The Largest Tackle Factory in the World:
A Tour of Allcock’s in 1880
Dr. Todd E.A. Larson
We have far too few first hand accounts of fishing tackle factories of the nineteenth century, whether British, American, or French in origin. What we know about the scope of various tackle factories and manufacturing techniques usually come from two sources: first, from piecing together information from disparate contemporary catalogs and accounts, and second, from newspaper descriptions of various fires that consumed a number of nineteenth century tackle manufactories, ranging from T.H. Chubb to J.B. Crook.
Once in a blue moon, however, we are treated to a first hand account based on an actual tour of a fishing tackle factory that helps us to better understand the nature of the Victorian tackle trade. Such an account was fortunately preserved in a fascinating letter entitled “The Largest Fishing Tackle Establishment in the World” published in the American journal Forest & Stream in 1880. Based on an extensive tour of the factory by the famous fly tier and pioneering entomologist Sara Jane McBride, the article serves as a neat window into the Allcock factory at a time when it was one of the biggest—if not the biggest—tackle makers in the world. It is reproduced here in its entirety (keeping in mind the word Allcock is misspelled throughout the article):
THE LARGEST FISHING TACKLE ESTABLISHMENT IN THE WORLD
And this is Alcock’s! How familiar the name! What a host of reminiscences rise as we enter the doors—“Round bend Kendall,” “Kirby,” “sneck bend,” “Alcock’s best;” all spring up like phantom forms. Through the kindly courtesy of Mr. Alcock we were shown through the different apartments and saw the various manipulations the wire taken from the coil undergoes, until the delicately pointed, japanned hook is ready for the market. In one corner of a room there was a large pair of upright scissors; with a quick snap two hundred or more pieces of the required length were cut from a bundle of wire; six to ten of these pieces are taken, held firmly against an iron bar, and an incision made with a sharp knife, for the barb. Next the filer takes each one separately with a pair of pliers, holds it in a vice, and with a few deft movements of a file, the embryo hook is pointed. How they are bent on different forms. This is the christening period. They come forth Sproat, Limerick, O’Shaunnessy, Kirby, Kendall, Sneck Bend, Hollow Points and Round Points. The hardening process is the next in order. As we enter this department our nostrils are assailed by a fearful stench of burning fish oil. We would like to retreat—an instant’s consideration—we decide to ignore the olfactory nerves and keep on. Here we are shown rows of ovens, all filled with pans of burning, blazing hooks. They are kept in this fiery furnace from fifteen to twenty-five minutes, then taken and thrown into the bath of oil. We were informed they formerly used water for cooling, but now they consider oil the best. True to Yankee instinct, I queried why. The workman did not enter into a learned discussion on the molecular construction, or atomic properties of steel, and the consequent differentiation of the particles in cooling as a Boston girl might have done, but with a wise nod and a firm pressure of the lips said, “The oil is best.” I thought the oil was used to keep visitors from intruding. The hooks taken from the oil are quite brittle. To remedy this they are reheated. During this process, which lasts but a few minutes, they are stirred briskly in sand.
We next visited the scouring room. Here were eight small barrels, all filled with hooks and fine sand, revolving and turning round and round with a deafening clash and clang. In this room the workmen escaped quizzing. The noise was too much for me. Now for the finishing touches—the japanning. The japan is a black, tarry liquid made in Birmingham, the composition of which seems to be a trade secret, as I failed to learn it. Two coats of japan is applied; they are heated moderately in an oven and thoroughly mixed after each heating.
In the wareroom we are shown immense quantities of hooks [of] all sizes, done up in packages of thousands and tens of thousands, ready to be shipped to all parts of the world. Here is the small delicate hook for France, so diminutive that the rude scale of inches has to be laid aside and only the French milimetre can do it justice; hooks for Canada, United States, Australia, and New Zealand: triple hooks, double hooks, hooks flattened, hooks ringed, hooks headed, and hooks eyed. All kinds of hooks for all kinds of fish.
But the manufacture of hooks is only one department of this establishment. In the yard there are stacks of cane and various wood seasoning for rods. The rods are evenly tapered with a spring and action similar to the Norris rod. We miss the delicate seven ounce split bamboo that takes the precedence in the American market. The fishermen on this side of the water are so enamored of their heavy double action rods that none other suits, and the manufacturer must of course cater to the demand. We were shown a large variety of reels, and lines of all kinds—the old fashioned silk and hair, dear to the heart of a Scotchman.
I might admit the flies were the best made in Redditch, but I neither could nor would grant they were equal to some made in the States. A noticeable feature in the improvements on fishing tackle are the artificial shrimp, worms, frogs, beetles of various patterns, grasshoppers, and a burly bumble-bee; all remarkably life-like. The spinning baits are legion in number and fine in quality. Their only drawback for the American market is the light gimp and small hooks, a defect which can be very easily remedied.
Among the novelties for 1880 there is “the proper Colorado spoon.” This is the result of a nightmare on the arrival of the first Colorado beetle in Liverpool. It is a long slim white ghost, with three arms extending on each side ready to grasp—not the potato vines but the first unwary fish. On taking our departure, Mr. Alcock observes, glancing around at all the paraphernalia of the craft, “The business is all a deception.” Such is life.
—Sara J. McBride
Redditch, Dec. 15th
The article sheds some interesting light on the fish hook trade when Redditch was the undisputed center of the industry; as is noted in Hans Jørgen Hurrum’s classic history of the fish hook, Mustad would revolutionize the manufacture of hooks in the coming decades and eventually shift the center of the hook making world to Norway. But for the majority of the nineteenth century Redditch, and Allcock’s, remained the kings of the fish hook, and it might be said, the international tackle trade.
Sara McBride was the daughter of John McBride, a noted New York fly tier, and was considered by many contemporaries as among the finest tiers of her generation. She was clearly well qualified to comment on the tackle trade, having been involved in the industry for several decades and running her own tackle shop for a number of years. Her article was deemed so important it was reproduced in an edited form in Dr. James Henshall’s Book of the Black Bass (1888) as a preface to his discourse on the fish hook.
Although we can wish that McBride would have spent more time describing fishing reels, there is ample in her description (which ran to 850 words) to give a solid overview of the nature of Allcock’s tackle trade. Although she certainly felt her flies were superior to any British rivals, this was the second time she had toured Britain to better learn the trade. We can certainly thank this pioneering American fisherwoman for giving us a glimpse—no matter how brief—at the nature of Allcock’s, the largest tackle manufacturer in the world in 1880.