Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thomas Barker, Fisherman and Oliver Cromwell's Cook

Tackle, Baits, Fish-haunts, skilfull Cookery,
  Best times to fish, these Barker doth descry.
To strike, play, land thy prize, he tells thee how;
  Art angling teachers all to him must bow.
Keep thee but from S. Peters net, and then
  Blest be thy soul for aye, Amen, Amen.
John Perch

Thomas Barker, who was he?
               First published in 1651, “The Art of Angling” by Thomas Barker shows that not only was he a first rate fisherman, but he was also a very good cook, as his recipes and dishes will attest to anyone who reads beyond these words that I write.   W. H. Lawrie writes of Barker that he “was a Shropshire man, a Cromwellian, a seasoned angler and above all a cook.”  While it is for his writings on the art of fly fishing that I am most interested in him, for those of a more culinary bent, I shall include a recipe or two as well.  Writing in 1775 of him, Sir Henry Hawkins says, “This Mr. Barker was a good humoured gossiping old man, and seems to have been a good cook.”  He not only dressed fish for most of the ambassadors that came to England, for over forty years, but was paid by the Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell) for doing this.  Hawkins continues, “He spent a great deal of time, and,  it seems money too, in fishing; and, in the latter part of his life, dwelt in an almshouse near the gate house at Westminster.”  He describes Barkers book as a most diverting book due to the singular vein of humour that runs throughout. 

               Thomas Barker was, as far as I know, the first person to publish written instructions for the tying of flies.  His book lists roughly a dozen fly patterns and mentions several others, including one for salmon.  There are also the instructions for tying the flies, though they are somewhat difficult to apply to each pattern.  These twelve flies can be broken down into two basic types, the Palmer, a fly with a hackle running the length of the body and usually not winged, and the winged “May flie” as he called it, a fly with a wing, and perhaps a hackle, under the wing but not along the length of the body.  What I find interesting here though is that while in his written instructions for the Palmer, he is very clear about there being a wing, what it was comprised of, and how to tie one in, his patterns list no wings.  This leaves one to either assume the wing was the same on all Palmers, and so did not need mentioning, or, that like the palmers written of by later authors, the wing was actually absent.  It is also possible that Barker’s palmers were not anything like later palmers, but instead were in fact tiny winged flies with hackles, much like modern the Henryville Special caddis pattern.  Here is what Barker says about the dressing of trout flies.  I have retained the old verbiage and spelling to give you an idea of the style of writing from that time. 

               “Now, I will shew you how to make flyes. Learn to make two flyes and make all, that is, the Palmer ribbed with gold or silver, and the Mayflye. These are the ground of all flyes. 
    We will begin to make the Palmer-flye. You must arm your line on the in-side your hook, then take your sizzers and cut so much of the browne of the Mallards feather as in your owne reason shall make the wings, then lay the outermost part of the feather near the hook, and the point of the feather next toward the shank of the hook, so whip it three or four times about the hook with the same silk you armed the hook with , so make your silk fast; then you must take the hackle of a cock or capon, or a plovers top feather, then take the hackle, silk, or cruell, gold or silver thred, make all fast at the bent of the hook, then begin to work with the cruell, and silver thred, work it up to the wings, every bout shifting your fingers and making a stop, then the cruell and silver will fall right, then make fast, then work up the hackle to the same place, then make the hackle fast; then you must take the hook betwixt your fingers and thumb in the left hand, with a needle or pin part the wings in two, so take the silk you have wrought with all this while, and whip once about the shank that falleth crosse betwixt the wings; than with your thumb you must turn the point of the feather towards the bent of the hook, so view the proportion. “

               As you will note, this palmer is winged.  He uses the brown of a mallard’s wing, folded back over the shank of the hook, as would be if tied reverse style, to make the wing.  The patterns however, list no wing.  The instructions are clearly not just for a specific pattern, but are a composite designed to cover several similar type flies.  Barker continues his instructions as follows:

                  “ For other flyes, if you make the grounds of hogs wooll, sandy, or black, or white, or the wooll [of] a beare, or of a two-year old red bullock; you must work all the grounds upon a waxed silk, then you must arm and set on the wings, as I have shewed you before.
    For the May-flye, you must work with some of these grounds, which it is very good ribbed with a black hair; you may work the body with a cruell, imitating the colour, or with silver suitable to the wings.
    For the oak-flie, you must take orenge-colour tawny, and black for the body, and the browne of the Mallards feather for the wings. If you do after my directions they will kill fish, observing the times fitting, and following former directions.
    If any worthy or honest Angler cannot hit of these my directions, let him come to me, he shall read and I will work, he shall see all things done according to my foresaid directions. So I conclude for the flye, having shewed you my true experience.”

               Some of Barker’s patterns however, leave much to be desired as far as details go.  Reading through the following descriptions, one is left wondering such things as, just how does one copy the Hauthorn flie or the grasshopper? I am also wondering, just what exactly is “shammy” and how is it used in this context?”
So let us go angling with Mr. Barker, and see how it was done. 

              "My Lord, I will shew you the way to angle with a flye, which is a delightfull sport. The rod must be light and tender, if you can fit your self with a hasel of one piece, or of two pieces set together in the most convenient manner, light and gentle. Set your line to your rod, for the uppermost part you may use your own discretion, for the lowermost part next your flye it must be of three or four haired links. If you can attain to angle with a line of one hair, two or three links one tyed to another next your hook, you shall have more rises and kill more fish. Be sure you do not overload your self with lengths of your line. Before you begin to angle make a triall, having the wind on your back, to see at what length you can cast your flye, that the flye light first into the water, and no longer, for if any of the line fall into the water before the flye, it is better uncast than thrown. Be sure you be casting alwayes down the stream with the wind behind you, and the Sun before you. It is a speciall point to have the Sun and moon before you, for the very motion of the rod drives all the pleasure from you, either by day or by night in all your anglings, both with worms and flyes, there must be a great care of that. Let us begin to angle in March with the flye. If the weather prove windy or cloudy, there are severall kinds of Palmers that are good for that time. "
              " First, a black Palmer ribbed with silver. Secondly, a black Palmer ribbed with an orenge-tawny body. Thirdly, a black Palmer made all of black. Fourthly, a red Palmer ribbed with gold. Fifthly, a red palmer mixed with an orenge tawny body of cruell. All these flyes must be made with hackles, and they will serve all the year long morning and evening, windy or cloudy. Without these flyes you cannot make a dayes angling good. I have heard say that there is for every moneth in the year a flye for that moneth; but that is but talk, for there is but one monethly flye in the yeare, that is the May-flye. Then if the aire prove clear you must imitate the Hawthorn flye, which is all black and very small, the smaller the better. In May take the May flye, imitate that. Some make it with a shammy body, and ribbed with a black hair. Another way it is made with sandy hogs hair ribbed with black silk, and winged with Mallards feathers, according to the fancy of the angler, if he hath judgement. For first, when it comes out of the shell, the flye is somewhat whiter, then afterwards it growes browner, so there is judgement in that. There is another fly called the oak-flye that is a very good flye, which is made of orenge colour cruell and black, with a brown wing, imitate that. There is another flye made with the strain of a Peacocks feather, imitating the Flesh-flye, which is very good in a bright day. The Grasse-hopper which is green, imitate that. The smaller these flyes be made, and of indifferent small hooks, they are the better. These sorts which I have set down will serve all the year long, observing the times and seasons, if the angler have any judgement."
              "Note the lightest of your flies for cloudy and dark, and the darkest of your flyes for the brightest dayes, and the rest for indifferent times; a mans own judgement with some experience must guide him: If he mean to kill fish he must alter his flyes according to these directions. Now of late I have found that hogs wooll of several colours makes good bodies, & the wooll of a red heifer makes a good body, and beares wooll makes a good body: there are many good furres that make good bodies: and now I work much of hogs wooll, for I finde it floateth best and procureth the best sport.”

               Barker’s choice of materials was rather simple compared to those of Charles Cotton and other writers of the times.  Brown mallard wings, and wool or crewel bodies for the most part, with red bullock or heifer, bears under-fur or pigs wool also for some of the patterns.  Pigs wool is not the easiest of materials to dub with, especially on small flies tied in hand, so I am left to wonder if, like some other authors, he may have cut his pigs wool with wool or crewel perhaps, to make it easier.  The spikiness and glossiness would still be readily obvious, but the dubbing would be that much easier. 
               I also get the feeling that while Barker has listed his dozen or so, he knew of many others that for whatever reason he did not include.  He writes of a White Palmer for example, used in times of darkness, and mentions a salmon fly with as many as six wings, though he does not give a dressing for either of these.  
            Thomas Barker is also known for being one of the first, if not the first to mention the use of a reel, or as he calls it a “winder.”  He shows a rather enigmatic diagram of one in his section on salmon fishing.  Barker also describes rather nicely his fly rods, including what I believe to be the first reference to a wire loop at the end, for the purpose of running the line through, now known as the tip-top.  This was on his salmon rod, and not mentioned as being on his trout rod. 
               As I have already mentioned, besides angling, Thomas Barkers other vocation was that of cooking.  He cooked for Henry the seventh, and so must have been rather good at it.  Here, I leave the reader to ponder the following two recipes, and with any luck, try them out.  

               “To fry a dish of Trouts you must take such a quantity of suet as you shall think sufficient to fry them, and put it in your pan, and be sure that it boyle before you put in your fish, being cut on the side and floured, you must keep them with sitting all the time you are frying them: being fryed sufficiently, when you have dished them the sauce must be butter, vinegar, and some lemmon, but very small, and beaten with your butter and vinegar, then poured on your fish for the service.
               The best dish of stewed fish that ever I heard commended of the English, was dressed this way: First they were broiled on a charcoale fire, being cut on the side as fried Trouts, then the stwe pan was taken and set on a chaffingdish of coles, there was put into the stew-pan half a pound of sweet butter, one peniworth of beaten cinnamon, a little vinegar; when all was melted the fish was put into the pan, and covered with a covering plate, so kept stewing half an hour, being turned, then taken out of the stew-pan and dished, be sure to beat your sauce before you put it on your fish, then squeeze a lemmon on your fish: it was the best dish of fish that ever I heard commended by Noblemen and Gentlemen. This is our English fashion.”
Sounds interesting.  Bon apetite!
Thomas Barker Flies: 
#1 Hook size: 14-16
Body: Black
Rib: Silver
Hackle: Black
For the body I used mohair.

#2 Hook size: 14-16
Body: Tawny Red
Hackle: Black
Here I used lambs wool in the body.
#3 Hook size: 14-16
Body: Black
Rib: Silver
Hackle: Black    

Here I used black lambs wool in the body.

#4 Hook size: 14-16
Body: Red
Rib: Gold
Hackle: Red
Here, red capon was used for the hackle with lambs wool in the body.
#5 Hook size: 14-16
Body: Orange Crewel
Hackle: Red
I used a furnace hackle for this one.

#6 Hook size: 14-16
Body: White
Hackle: White
Mohair and natural white     game rooster hackle
Hook size: 16-18
Body: Peacock herl
Yes, size 18 hook, tied in hand.  
Hook size: 10-12 2x long
Body: Green
Hackle: Red capon
This one was also tied    with a well marked        furnace hackle to see     how it would look.  See   the fly with actual red capon in the group shot below.  
Hawthorn fly
Hook size: 14-16
Body: Black
Wing: Black
Further research leads me  to believe that the  wing on this fly might have actually been wound as a hackle.  
Mayfly #1
Hook size:8-10 2x long
Body: Shammy
Rib: A black hair
Wing: Mallard wing

I used yellow dyed chamois goat, but I am thinking that 
if Barker meant a thin strip of leather wound around 
the hook, it would be a very interesting fly.
Mayfly #2
Hook size:8-10 2x long
Body: Sandy hogs wool
Rib: Black silk
Wing: Mallard wing
As per custom, a little yellow wool is added to the hogs wool.  
Oak fly
Hook size: 12-14
Body: Orange crewel
Rib: Black 
Wing: Brown mallard 

     A Brother of the Angle must alwaies be sped 
With three black Palmers, & also two red, And all made with Hackles: in a cloudy day, Or in windy weather, angle you may: But morning and evening, if the day be bright, And the chief point of all is to keep out of sight. In the moneth of May, none but the May-flye; For every month one, is a pitiful lye: The black hawthorn flye must be very small, And the sandy hogs haire is sure best of all For the Mallard wing'd May-flye; and the Peacocks train Will look like the flesh-flye to kill Trout amaine. The oak flye is good, if it have a brown wing, So is the Grashopper that in July doth sing, With a green body, make him on a midle siz'd hook; But when you have catcht fish, then play the good Cook. Once more my good brother, Ile speak in thy eare, Hogs, red Cows, & Bears wooll, to float best appear, And so doth your fur, if rightly it fall; But alwayes remember, make two and make all.
Thomas Barker, “The Art of Angling”  second edition 1659

My grateful thanks to Monte Smith for the lovely photos of the flies.  All copyrights are his.


  1. I make Barker's reel and rod with horsehair line. You can find me through Mike Hackney on the I have a great article about hsi life, fishing, and reels. to share

    Peter Dallman

  2. I always enjoy reading about the history of fly fishing, especially anything to do with artificial flies through the ages.
    I like using old pattern flies such as North Country Spiders, palmered flies and simple wet flies. I recently came across a Spanish fly fishing supplies company that make simple, traditional Spanish wet flies, many that look very similar to some of the flies shown in this article. Must buy some before our Victorian, Australia trout season reopens in September.