The origins and evolution of the coarse fishing rod licence

Volunteer historian John Essex and national fisheries and angling manager John Ellis explore the history of the rod licence in England and Wales. Amongst other sources, they quote from an unpublished document written by the president of the National Federation of Anglers, Alf Waterhouse, in around 1953.

Fishing rod licence from 1936 for the Ouse and Cam Fishery District Fishing rod licence from 1936 for the Ouse and Cam Fishery District

Fishery boards and pollution

Following the 1865 Salmon Act, a number of fishery boards were set up across England and Wales. However, this was the Victorian era and fishery boards looked upon salmon and trout as the only fish entitled to their care. All other fish species were regarded as undesirable vermin, even though their presence was a fantastic indicator of good water quality, as recognised in the European Union’s Water Framework Directive today.

Then as now, a sudden destruction of fish life gave instant indication of the arrival of deadly pollution. To successfully prosecute pollution offenders in the 19th century, it was necessary to produce a poisoned salmon or trout as evidence. It did not matter about slaughtered fish of any other kind. Back then, you needed a licence to fish with rod and line for salmon and trout, but not for coarse fish. The income from those licences, along with netting and trapping licences for salmon and eels, helped fund the fishery boards, whose main role was preventing illegal fishing.

Mundella Act

The first evidence of a growing desire for the protection of what we now call coarse fish, began in Sheffield in the 1870s. Mr AJ Mundella, a Sheffield Member of Parliament, was urged to introduce a measure designed to provide a three-month close season for coarse fish during their spawning time. The suggestion immediately won the vigorous support of anglers in the London area.

The ‘Mundella Act’, the Freshwater Fisheries Act of 1878, defined some protection for coarse fish. It established a legal close season forbidding anyone, without special permission, from angling for them from sunset on 14 March until sunrise on 16 June. Nothing in this Mundella Act dealt with the issuing of a rod licence for coarse fishing. Neither did it offer coarse angling representatives a right of membership and service with any of the fishery boards.

Differing views

There was general opposition in the late Victorian and Edwardian era within the coarse angling community to the very thought of subscribing financial support toward the maintenance of any of the fishery boards. This initially extended to governing body level. At a National Federation of Anglers (NFA) meeting held in Sheffield in 1904, York and District Amalgamation of Anglers suggested that the NFA should inaugurate a workable scheme whereby coarse fish rod licence holders might secure some right of service with boards of ‘conservators’ (these boards sometimes had pollution enforcement powers and even acted as navigation authorities). Their suggestion met with overwhelming defeat.

At a conference held in London in 1905, it was fully agreed “that the Executive Council of the NFA do not entertain the idea of a licence for taking coarse fish, and that the separate Associations be asked if they were prepared to make grants out of their funds to the Conservancy Boards, for the protection of coarse fish in waters under their supervision”. This was certainly recognition of the desirability of the need for a coarse fisheries service.

Evolution of ideas within the NFA

In October 1906 a sub-committee met to deal with recommendations submitted from Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds, and Northern Anglers regarding potential amendments to the Freshwater Fisheries Act. NFA president Mr Gorrill explained that Sheffield Anglers wished to propose “that anglers be allowed to fish in the Trent by means of stamps affixed to anglers’ tickets, the money so raised to be used in prosecution of offenders”.

York Anglers proposed the abolition of all previous acts dealing with coarse fish, and that a three-penny licence to take coarse fish, in the form of an adhesive stamp affixed to an angler’s ticket, should entitle the holder to fish in any district in England wherever rod licences were issued. It was to be over 85 years before York’s dream of the national rod licence came into being.

Mr Redford, of the Northern Anglers, protested that he could not agree to a separate rod licence for coarse fish, claiming the distinction made between coarse fish and trout was the cause of all the trouble between fishery boards and anglers.

A bream, image courtesy of Jack Perks Bream were just one of the species anglers would take home for dinner in the early 1900s (image by Jack Perks)

Fish for the pot

We often forget that in times gone by fish taken ‘for the pot’, subject to the owner’s permission, were an important source of protein for the working-class family. The sub-committee agreed that there was a need for a standard size limit for take-able fish, namely 6 inches for bream, roach, dace, rudd and perch, 16 inches for pike, and half that length for tench, with no mention made of chub. These size limits were later increased.

NFA rod licence proposals

In 1906 the sub-committee approved their desire to see a universal close season, the need for establishment of powers for prevention of pollution, the wish to prohibit netting for coarse fish other than eels and an exemption of rod licence fees for children under 14 years of age, which was the school leaving age back then.

They also suggested that the method of appointing conservators should permit “a proportion of each class of anglers on the Boards”. The following year the sub-committee proposed that a request by at least two thirds of the angling associations in any fishery district should be sufficient evidence of the necessity for coarse fish licences.

1907 conference

The NFA devoted much of its fourth annual conference in 1907 to the future of freshwater fisheries law. The fisheries of England were in a poor state and it was noted that “much confusion has arisen by the vagueness and multiplicity of Freshwater Fisheries Acts”. The NFA suggested that they should be repealed, with the exception of the Elver Fishery Act 1876. It asked for “direct representatives of non-migratory trout and general fish anglers” to be appointed as members of fishery boards. Representatives had to be nominated by at least 16 anglers residing in their district.

Mr Langstaffe, the York delegate, even drafted a whole new fisheries bill amounting to some twenty different sections. Interestingly, Mr RG Woodruff (London) and Mr Royston (Leeds) successfully objected to the title ‘general fish anglers’ and won approval that the word ‘coarse’ should take the place of ‘general’. The hard work of Mr Langstaffe and others in the NFA finally paid off some fourteen years later, in what became the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act 1923.

First coarse and trout fishing rod licence proposed

The most strenuous objection from anglers centred around the idea of issuing any sort of rod licence for coarse fishing. Yet the opposition to the coarse rod licence was not unanimous. The idea was spreading that it would be better for the welfare of the nation’s inland waters if trout and salmon anglers and coarse fish anglers lined up together in mutual effort for the improvement and protection of their interests.

Nothing was done to unite these varied interests until the Severn Fishery Board obtained a Provisional Order in 1911 to enable the issuing of a Freshwater Fish Rod Licence. This entitled the holder to angle in the right season wherever he had permission to fish, for trout, chub, dace, pike and any species in the waters other than salmon.

Continued rod licence opposition

But the idea was not accepted without a great deal of protest. It was felt, in some districts, that it would be “exceedingly harsh” to compel a fisherman residing in the lower part of the Severn watershed to buy a rod licence, costing sixpence, available for 12 months. This may have been because of the distance these anglers would have had to travel to purchase the licence. So there had to be a public inquiry before the Severn Fishery Board could obtain the powers they sought under the Provisional Order.

Warwickshire anglers, by their fiercely implacable opposition, obtained rod licence exemption entirely up until the year 1925. This exemption extended along the River Avon throughout the county of Warwickshire, even though the River Avon joins up with the River Severn at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.

Representation with taxation

The first coarse fish rod licence, or rather ‘comprehensive’ licence entitling the holder to angle for non-migratory trout and coarse fish, was issued by the Severn Fishery Board in January 1912.

Alf Waterhouse of the Birmingham & District Angling Association Alf Waterhouse of the Birmingham & District Angling Association

Six representatives from the coarse fishing community had been previously appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in November 1911, to serve with the Severn Fishery Board. Those members included Mr HW Miller (Provincial Anglers Association) and Alf Waterhouse (Birmingham & District Angling Association), who were both members of the NFA General Purposes Committee.

This inclusion of coarse fish angling association representatives on a fishery board mainly concerned with maintaining its salmon netting industry was looked upon as a doubtful kind of experiment, but proof of the value of this venture was clearly expressed in the 1912 Severn Fishery Board report.

Financial salvation

The report contained this message from Chairman John William Willis Bund: “For the first time for some years, revenue of the Board has been sufficient to enable it to meet its expenditure, pay off its debts, increase the protection, and generally improve the rivers in the district.”

The Severn Board was able to make this progressive statement because it had issued 19,659 of the new comprehensive rod licences during the year. In stark contrast, during the salmon rod fishing season, it sold just 64 salmon rod licences, priced at ten shillings each.

With the introduction of the coarse fishing licence and coarse fishing representatives now advising the fishery boards, anglers had achieved a say in how licence funds were spent. It wasn’t until 2010, with the abolition of the Regional Fisheries, Environment & Recreation Advisory Committees, that this representation, which anglers had campaigned so hard to earn, was finally lost.

Thames region, the latecomer and rod number

Fishing rod licence from 1939 for the Severn Fishery District

Image: Fishing rod licence from 1939 for the Severn Fishery District

Following the 1923 Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act, the need for a coarse rod licence throughout most of England and Wales became the norm. However, the rod licence did not arrive in the Thames region, including the Lee catchment, until as late as 1 April 1976.

The initial rod licence covered the use of only one rod. Back in the day, most anglers considered that they could only be in proper control of one rod at a time. The National Championship rule quoted below only came into force in 1972. Before then it was one rod only or face disqualification.

"A competitor shall have in use only one rod, one line and one hook at one time, but may have other rods and tackles assembled for use in an upright position behind him, provided that no such other tackles are baited."

In case you were thinking it was just match anglers who were behind the times, Dick Walker was using a single rod when he took his record carp from Redmire Pool back on 12 September 1952. Fellow angler Peter Thomas, who accompanied Dick on that trip, used two rods. For that, he would have needed to have purchased a second licence.

The two-rod licence is a relatively recent addition, from the 1990s. The three-rod licence only came into being at the time of the last rod licence review in 2017, when the 12-month rolling rod licence was also introduced.

Fishing rod licence from 1943 for the Trent Fishery District Fishing rod licence from 1943 for the Trent Fishery District

From catchment boards to the Environment Agency

Returning to the early twentieth century, the fisheries service evolved, passing responsibility on to the river boards, which operated between 1950 and 1965. River boards were replaced with 27 river authorities following the introduction of the Water Resources Act 1963.

As well as inheriting functions to do with land drainage, fisheries and the prevention of pollution, the new river authorities were given additional duties to monitor water quality and protect water resources. The Water Act 1973 set up the ten water authorities that many readers will remember. 

Image: Len Fisher and Mike Bulleid of Thames Water hold up the first monthly and annual rod licences

Len Fisher and Mike Bulleid from Thames Water hold up the first ever monthly and annual fishing rod licences, in 1976

Back then, if you were a widely travelled angler, you potentially required ten regional rod licences, and those residing close to catchment borders certainly needed to purchase two or three.

With the privatisation of the water industry, the fisheries function passed to the National Rivers Authority (NRA) in 1989. During this period, in 1992, came the first national rod licence, which we still have today.

Fishing rod licence 2004 Environment Agency

Image: a national rod licence issued by the Environment Agency in 2003

The NRA was one of the public bodies that helped to form the new Environment Agency covering both England and Wales in 1996. When responsibility for Wales was transferred to Natural Resources Wales in 2013, rod licence money collected from residents with a Welsh postcode was allocated separately to be spent on fisheries within Wales. Up until that point, funds from licences purchased in England and Wales had been pooled.

It’s been more than 100 years since that first coarse rod licence was issued. Will there still be rod licences in another hundred years’ time, or will an alternative mechanism for fisheries funding have been found by then?

Last date edited: 27 August 2020

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The fisheries & angling team

The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

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