Archive | December, 2013

A Fishy Tale

29 Dec

One (or should that be two) of my favourite objects in the Maurice Egerton Collection are the tunny fish. We are pretty lucky that Maurice’s account of fishing survives, as it tells a great story of perseverance and frustration as he returned to Scarborough year after year in the narrow window that tunny fish came close to shore (late August to September).

I’ve noticed how Maurice is always keen to be part of the latest trends, but tends to follow a few years later when the trend is well-established. For example, he seems only to have caught the tail end of the gold rush in the Klondike, and he wasn’t one of Delamere’s early set of Kenyan settlers, but followed the mass influx in 1920. It seems to be a similar story with the tunny-fish ‘bonanza’ in the early 1930s. In 1929, Henry Stapleton-Cotton attempted and failed to land two tunny around 50 miles from Scarborough. The following year, Lorenzo Mitchell Henry landed the first fish, and so the frenzy began. I can easily imagine Maurice being lured by this new ‘fashion’ as gentlemen-hunters flocked to this new sports-field.

Maurice’s first diary account of tunny fishing in Scarborough begins in August 1931, however, he mentions two boats on the harbour that he has used before, so it’s probable that he had made previous unrecorded attempts. Maurice sails with Mitchell-Henry, who, very like Maurice, was an experienced big-game hunter in Africa and British Columbia, and had properly established tunny fishing as a desirable sport. It was said that Mitchell Hanry would practice catching tunny daily in his London home using a complicated rig-up of weights and pulleys. However, Maurice ‘splashes his cash’ to claim authority and to take the advantage, and pays for half of the boat so that he has the right to fish every day, whilst Mitchell-Henry and the third partner, Reggie Wiglesworth have to take it in turns. Despite contemporary reports claiming that the sea is alive with fish, Maurice has no luck that season, despite sailing over 900 miles, usually from 6am to at least 6pm on board.

In 1932, Maurice returns for the new season, this time sailing on board Colonel Edward Peel’s yacht the St George. Born at Knutsford into the wealthy and aristocratic Peel family, Peel’s huge yacht was staffed by a Sudanese crew and was the talk of the town. However, this season was almost more of a disappointment to Maurice, as on August 30th he hooked a fish within half an hour, but struggled with it for 7 hours before it snapped the line and escaped. Whilst Maurice mourned ‘the one that got away’, he watched in jealousy as Peel hooked the current record tunny at 789lbs. Peel would later become the president of the exclusive gentleman’s club ‘The British Tunny Club’ in 1933.

In 1933, Maurice must have been desperate to get his trophy! On August 24th, his patience was rewarded as he landed his first fish weighing 647lb. The landing was filmed by Reggie Wiglesworth, which makes me wonder if this is the film we currently show at Tatton, rather than his famous dual catch 2 days later (I must watch it again to remember if it shows this single fish rather than the pair). This fish was immeadiately dispatched to Rowland Ward’s, his taxidermist of choice, for preservation. Maurice barely conceals his glee when he gloats that the following day, Reggie caught a fish that weighed just 599lb.

However, August 26th would be an even better day for Maurice! He had stayed on ship out at sea overnight, and began fishing at 5.30am. At 8.15am his bait was taken and after 25 minutes he landed a 538lb tunny that was hooked very precariously on his line by a single loop around its tail. On the actual hook was a second fish, weighing 699lbs, that was landed forty minutes later.

Obviously amazed, but extremely proud, Maurice supplied the following account of the incident to Mr Mitchel Henry:

“A fish weighing 699lbs was hooked in the mouth, taking out all the grey- 96 thread-line (approximately 180 yards) and about 150 yards of green 60 thread line. The second fish, 538lbs in weight was held by the 60 thread line with a single hitch around one fluke of the tail. The 538lb fish was gaffed 25 minutes after the 699lb fish had taken the bait. The 699lb fish was gaffed 40 minutes later. All the 96 thread line, and approximately 75 yards of the 60 thread line were still out when the 538lb fish was gaffed. Originally 200 yards of the 96 thread line was spliced to as much of the 60 thread line as the reel could comfortably hold. Approximately 20 yards of the 96 thread was lost previously”.

The fish were also sent to Ward’s that night. It must have been a particularly auspicious day for fishing, as Maurice wrote that:

“Col Peel and Stapleton-Cotton, Mitchell-Henry, Hannam and Lady Leigh and party were also fishing in the vicinity, landing 8 fish between them”.

Now I know that Maurice sent 3 fish to Ward’s, I wonder why we only have 2 preserved at Tatton, and whether the 2 are the pair caught together on the 26th, or the larger fish of the 24th put together with the larger fish of the 26th? Another fact I must check! Maurice returned to Scarborough one last time in 1934, but despite getting many hooks, he was not able to land any more fish. Perhaps because he was satisfied with his previous catch (although I can imagine he was frustrated at not beating the record fish won by Mitchell-Henry in 1933 at 851lbs), or perhaps because the glamour had begun to fade from the sport, Maurice did not return in 1935. The last tunny caught in British waters was in 1959, and represents a sad story of decline for the fish.

A quick google and flick through news articles and publications on Tunny fishing in the 1930s will mention the names and deeds of all these characters mentioned in my blogs, but as usual Maurice doesn’t feature as prominently as he deserves. However, he was clearly a hero to the local Scarborough boys and onlookers who witnessed him sailing and bringing his catch to shore. In the Tatton archives I found a few accounts from these witnesses, including that of a local man, who, aged 10, heard the rumours of Maurice’s double-catch and rushed to watch them be weighed and photographed.

In the new year, one of my goals is to get to Scarborough museum to learn more and to make sure the tunny fish become a well-documented case study for my PhD!


Playing by the rules

4 Dec

I’ve been sitting on several lovely stories lately, waiting for the moment to share them. I’ve just moved house and am temporarily without the internet, which causing me all sorts of bother. Today I’ve escaped the chaos for the library, and can finally share these great tales before they’re replaced in my memory by Maurice’s next exciting adventure.

In March 1927 Maurice is in Sudan on safari along the Dinder river. However, on March 2nd, he suffered a set back. The incident is a great example of Maurice hunting according to a set of rules, and although he came close to disaster, it was his calm and well-practiced hunting method that saved his life. On this date, Maurice collects specimen number 190, a male leopard, helped once again by his loyal gun-bearer Mabbrukki:

“Fired as it stood about 200 yards away, and hit it behind, and it started walking slowly to another little bushy island, near the right bank. Trying to spot the leopard on the island, when Mabbrukki spotted him , not on the Island, but on the rock outcrop. At the same moment he came for us. I sat down and fired at probably 5 to 10 yards distance into his chest, but he came on, and bit my left-arm, then went off 30 yards to the island, and died immediately at the foot of it. Mabbrukki tells me that he hit him with a lump of drift wood when he got me. I bathed the toothmarks in my biceps with permanganate, and changed my torn shirt and coat”.

This is such an exciting story, and I couldn’t believe that Maurice sat on the ground as a leopard charged straight towards him! The following day he remarks that his arm was very swollen, but “my left arm luckily”, so he is still able to shoot. News of his incident must have travelled beyond his party, as on March 8th he reached the town of Singa and a doctor was waiting there to properly dress his wound. On March 10th it is clear that his arm isn’t healing, and he heads at once for Khartoum hospital. He stays in hospital between March 12th-18th and has his arm slit and drained to allow it to heal. However, in typical Maurice fashion, he discharges himself a day early as he insists on catching a train for England believing his arm will heal better at home.

Maurice realises that he has had a lucky escape. Whilst in Khartoum hospital, he tells how:

“the Hungarian man Hunyady whom they were rushing back to Khartoum, after being mauled by a lion at Lake No ?, died last night of gangrene, and was buried here this evening. Apparently he was poking his gun about in some long grass, trying to find a wounded lion, and the lion actually caught hold of his rifle and then bit him in the thigh. And his gunbearer who then shot at the lion got bitten too and is in hospital here. Hunyady is said to have declared that he was going to be careful no longer, but take chances on anything, however dangerous.”

This example re-enforces Maurice’s belief that hunting must be practiced according to the rules. Because he had no respect for these rules, the Hungarian man came to a sticky end, yet Maurice’s calm head saved his life in a similar situation. On April 15th his diary entry is very brief: “am now completely healed”.

After just a few months spent in England recovering, In November 1927 Maurice goes straight to Sudan by ship from London to continue where he left off. On the 27th he takes the train to Khartoum and is shocked by one of his fellow passengers:

“On this train today, there is actually a jet-black nigger in the next first class compartment to mine! I asked a white man in another compartment and he says he believes there is no rule against it, so long as there is room! How nice for English families on the trains to be using the same crockery and lavatories as the niggers!”

Maurice rarely makes such blatantly racist comments in his diaries as his usual encounters with black men are through the master/servant roles of taking ‘boys’ on safari. This comment really stood out to me and reminded me that however I might like to imagine Maurice being kind and respectful of other cultures, his fundamental views were the same as others of his class and era and I can’t pretend that he didn’t think himself infinitely superior to native Africans.

On December 1st 1928 Maurice sets off on an epic safari in Dongola, Sudan, that lasts until April 10th 1930 covering many hundreds of miles by foot. This has been his most ambitious and epic safari yet and is his first experience of riding a camel. His gun-bearer, Ali, had accompanied the only other person to have attempted to safari in this region, a black Prince called Youssef, who travelled by car in 1923. Maurice is constantly asking Ali for reassurance that he is doing better than Youssef in terms of tracking, collecting, and covering more ground. Interestingly, he often comes across the tire tracks of Youssef’s car in the desert, so obviously they have lain undiscovered and undisturbed for four years. Maurice loves the fact that he is cut off from the world, and on Christmas day 1928 remarks: 

“Delightful to think that on this Christmas Day there is not a single white man nearer than, certainly, 250 miles, and in some directions nearly 2 or 3 times that distance”.

Maurice gets on reasonably well with Ali, and indeed Ali seems to look after Maurice, who after all was fifty-four years old in an inhospitable, unfamiliar region travelling on average around 20 miles a day for four months (what an amazing adventure!). After spotting a big sheep, Ali proposes following it for a day, but then instead turns Maurice for home, claiming that he was afraid Maurice’s legs would give out. Instead of chastising him for his cheeky presumption, Maurice admits that Ali knows best, and Ali certainly seems to have more power over Maurice than any boy to date. One of Maurice’s main complaints has always been that his boys insist animals are big to make him shoot as they are greedy for the meat. In February 1929 Maurice spots a possible ram to collect:

“I stupidly asked Ali whether he was a big one and he of course said he was a very big one, so I fired and killed him stone dead, and on eventually clambering down to him found that he was smaller than my first one. I abused Ali at first; but he seemed so sorry at my disappointment that I admitted it was entirely my own fault”.

This is the first time I have ever seen Maurice admit that something was his fault instead of his boy’s. it tells me that he believes himself to be intellectually and morally superior, so his boys silly behaviour should be expected and forgiven, and that he has the right and responsibility to care for them and direct them. In turn, Maurice is respectful of Ali’s religion, waiting patiently while he says his prayers and being interested in his customs and superstitions for making a good hunt. Ali and the other boys call Maurice “Saamla Kont”, meaning “your excellency, Count” and Maurice seems tickled by this. Ali is very afraid of bandits in the area, and Maurice writes:

“Ali has made very careful arrangements against marauding Buggera Arabs. Half the camel men are going to keep watch in turn and; and if I see someone outside my tent who doesn’t call me kont (count) then he must be a stranger and I’m to shoot him, which I agreed to do! “

Ali seems to be quite cunning, but Maurice is always one step ahead. When Maurice wants to hunt an addax, Ali tells him that you can only spot them “when the sun is well up”, as he is keen to get a lie-in and not go out to hunt so early! Ali also claims that his eyesight is only in top condition when he drinks tea with lots of sugar. When Maurice questions him, it turns out Ali’s sugar supply has run out and he was hoping to trick some from Maurice’s supply.

An example of unusual collecting on the safari that I quite like is this story from February 1929:

Near the camp we passed the tracks of a “Fahad”. On further questioning Ali closely, I find is evidently a chita. This afternoon Ali came and told me that he had sent off some of the Hamla boys to catch the chita, and that they would get it in 3 hours, as it soon gets blown and gives up. They returned in 3 hours, having caught up to it in 2, when it dropped down dead”.

After having previously turned down specimens that he didn’t collect himself, I was surprised that he accepted his cheetah for his collection. The method of collecting is very unusual. Maurice has often believed various superstitions about the habits of animals as told by his boys, such as hyaenas being able to change sex on whim, excusing why one turned out to be a female when he was told it was a male, and I have usually laughed at his naivety, but this story was proved to be true!

Finally, although I’ve said that Maurice loved the idea of being a pioneer and travelling alone and embracing the safari lifestyle, here is a little story to show that Maurice did sometimes think about Tatton. In February 1929 he writes:

“A brilliant idea struck me I think it was about 2 days ago, re the salon at Tatton, namely to remove the central pillars altogether; instead of just setting them back say 1 diameter from the wall, which is as drastic a move as I had hitherto ventured to conceive”

Obviously when he was out of the heat he saw more clearly, and decided against carrying out his drastic plan for the Entrance Hall!