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!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: