Frederic Tolfrey and the story of Jones’s Guide to Norway
By Andrew Herd, Hermann Dietrich-Troeltsch and John Austin (edited from extracts taken from the forthcoming Medlar trilogy about William Blacker)
Frederic Hildebrand Oakes Tolfrey is one of the most famous angling writers of all time, thanks to the publication of Jones’s Guide to Norway in 1848. The Guide can be described without fear of contradiction as the most collectible book on salmon fishing ever published, thanks to its scarcity and the quality of its hand-coloured plates, but the story of its editor is even more interesting than that of the book itself. Before you read on, the details of Tolfrey’s life came as much of a surprise to us as they will be to you and our expectation that he would turn out to be yet another dull-if-worthy example of the early nineteenth century gentleman sportsman were destined to be shattered. The man turned out to have been far more interesting than we could possibly have hoped.
Tolfrey was born in 1794 into a very well to do family, his father Samuel a lawyer, while his mother, Mary Isabella, was a cultured Frenchwoman. Frederic would later describe himself as having been a rambler from the cradle, which was absolutely true, because by his late teens he had seen India, Persia and Arabia and had served in the administration of the East India Company for a few years. The family finally came home in 1809 from Ceylon, where Samuel had been chief justice to the Provincial Court, after which Frederic worked with the regular army as a clerk, initially with the War Office.
In 1815, as a result of his father’s almost certainly well-founded disapproval of his choice of women, Tolfrey was sent to Brussels, the alternative being disinheritance. In September 1815, after further parental intervention, Tolfrey was transferred across the ocean to what his father must have fondly imagined was the safety of the garrison in Quebec. Frederic married there in 1818, and had a son two years later.
On the basis of a statement he made in one of his books, it has been surmised that he fought at Waterloo, and while Tolfrey did nothing to dispel this impression, we can find no evidence that he did, which would make sense, given that he was a civil servant. A close reading of Tolfrey’s work does not reveal any claims that he had ever seen action, nor any that he had done any military service, although many readers would assume that he had, because Tolfrey occasionally has others call him ‘captain’ or ‘major’ without contradicting them, but it is notable that he never referred to himself by any particular rank, nor does he ever mention belonging to a regiment. None of the standard military reference works include him, he did not receive the medal which was given to every soldier who fought with Wellington, and his name is conspicuously absent from Dalton’s Waterloo Roll Call. It is notable that Lord William Pitt Lennox, who acted in a play with Tolfrey in Canada, never prefixes his name by any other title than ‘Mr.’, even when he named lieutenants and captains in the same paragraph. Interestingly, Lennox gave a very different account to Tolfrey of the latter’s involvement in the circumstances surrounding the death of the Duke of Richmond, a subject which had had a great deal of press exposure at the time and about which Tolfrey had already been criticised in The Athenæum—it seems certain that he had considerably embroidered an incident in which he had had minimal involvement. In the final analysis, it is probable that the nearest Tolfrey ever got to a shot being fired in anger was when he ran away after acting as a second in a duel in December 1829.
Tolfrey was then successively appointed as Clerk of the Cheque in the Ordnance Department in Guernsey and as the Ordnance Store Keeper in St. Christopher’s in the West Indies. Once again, these were both administrative posts, and given Tolfrey’s later track record with money, we can only presume that the garrisons were permanently short of shot and shell. Tolfrey returned to England not long before his father’s ‘suicide’ in 1825, exercising his passion for field sports to the full, becoming well known as a crack shot and horseman and to a somewhat lesser extent as an angler.
Tolfrey wrote under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms including ‘May Fly’ and ‘Detonator’ in 1841, and while it is convenient to call Tolfrey a journalist, this only really applies to the 1840s and a better description of him would be a complete and utter scoundrel. Tolfrey was a plausible rogue who scraped by on roughly equal proportions of credit and charm—it is only a pity for the people he dealt with that his expensive tastes were not matched by a suitably large income. He mainly wrote about shooting, articles from his pen on angling being in a distinct minority, despite the fact that he was a passionate fly fisherman, but he would turn his hand to anything, including fashion, theatre and the training of dogs. As an author he was no great stylist and from a modern day editor’s point of view, Tolfrey’s output is distinctly second-rate compared to Ephemera’s, but his experience was very wide, having hunted, shot and fished over much of the globe at his parents’ and the taxpayer’s expense, and Tolfrey distilled much of this into two quite fine books, the first of which, The Sportsman in France, described a lengthy trip he had made in 1829-1830. This was published in 1841, when its author was about 47 and, dealing as it did with the sporting side of a country of which most Britons knew little but war, was a minor hit.
Tolfrey would have led a reasonably comfortable life had he not persistently spent much more than he earned and consequently he seems to have regarded bankruptcy as an occupational hazard—finding himself insolvent in late 1827 when his inheritance ran out, and again in 1833, when he was found guilty of selling a horse that he had hired while still a debtor—and his adult life consisted of spending his way from one financial disaster to the next. Tolfrey's wife had left him by 1832, by which time he was having an affair, the papers reporting in 1835 that his lover of three years had presented in his apartment threatening to kill herself with a razor because he had abandoned her for another. Given her man's by now well-documented fecklessness the magistrate should by rights have had the lady in question remanded for psychiatric reports for even thinking of wanting Tolfrey back, but instead he imprisoned her.
Tolfrey’s career as a journalist appears to have started in 1841, when he began to write for The Sportsman, but by 1842 he had transferred his allegiance to The Sporting Magazine, which published articles from him for the next three years. In 1845-1846 a major rationalisation of the many competing sporting titles took place, amalgamating the periodicals just mentioned with The New Sporting Magazine and The Sporting Review, which continued to be published with different title pages but identical content. Tolfrey’s writing also appeared in Ainsworth’s Magazine, Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, The Traveller’s Magazine, Sealy’s Western Miscellany and in The New Tom Spring’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (not to be confused with Tom Spring’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle).
On top of being dishonest and unfaithful, Tolfrey was the most absolutely shameless scrounger, and so in 1842, at the same time as his manuscript, The Sportsman in Canada was being serialised in The Sporting Magazine, he was applying to Octavian Blewitt, the secretary of the Royal Literary Fund, for assistance as a distressed writer. On this occasion the application was very wisely turned down, but not before the Archbishop of Dublin had written to Blewitt to warn him to be ‘on his guard against a certain Fred Tolfrey, an adventurer’. Quite what our hero had done to upset an Irish bishop is unclear, but it must have been something extraordinarily memorable for the prelate to divert his precious time into penning a warning to the Royal Literary Fund.
This was just the beginning of Tolfrey's career as a supplicant, and in 1845, the year that The Sportsman in Canada, was published as a book, he wrote to both Angela Burdett Coutts and her friend Charles Dickens asking for financial assistance. Given Dickens’ experiences with his own father, the great novelist was a poor choice as a target for begging letters and limited enquiries were all it took for him to size up the situation, turn Tolfrey down and to follow the Archbishop’s lead by writing a warning letter to Blewitt and another to Miss Coutts. In 1846, Tolfrey’s debtors finally caught up with him, with the result that he was gaoled, and he was in the Queen’s Prison in October 1847, when, despite having been charged with a fairly open and shut case in which he was accused of having been the last man in during a sustained assault on another inmate, he was acquitted.
Tolfrey was not long discharged from custody when he met a tackle dealer called James Jones and it was at this point that he took the step that cemented his place in the history of salmon fishing—he agreed to edit a book for Jones. It goes without saying that Jones was highly motivated to break into specialised, but extremely lucrative Norwegian salmon fishing market, which had been dominated by William Blacker up to that point. Choosing Frederic Tolfrey as his editor was an interesting decision, because even the courts were handling him with long-handled tongs by 1847, but it is possible that Jones knew nothing about the writer’s misdemeanours. The well-travelled and very persuasive Tolfrey did much more than edit the Guide, he wrote it, with Jones acting in the role of packager in what can only have been a risky venture for the owner of a not particularly large tackle business. To this end, the Guide was published in partnership with Longmans, which meant that Jones almost certainly paid some, if not all, of the cost of printing and binding the work, and it is probable that he sold copies from his shop in much the same way that Blacker did with his book. From Jones’s point of view, the risk he took can only have been magnified by introducing an amoral grasper like Tolfrey into the equation and one can only wonder how much fishing tackle and money disappeared into the bottomless pit that the Guide’s editor represented on a good day. Jones’ ambition to become a preferred supplier for Norwegian salmon fishermen appears to have succeeded to an extent, but if there was ever a gotcha in the grand plan it was that Jones had only been to Norway once in 1846, and possibly for a second time in 1847, and so had little experience beyond what his customers told him. To make matters worse, his editor had never been at all, with the result that Tolfrey’s uninspired text was modeled in part upon William Bilton’s even less inspired Two Summers in Norway, which had been published only eight years previously.
The other source that Tolfrey seems almost certain to have used was the 1839 edition of Murray’s Guide, a traveller’s handbook for Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia, and it was from this volume that Tolfrey appears to have plagiarized much of the rich detail with which he embellished the journey. Jones’s Guide was thus a travelogue with scant information on salmon fishing, such as there was being gleaned from Sir Hyde Parker and others, but it is unlikely that Tolfrey saw this as a problem, because he would quite happily have written a book about salmon fishing on the moon had only someone been prepared to pay for it. Apart from the list of salmon fly patterns, the book would never have had more than a very limited appeal had it not been for the exceptional quality of the hand-colouring of its plates; but Jones and Tolfrey took the then unusual step of naming many of the flies, handles like ‘The Rainbow’, and ‘The Stunner’ being much more memorable than ‘Shannon flies numbers 4 and 5’ and this played a large part in ensuring the enduring appeal of the book. It is noticeable, though not surprising, that many of the patterns are near cousins of ones that Blacker listed in the 1843 edition or elsewhere, which would fit with Tolfrey being a customer of Blacker and with what we know of Jones’s introduction to Irish mixed wing tying. With the possible exception of the Popham, the flies in the Guide are tied with techniques that Blacker had been using on a regular basis five or even ten years earlier, and so the book does not represent any particular advance in the state of the art—given its genesis, it would have been strange if it had.
The target audience was small, so the timing of publication was crucial, but the printing was slightly delayed and the book did not reach the shelves until just before the start of the 1848 season in Norway. Longmans promoted the Guide unenthusiastically in 1848 and hardly at all afterwards, which was in stark contrast to the way they handled Ephemera’s Handbook, which was plugged with a deluge of adverts in the sporting papers each and every new season. On the basis of Jones’s claim in a June 1848 advert that the book had been ‘flatteringly reviewed by all the leading journals of the day’, Longman’s lukewarm support for its product is hard to understand, and when you consider the rate at which interest in salmon fishing was picking up, it would verge on the inexplicable, but it seems probable that the combination of Jones’s drinking and Tolfrey’s multiple failings sapped the publisher’s enthusiasm. Interestingly, the artwork for the Guide is not quite as accurate as it is often held to be, as a close inspection of the Popham will confirm. Jones’s summary of the reviews of his book was on the hopeful side of reasonably accurate, just as long as you did not include the one from the most influential angling writer of the day. The Bell’s Life review read:
Jones’s Guide to Norway, and Salmon Fisher’s Pocket Companion.—This book is a very objectionable guide to Norway, and has not the slightest claim to be the general salmon fisher’s pocket companion. It merely gives a list of Norway salmon flies, a few of which are engraved with ability after second-rate patterns and the route and expenses of a Norwegian trip. It communicates the encouraging information that no one need proceed on such trip without a purse of £200 at his command, exclusive of the cost of fishing-tackle and an exceedingly heavy outfit. So one season in Norway will cost more than four seasons in the British Isles. Mr. Jones has made a most unhappy choice in his editor, as the crapulous, prurient, indecent, flash style of gent most abundantly and disgustingly proves. If the information, though second-hand, alleged to have been at Mr Jones’s command, had been placed in the hands of a person who understood the subject, and could write plain, modest English, the result would be a little book which we could recommend as strongly as we denounce the present immund medley.
Bell’s reviews were rarely signed and this one was no exception, but it doesn’t take too much guessing to work out the only journalist in London who could combine the adjectives crapulous and prurient in the same sentence and get away with it. You might well ask what right Ephemera had to criticise Tolfrey’s character, when on the face of it, both had their share of glaring faults, but the difference was that there was no ‘let’s pretend’ about Fitzgibbon, who was a candid writer who described his drinking with unswerving honesty, the latter being a virtue of which Tolfrey was in seriously short supply. To have Tolfrey write a book about Norway without having bothered to go there was, in the circumstances, pretty much guaranteed to light Ephemera’s touch-paper and it duly did. ‘Immund’ was a signature adjective of his, by the way, and it means impure, filthy, or foul.
Bell’s was so well-read that this review would have been seriously bad news for Jones and Tolfrey, but the matter didn’t end there. Fitzgibbon already had one very successful book with Longmans and was in the process of writing them a second, specifically about salmon fishing, and it is possible that he followed up the review by taking himself round to the publisher’s offices and persuading them that allowing the Guide to go out of print was in their own interests. However, it is unlikely that anything as radical as that would have been necessary, because as the first, and at that time, the only writer of a regular column on angling, Fitzgibbon had such a huge readership that a negative opinion from him would have carried enormous weight with publishers. It is very likely that Longman’s read the runes and decided to turn their back on Jones.
The following spring, the first warning signals emerged that all was not well in the Jones camp. The earnings from the book must have been meagre, because by now Tolfrey was back in financial trouble On April 8, 1849, Bell’s ‘To Correspondents’ column featured this observation from John Phillips, the hook manufacturer:
If Mr Jones owes you money for hooks you must apply to your attorney. If he sells you the hooks of any other maker, and tells his customers they are of your manufacture, you must advertise that you do not supply him.
This announcement must have been particularly awkward for Jones because the Guide contains the unequivocal statement that ‘…the hooks on which Mr. Jones invariably ties his salmon-flies are made by Phillips of Dublin, and we have his authority for stating that they are the best for wear and tear of any that are manufactured’, and so it may be that this was one of the triggers for Ephemera’s ire. If Jones was not only unable to pay his bills, but was passing off cheap substitutes as Phillips originals, then it would account very well for the ‘foul within’ comment in a note that Bell’s Life printed on 27th May:
Look in Bell’s Life of April 8 and you will find a letter from “Yorkshireman” on angling in Sweden and Norway that contains 100 times more practical information about trout and salmon fishing in those countries than the work you enquire after, which we have condemned as a worthless and indecent publication. The nominal author of it knows nothing whatsoever of Norway. His salmon-flies are mere things for show—fair outside and foul within—at which we are somewhat surprised, since Blacker some years since gave him a lesson or two in the art of fly-making, but the man has not the “gift.”
Since Bell’s was so very widely read, Jones can hardly have been ignorant of the accusations and the most obvious explanation for his silence is that he was guilty as charged and had decided to keep his head down. The reason for this incident would be lost in the mists of time were it not that the cause of Jones’ death was given as delirium tremens, which means that he must have drunk even more than Ephemera did. Alcohol presumably lay at the root of the tackle dealer’s financial problems, but engaging Tolfrey as an editor would have been tantamount to financial suicide and, based on the number of copies which survive compared to say, The Book of the Salmon, it appears that the sales of the Guide failed to come up to expectations. Working yourself into a state where death can occur from the DTs is not an outcome you can achieve accidentally overnight, so perhaps it is something of a miracle that the Guide was published at all.
The interest in the above quote, as far as our story goes, lies in the news that it was Blacker who had taught Jones how to dress Irish-style salmon flies and, reading the quote above, the phrase ‘some years ago’ would put the date of the lessons from Blacker back in the early 1840s. Jones was indisputably the ‘nominal author’ of the Guide and there is no doubt that he was the principal fly dresser in his shop—take for example the June advert, the top line of which reads, ‘ANGLING.—J. JONES, Fly-dresser, 111, Jermyn-street’. Earlier adverts back this up, notably a couple where Jones drew readers’ attention to ‘his choice collection of Salmon and Trout Flies, dressed by himself’. Ephemera’s comment that Jones did not ‘have the gift’ rings true because both the Guide and another piece written by Tolfrey state very clearly that the patterns shown in the plates were the work of an ‘Hibernian artist,’ which rules James the elder out, because he was Welsh. Reading between the lines it appears that Jones knew his limitations, even if Tolfrey did not, and that he had employed someone else to dress the patterns illustrated in his book—the problem for you and I being working out who this someone might have been.
A confusing factor rears its head very early on in this detective story, because Francis wrote approvingly of Jones’s ability to dress salmon flies in A Book on Angling, but this was written a decade and a half after James Jones’ death, and Francis was referring to Jones’s son, who was also called James and who ran the shop between approximately 1856 and 1868. A clue appears in a later note, which states, ‘An old salmon fisher informs us that Mr Muller, at the widow Jones’s, in Jermyn-street, is one of the best fly makers in London.’ There are a couple of problems with this note, the first being that it was written in 1852, James Jones having died on 4th September of the previous year; the second is that the name Muller doesn’t have a particularly Irish ring to it. I would guess that Maria engaged Muller to dress flies in place of her late husband, which more or less eliminates him from our enquiries. This leaves open the question of who dressed the flies shown in the Jones’ plates and the second reason for including this passage is that idle conversation sometimes throws up the possibility that it might have been Blacker. If one wasn’t aware of the Bell’s Life review, this would be an attractive theory, but the description of the flies as ‘second rate’ by an expert who had seen the originals more or less rules Blacker out. On top of that, although there is no evidence that Jones and Blacker ever particularly saw themselves as rivals, it would hardly have been in the latter’s interests to tie flies for a book which was in competition with his own and which didn’t give him star billing.
Casting around for other candidates, we know that Abraham Evatt, who established himself in Warwick Street in London in 1839, came in for high praise after providing some of Bilton’s Norway patterns; interestingly, this was the period while Blacker was Evatt’s foreman, which may explain why Bilton thought the flies so good. Evatt went bankrupt in 1856 but was still trading from Pimlico in 1859, so he might qualify. Martin Kelly of 56, Lower Sackville Street in Dublin, who had also been favoured with Bilton’s business, has been put forward as a possibility and if any proof of Kelly’s talent is needed, Bell’s described the sixteen salmon flies he displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 as the best in the show, which is saying something, because the compliment almost certainly came from Ephemera’s pen. The picture of the ‘Salmon Flies for Ireland’ shows a clutch of flies which are likely to have been sourced directly from Kelly, and although none are technically as challenging as the Jones set, show him to have been a very capable fly dresser. However, whether Kelly would have tied salmon flies to illustrate a book by Jones is open to question, as it is hard to say what Kelly would have gained from such a transaction, especially given the lack of publicity attached to the deal. Whoever was responsible for tying the patterns, Jones’s final selection was made with such care that it remains one of the most impressive sets of salmon flies ever illustrated.
In the disappointing aftermath of the publication of Jones’s Guide things began to go badly wrong for Tolfrey, and in 1849, Dickens made a dry observation to Blewitt that Tolfrey had ‘written me a couple of very defiant epistles, because I have felt it necessary to decline to “lend” him ten pounds’. Tolfrey wrote very little after 1851 and between 1850 and 1856 he may have actually found a job, working for the Loetchen Mining and Smelting Company, and he was in a relationship with a lady who called herself Louisa Tolfrey (her surname was possibly Duke), to whom he was not married, his wife being very much alive at that time and sensibly living with her son in Brighton. However, this period of employment is open to question, because the affairs of the company, whose assets were in Switzerland, are recorded as being wound up in July 1851.
In March 1857 Tolfrey was in court yet again, described as a ‘well-dressed, military-looking, elderly man, with a bald head, white moustache, beard, and whiskers, and generally good make-up’ having attempted to perpetrate yet another begging letter fraud under an assumed name against Lord Rokeby for the sum of £8. On that occasion he was committed for three months, but his finances never recovered and by late 1858 he was in the Princes Road, Lambeth workhouse, where he would remain to the end of his days. He was lucky not to have been gaoled again, as he was under suspicion of having borrowed some books from Prince Albert and pawned them. Tolfrey was still writing hopefully to the Royal Literary fund, where his reputation not only preceded him, but prompted the normally patient and gentlemanly Blewitt to note, “Mendacity Begging Letter Depart[ment]… one of the worst cases in London”, which is an understatement of the highest order. Tolfrey died in the workhouse on 11th April 1861, lamented by few, but having left a legacy that would grant him immortality.