Skip to main content

The charity making life better by water

History of the centre pin reel

It was only in Izaak Walton’s 1655 second edition of the famous 'Compleat Angler' that any sort of fishing reel was mentioned. While reels had been in existence in other countries for hundreds of years, for example China, they were slow to catch on here.

Various centre pin reels

Fishing in Dame Juliana's day

Back in the late 15th century all anglers fished with a fixed line pole style. How far out they could fish was determined by the length of the ash, yew or hazel rod and the line attached to it. Fishing lines of that period were made from knotted strands of horsehair, tapering in thickness towards the hook, where only a single strong strand might have been used.

Earliest reels

An illustration of an early reel appears in Col Robert Venables 'The Experienced Angler' (1662) and shows a wooden crank wind reel (of a sort) with a hoop to hold it to the rod butt. Originally manufactured in brass, early English crank wind reels were small in diameter, say 30-50 cm, functioning as an extra line reservoir for the angler when playing better quality fish. Small 'rod' drop rings began to appear on poles to allow the line to run through them.


Originally called 'barrels', these brass reels later became known as 'winches'. As brass winches were small and didn't hold much line, their size gradually increased, especially on salmon and trout sizes. Subsequently these brass winches got heavier and heavier. Couple that with a heavy Victorian rod (most rods weighed between 1 and 2 lbs) then a day's fishing could give the angler significant arm-ache.

Early Nottingham reel

Rod attachments

Early brass winches were fixed to the rod by a spike or a spring-clip type of hoop, similar to a hosepipe clip. Cork rod handles had not been invented and thus the reel fitting needed to be stout, robust and firmly fixed into position on to the cane, hickory, hazel or other material from which the rod butt was made. To get a better purchase on these uneven rod butts, a leather pad might be set into the inside of the spring clip.

BR Front reel

Wooden reels

Around the mid-19th century, some clever coarse angler decided to experiment with lighter materials for fishing reels. No, not carbon fibre or even aluminium. It was wood and so the common wooden winch was born.

According to A Courteney Williams ('Angling Diversions', 1945) it was in 1850 that Samuel Lowkes designed a reel made of wood in the Sneinton area of Nottingham. This type of reel had a wooden back plate and drum, and an attachment to hold it to the rod, or the reel foot as we know it today.

Nottingham reels

William Bailey, writing in the 'Anglers Instructor' (1857) said, "You cannot have a reel too light or that runs too free. The best is a four-inch common wood reel, varnished to keep the rain from swelling the wood – the only brass about it being the hoop for fastening it to the rod."

It is quite apparent that the Nottingham wooden winch was a common sight on the banks of the Trent in Bailey's time, ranging from 2 to 4 inches in diameter.

Centre reel

By 1866, an important change had taken place, as the second edition of Bailey's book refers to the "newly invented centre reel". The drum revolved upon a pointed centre spindle and was kept from wobbling about by the quick release lever, which sits in a groove in the spindle. The spool quick release button was thus born.

Unknown inventor

To whom the invention of this little miracle gadget is attributed is anyone's guess. David Slater of Newark, at one time one of the biggest and finest reel producers in England, is credited with its design in the mid 1880s, though it might well have been one of his suppliers.

Warping prevention techniques

Wooden starback reels went through various design phases to lighten and strengthen the product. In the late Victorian era, brass stars, brass and alloy linings, and aluminium casings were all techniques used to correct warping. Alloy stars, alloy rear flanges and large hollow barrels were all employed to lighten the reel and increase line recovery. In fact, so good were the turn-of-the-century wood and ebonite centrepins by Slater, Milwards, Fosters and Farlows that they were used almost exclusively for spinning and trotting.

Allcock Aerials

Allcock match

The most famous centrepin reel is the Allcock Aerial, designed by Henry Coxon and patented in 1896 by JW Young. Originally made in wood and ebonite (an early form of plastic) with a quick release spool, it then became available in aluminium by the turn of the 20th century. The open construction allowed delicate silk fishing lines to dry quickly on the reel.

In 1905 the simple patent adjustable drag was added and the reel took the top end of the centrepin market by storm. Perhaps the most fondly remembered model is the 1960s Match Aerial endorsed by Billy Lane as the "finest trotting reel ever made".

Bakelite reels

During the early part of the 20th century the introduction of Bakelite, a light plastic that did not warp or corrode and was unaffected by temperature, began to spell the end for the wooden reel. The Allcock Aerialite and the ELO became firm favourites because they cost only one-fifth of the price of Aerials. Produced for over 30 years, alloy reels from the Young's stable, including the famous 'Flick Em', Rapidex and Trudex series, have lately undergone a revival.

Stanton ball bearing reel

The late 1950s saw the emergence of the aluminium Stanton ball bearing reel, which became very popular with the Midland match cracks who could cast halfway across the Trent. The ball bearing Adcock Stanton is a redesigned version of the very same reel.

Still the best trotting reel?

Over the last 50 years, key manufacturers have found a niche market with specially made centrepin reels manufactured from aluminium bar stock. They are great reels and can be a joy to use in skilled hands, trotting for the elusive big roach, chub or barbel.

Is there anything better for the health and wellbeing of the angler than to trot a stick-float on flowing water using one of these wonderfully made centre pin reels?

Last Edited: 14 January 2021

photo of a location on the canals
newsletter logo

Stay connected

Sign up to our monthly newsletter and be the first to hear about campaigns, upcoming events and fundraising inspiration