Two hundred years ago, give or take, a Devon man had flash of inspiration which made him sit down and sketch out a completely new type of artificial minnow. He must have been a pretty experienced fisherman, or at the very least an angler who had seen a lot of fish lever themselves off the hooks of contemporary baits, because his lure, which was made of thin brass, relied on the revolutionary principle of a body which was not only free to rotate, but would slide up and away from the hook when a fish took. Like all the best ideas, the new bait was very simple, little more than a brass tube with a pair of blunt fins braised onto it and a hole drilled through the centre of the body so that the lure could run free and it may well have had a slot cut in the body to allow extra hooks to be mounted.
It didn’t take long for news of the invention to spread and at some point in the 1820s perhaps, a Mr. F. Angel from Exeter got his hands on one and realised that, good though the minnow was, there was still room for improvement. After a good deal of trial and error, the shape and angle of the fins were just right and Angel found that he had a real killer on his hands. For a second time, the new minnow became hot news all over Devon and soon there were too many orders for Angel to have a chance of fulfilling them all and he had to call in the services of his brother, who did a bit of tackle dealing up in Totnes. By then, several other Exeter tackle dealers had taken advantage of the unmet demand and were making their own versions of the Angel-improved minnow, which, because no-one had thought to give the original a name, were called “Angels” or “Totnes” minnows as the mood took their makers, although before too many years passed, this style of bait would be increasingly be known by the generic name of “Devon”.
Now in theory, the inventor of this amazingly effective little bait should have retired a rich man and done little else but fish and endow orphanages for the remainder of his life, but that wasn’t quite how things worked out, as it happened. The fly in the ointment was that whoever invented the new lure didn’t ever get around to patenting his invention - unlike the amazing Mr. Geen, who invented numerous items of tackle and would have patented his next breath if he thought he could have got away with it. Mr. Angel doesn’t seem to have profited very much from his perfection of the lure either, despite the fact that it carried his name for several decades.
In the early 1880s, by which time every man and his dog was churning out copies, a dealer called E. F. Prickman, of 12 North Street, Exeter, decided to advertise that he was the only source of the true Angel minnow, “imitated by everyone, but equaled by none”. He even registered the “Angel Totnes” trademark so that his lures could not be mistaken, but to no-one’s very great surprise, Mr. Prickman’s spirited campaign sank without trace under the combined onslaught of Allcock, Farlow, Hardy et al. No doubt to Prickman’s very great annoyance, Hardy Brothers shamelessly advertised their copies as “Angel or Devon minnows” and sold them in quarter inch sizes all the way up to three inches in length, at prices that ranged from 1/6d for the runt of the litter up to a pocket-searing 3 bob for the great-granddaddy of them all.
The big tackle companies saw the Devon less as a work of fine art than an engineering problem and their first step was to streamline the manufacturing process. Before very long examples started to appear which had been cast out of brass, nickel, and later, aluminium and although these adhered to the general principles of the original design, every conceivable combination of shape, size and configuration was tried in an attempt to part the punters from their money and (as a secondary consideration) to improve the lure’s fish catching properties.
By the late 1880s the use of the name “Angel” was falling into disuse, which makes an appropriate moment to take a step backwards and examine the Angel-style minnow, because a few still exist, or at least a few Totnes Angels still exist. These have tapered bodies, made in two halves and braised together, with rounded fins that are raked back slightly. Prickman wasn’t alone in favouring the original design and virtually all the early Devon Angels bear a distinct family resemblance, the Webber lures being good examples.
To begin with, even the big tackle firms kept the faith, but by the early 1890s the sheer number of competing products on the market forced a rethink and the result was an explosive growth in novel designs; an interesting development when you consider the restrained lines of the early Angels. By the mid 1890s, it couldn’t even be guaranteed that a Devon would be made of metal any more and Hardys began marketing a “transparent amber” version which was made out of a hard, but brittle glass-like material; this design being succeeded by the immensely collectible and considerably more resilient “mother of pearl” Devon, which was sold in white, yellow and lurid pink.
The idea of the “slotted” Devon continued to appeal and the Hardy Pioneer Devon sprouted two or three trebles; but there were up to four in some ranges, for example Foster’s Perfect Kill Devil Devon, like the one shown below, which must have been such a complete health and safety hazard that I am amazed to find that any have survived. As far as I am aware, no-one actually marketed a five treble Devon, but I am sure that some pessimist gave them a trial somewhere along the way. Anyway, by the turn of the century you could get Devons painted in every colour under the sun; and in every shape and form, fat ones, thin ones, slab sided ones (known as “reflex” minnows), oval ones, quill Devons, little ‘uns and big ‘uns, and even Devons in disguise, like the Pennell Minnow, which was said to “combine the advantages of a Devon and other recognised metal minnows, with others special to itself”, whatever that might mean. The most impressive thing about this last bait was that all these advantages could be fitted into a lure only ¾ of an inch long if you bought the smallest sort.
These baits sold in tens of thousands, alongside exotica like Perrott’s of Kingsbridge’s patent Devon, which had a slotted body with an intricate pattern chased into the metalwork, and the most sophisticated of them all, the ever so slightly desperate “Natural Smell Bait”, the brainchild of Mr. R. Smyles, which was a Devon fitted with a special internal compartment that could be filled with squashed minnow, prawn, aniseed or any other magic potion that happened to strike your fancy. There was no slackening in the pace after the end of the First World War and during the twenties, Allcocks marketed four different patterns of the “Collapfin” Devon, an appealing piece of whimsy that was fitted with collapsible fins which were supposed to fold forwards out of the way on the take. Hardy took advantage of the rather vague definition of what constituted a Devon to sell not only the “Anti-Kink Devon”, which had a rotating body and a fixed head and so wasn’t really a Devon at all because it was fixed to the hook flight; but also the Hutton Wye Phantom, which wasn’t really a Phantom minnow because it was a Devon and wasn’t fixed to the flight. For reasons best known to itself, Farlow never really entered into the spirit of Devon development and for most of the period in question persisted in selling the most boringly functional range you could possibly imagine, perhaps on the basis that the firm’s customers weren’t easily fooled by bling. However, Farlow’s excepted, and given that the average Devon of the period was about an inch and a half long, it is amazing that so much creativity was shoehorned into such a small space, but then again we all know what strange passions inflame the hearts of anglers, particularly where lures are concerned.
Maybe it was its special advantages or perhaps it just looked right, but the no-frills Pennell minnow was probably the most successful of them all and Hardys seem to have sold it just about forever, given that it was still featuring in their catalogues into the early 1960s, although the firm was forced to make its Devons out of wood during the war because of metal shortages. Post-war, production ramped up enough that the old rivalry reared its head for a brief period and firms like Milwards were inspired to come up with such inventions as the fiendishly clever “reversible fin minnow”, which could be used to take the twist out of a line; not to mention the even more sophisticated three-piece Roses Reversible Spin Devon sold by Hardys; and even Farlow relaxed its stern line enough to flog the Tritton reversible fin minnow; although all of these were variations on an idea that went back to at least the twenties and the Watkins patent reversible fin Devon. Very fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to make a slotted reversible fin Devon, or a generation of anglers would never have managed to get tackled up without a trip to the accident and emergency department.
This post-war revival was something of a false dawn, because the market was already under pressure from American and Japanese baits against which traditional designs like the Devon stood little chance. Although there were some notable high spots, like the “West Country” Devon that Hardy marketed during the fifties – the prototype of which was cast in a ships’ propeller foundry using the remains of a German flying bomb – in general the trend was towards simplicity. During the fifties and sixties, production progressively swapped over to copper-lined wood or plastic Devons, like Hardys’ famous Yellow Belly, the favoured shape being slightly pot-bellied with a fin about one third of the way down the body, which, curiously enough, isn’t so very far away from the design that Mr. Angel worked out all those many years ago.
The Devon has a very long pedigree, but sadly, unless it makes an unexpected come-back, it appears to be doomed to extinction, unable to compete with modern computer designed lures simply because it isn’t sexy enough, but that just shows how fickle anglers have become, because this classic lure still catches fish just as well as it ever did.
With many thanks to John Knott and Chris Sandford.