Ken Middlemist has quite a story to tell – in the late 50's, at the age of 15, he was taken on in Hardy Brothers packing room at £1 18s 1d (about £1.90p) a week. It was a good job, but after barely a couple of months Ken got itchy feet and, fortunately for us, there just happened to be a vacancy in the fly shop. By that time the shop had contracted down to six or seven men and about 30 women, so it was a huge opportunity and Ken could hardly believe his luck.
It was a true apprenticeship and on his first day, Ken was sat down at a bench and shown how to tie each part of the fly, starting with the tag, each successive stage after that having to be learned to the boss’s satisfaction. If everything wasn’t perfect, the foremen snipped all the materials off the hook and Ken had to start all over again. It was only when he had been passed at every stage that he was let loose on easier patterns, like the Hairy Mary; once he had mastered those, he moved on to complex patterns – Ken’s favourite being the Black Prince – and a wage increase to a dizzy £3 10s (£3.50) a week.
He stayed at the shop for three-and-a-half years before he got itchy feet again and took himself off to become an LNER fireman; in ‘66 the Beeching cuts sent him back to work for Hardy’s, but three years later the firm got into financial difficulty, and was sold. The new owners decided that the fly shop was an anachronism that had to go, perhaps not before time as it was, in all likelyhood, the last one operated by a major tackle dealer in the UK. So Ken was out again, and ended up working on the pit railway for the best part of 20 years.
He was made redundant yet again in 1987, but, philosophical as ever, decided to convert his garage into a workshop, rent some premises in Amble and start tying flies as he had been taught in his teens. Running the shop was hard going and during that time he worked seven days a week, with the support of his wife and a young lad, on top of which he ran a charter boat, filled in with odd jobs and did contract work for Hardy’s, polishing what must have been the last of the Fortuna reels.
In 1993, Hardy finished the Fortuna contract and Ken went down to the marina at Amble, where he worked for nine years, but in all that time, he still kept on his workshop and he still tied and sold his own flies, relying on word of mouth for publicity. Despite having been made redundant no less than three times by the firm, Ken still thinks very fondly of his time at Hardys, because it was more like a home than an employer in the old days, “I always looked up to Mr Jim (Hardy),” remembered Ken, “he was called gentleman Jim. Going back, we had an angling club in Hardy’s, that was where I learned my casting. Jim was an international caster and with Ian Blackburn and Malcolm Grey we used to go to casting tournaments. I was Scottish Junior Novice Champion in 1961, but over the years, even when I had the shop, I used to do fly casting tuition for Northumbrian Water, but the way things are now, you have to be an approved instructor; you know, red tape.”
Before Ken left the old factory in the early 1960's, Hardys was trying to speed up the fly-tying shop. The set-up when he arrived in ’59 was identical to the one a 19th century apprentice would have known, and according to Ken, “What you had initially was a strip of cork on your bench, a drawer for your materials, a pair of scissors, a pair of tweezers and a lump of wax – when I came back to the new factory, I could have used the vice, but I couldn’t get away with it.” It seems utterly amazing, but Ken has never tied a fly in a vice, simply because he finds he works faster without one.
Although Veniard were one of Hardy’s suppliers, in Ken’s time the foreman did all the dyeing of the feathers and hackles. When the Hardy family ran the business, they were sticklers for tradition and there was a proper way of doing everything, right down to the way that rods were put into bags and the way flies were presented. The fly dressers even had to make their own wax (interestingly, Ken uses Veniard’s wax these days, which he says is the closest thing he knows to the original).
The fly shop tied all the patterns in the Hardy catalogue, as well as special orders, and the employees were expected to dress everything: full dressed patterns; short dressed patterns; and in time, hair wings. It was production-line stuff, but with a difference in that it wasn’t so easy to stop in the middle of tying a pattern, so each dresser had to sort the materials out beforehand, cut all your tinsel to length, find the correct floss, as well as finding all the hackles and folding them over. Ken is quite clear on the last point – the rule in the shop was that hackles were not to be stripped under any circumstances. As the orders came in, the foreman wrote them down and handed the dresser the sheet and that was that. The simpler patterns were tied at the rate of four dozen a day, but a full dressed flies like the Black Doctor, or the Durham Ranger, were produced a little more slowly, although the dressers were still expected to produce three dozen a day.
Ken is probably the last person alive who has tied flies in the hand all his life since being apprenticed to the job by an international tackle maker.
(adapted from Fly Fishing & Fly Tying Magazine)
We thank the Fly Fishing & Fly Tying Magazine for the friendly approval to use and provide supply of the text.
(Photos by Andrew Herd)