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Your Flies in the Making - Fly Tying at Hardy's of Alnwick

By the 1930s Hardy had already established an international business, supported by a chain of agents operating in three dozen countries, spread across five continents. A typical catalogue from this period is nearly 400 pages long, with 30 pages devoted to fly patterns tied for customers in every part of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, America and India; followed by another 18 pages of fly wallets, boxes and chests to store them in.

The fly dressing business had its roots as far back as 1882, when William Hardy married Barbara Mary Leighton, who was the daughter of the head keeper of one of the local estates. Robert Leighton was an experienced fisherman and he contributed a list of patterns which appeared in the Hardy catalogues for many years; to begin with, most or all of the patterns were probably bought in, although Robert may well have tied some, but within a few years the firm had established a thriving fly tying division that produced tens thousands of flies annually. This department tied every single trout and salmon pattern offered in the catalogue - as well as special orders - for more than 70 years and virtually every single fly they produced was tied by hand. I inherited some Hardy-tied flies from my grandfather and they were still catching fish 50 years after the last date on which they could possibly have been tied, heresy I know, but then again, that was what they were made to do.

Trout fly dressing at Hardy's 1932

Hardy’s operated an apprentice system that streamed their fly dressers according to their skill into wet and dry fly departments; when one of the brothers was asked if women tied salmon flies, his eyebrows shot up, “No!” he replied, “All salmon flies are tied by men. Boys are trained for the purpose just as are girls for the smaller flies.” The profit margins were small and by all accounts it was a ruthlessly efficient process, given that the men who tied the highest quality salmon flies were expected to turn out one every 12 minutes, but it still took a couple of years before an apprentice was judged good enough to produce saleable patterns. Every pattern (and there were hundreds) was tied to match a standard version held in the department’s copious files and these were frequently referred to when materials had to be dyed, or new patterns were coming into fashion. Hardy were careful to follow the trends and at various times the firm offered a Halford selection, Dunne’s dry flies, the Baigent series and even salmon dry flies, so you can’t accuse them of not being on the side of progress.

The fly shops were arranged so that the occupants faced north into the “artist’s light” and although vices were available, the vast majority tied in the hand, with no more tools than a pair of scissors, a pair of tweezers and a pair of hackle pliers. At the peak there must have been in the order of 100 employees tying and materials they used were sourced from all over the world, sometimes in vast quantities: for example, in the early 1930s, Hardy bought at least 10,000 pairs of starling wings per annum, one of their pamphlets wryly adding that this helped “keeping down the numbers of this acknowledged pest”.

Salmon fly dressing at Hardy's 1932

The salmon fly dressers were the top dogs and they prided themselves on producing a product that had to be chewed to pieces before it fell apart and there are many stories of Hardy patterns catching half a dozen fish before the cast had to be changed. Although the last fly was tied in Alnwick in the early 1960s, the department’s reputation lives on and incredibly, there is still one man left from those heady days, the extraordinary Ken Middlemist, who was trained by Hardy’s and has never tied a fly using a vice in his life. Ken is the last person I know who was apprenticed to dress salmon flies in the hand by tutors who knew no other way, and when he is gone, there will be no more like him. Hardy’s are offering a limited edition special boxed set of salmon flies tied by Ken and it is the last opportunity to buy patterns tied for Hardy’s in Alnwick.

So unless anything new turns up, that is all we know. You can read more in Andrew Herd's book The History of Fly Fishing, available from the Medlar Press.