Tis the season to be a jolly angler

Angling historian John Essex investigates why anglers are traditionally ‘jolly’ and shares some pictures of the evidence.

Allcocks tackle firm's 'Jolly Anglers' float at Redditch Carnival 1931 Allcocks tackle firm's 'Jolly Anglers' float at Redditch Carnival 1931

“'Tis the season to be Jolly” so the 'Deck the Halls' Christmas song goes, with the English lyrics written, I believe, in 1862 by Thomas Oliphant. For Christmas 2020, in these austere coronavirus times, we anglers need to jolly ourselves up and carry on fishing responsibly, observing the latest guidance from the government and our own sport's governing body, the Angling Trust. But wait! Anglers have been jolly for some two hundred years.

If one runs a 'jolly angler' internet search, it will return approximately 15,400 results. As you might guess, I haven't bothered to read every one of them, except to see that a significant number refer to public houses, including the closure of the famous Jolly Anglers pub in Ducie Street, Manchester. Pubs of the same name, now fewer in number, were and some still are situated in Beeston, Burneside near Kendal in Cumbria, Bolton, Kennetside in Reading, Nottingham and London.

Going back into angling history there was a very close relationship between anglers, angling associations and public houses. The pub would often have been the headquarters of bona-fide angling clubs where the match draw plus refreshments would have been taken before the match, and the repository where fish were taken afterwards for weighing and prize giving.

I am unsure where the jolly angler phrase originated (please email us if you know). There are a number of water-related drawings by George Cruikshank circa 1829 all with 'jolly' in their names, which included one named the 'Jolly Anglers', so this might have been the inspirational catalyst. There is even a painting, circa 1830, of the 'Jolly Anglers' at Trout Hall by Bristow of Windsor.

Another could be that the phrase came from 'The Jolly Angler or Waterside Companion'. This privately printed angling book by John March, first published in 1833, contains no less than “Eighty Wood Engravings” no doubt by John himself, a wood engraver by trade. This gave an “Account of All the Places for Angling, the Means Used to Obtain Permission, as Well as an Account of the Different Sorts of Fish Contained Therein; the Tackle, Baits and Other Requisites to form an Expert Angler with a correct description of tying hooks”. It depicts a 'jolly angler' fishing at Carthagena Weir on the River Lee at Broxbourne (pictured).

John March's 1833 wood engraving 'The Jolly Angler'

Over the years there have been numerous 'jolly' fishing clubs, but it is quite difficult to track them down, since so many were short-lived and transient. What happened to the Jolly Piscatorials who used to meet at the Cock Inn on Clapham Common? Two other London 'Jollies' were at 68 Batch Street, EC1, and 227 Kentish Town Road, NW5, and yet another at Lea Bridge, Hackney. As far as I am aware the Wallingford Jolly Anglers Angling Society still exists in the Oxfordshire area.

Political cartoon from 1876 'The Jolly Anglers' featuring Disraeli
Cartoon from Punch magazine 1886 'The Jolly Anglers' featuring Gladstone

A 'Jolly Angler' political cartoon, dated 1876, shows then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, fishing from a punt with a net in his hand (pictured). This was presumably to 'land' more income for government coffers after a 1-penny rise in income tax. Some ten years later, the Punch magazine of June 1886 carried another 'Jolly Anglers' political cartoon featuring another British Prime Minister, William Gladstone (pictured).

Founded in 1885, the Cambridge Fish Preservation and Angling Society were originally known as 'The Jolly Anglers'. It is not certain why or when the society changed its name but it’s thought to have happened during the early twentieth century. On their website is a wonderful comment from the late Percy Anderson, 1974 National Angling Champion and a great friend of the late Ivan Marks.

“To me though there is more to fishing than hauling in huge catches of fish; it’s about friendships and little events that become fond memories," said Percy. "Through fishing I have made some very good friends and had some laughs along the way. So forgive me if on this site we don’t at times get too serious because after all we are the 'Jolly Anglers'.”

M Morris postcard of 'The Jolly Angler'

As Great Britain meandered into the postcard era, at the turn of the 20th century, artist M Morris produced a wonderful depiction of 'The Jolly Angler'. A trout fisherman is shown tramping home in the pouring rain followed by his faithful dog (pictured).

The popular tackle firm of Allcocks, probably the UK's largest supplier of fishing equipment for more than 150 years, won first prize at the 1931 Redditch Carnival for best-decorated vehicle. One of their lorries depicted the 'Jolly Angler Inn' (pictured top of page) complete with a number of Allcocks male and female employees posing as customers. This won the firm a silver medal.

Picking up the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'jolly' means cheerful, jovial, merry or “slightly drunk”. Perhaps our forefathers were jolly but for the modern-day serious angler, pubs and angling do not often mix, especially when driving. I can't say I have ever been jolly or cheerful on a cold winter’s day when my brolly has been blown inside out, water is pouring down my neck and I haven’t had a bite.

Teapot designed in the shape of a fisherman with a catch

Just for the record, the 'Jolly Angler' is also a variety of gooseberry. And if that wasn’t enough, then on your return from a fishing outing you could pour yourself a hot cup of tea from a Jolly Fisherman teapot (pictured) designed by Roy Simpson. Cheers!

Last date edited: 21 December 2020

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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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