seen the new dressing of the fly prior to his day fishing with Jardine in 1880, then why should David Foster have known anything about it?
By 1949, all the controversy was of historical interest only and Williams was giving the dressing as a body of flat silver tinsel, the wings as strands of green peacock herl, tied with a strip of ibis either side, a black hen hackle and a red ibis and/or peacock herl tag. By then, the pattern had become more or less standardised and if you buy an Alexandra today, that is how it is most likely to look—despite the fact that the variant that some tried to ban for being too effective lacked the ibis and black hen and had a much longer wing. So the next time you take an Alexandra out of your box, look at it afresh: not only has the dressing, but the name of the fly been changed; and it was once such a notorious killer that a century and a half ago, you might have been sent packing for daring to bring it with you.