Angling historian, John Essex, tells us the tale of Crooked Lane, the forgotten heart of the fishing tackle retail trade.
A few years ago, I was in London on business. To save getting bored on the train, I started researching London's long association with angling and fishing tackle. As the largest city in England and the capital of the burgeoning Empire, it won't surprise you to know that from the 17th to the 20th century London was the very centre of British retail tackle shops.
My interest in “Crooked Lane” was first aroused by one of the many books in my collection. The “Early Days of Tackle Dealing”, bought from second hand book dealer E Chalmers Hallam some 30 years ago, is a series of extracts from the Salmon and Trout magazine written by Hugh Tempest Sheringham sometime in the 1920s.
Back to Izaak's time
Sheringham, one of the great 20th century angling writers, relied on the work of other angling writers and angling historians from previous generations. His research formed the basis for that intriguing book by Courtney Williams, “Angling Diversions”. Much early information on London tackle shops comes from contemporary references in fishing books from Izaak Walton's time and later. Older angling writers referred warmly to tackle shops in Blackhorse Alley. This was once located near to the old Fleet Bridge, which crossed the now covered “Fleet” River, with which the famous printers paradise “Fleet Street” became synonymous.
Sarah Sandon Lady tackle dealer
The numerous tackle emporiums of Crooked Lane attracted the cream of London anglers. “In Crooked Lane, at the Sign of the Compleat Angler, liveth Sarah Sandon, who sells all sorts of ye best fishing tackle for use of ye sea or river etc which are there made as Hooke Rods Netts of every size and goodness”.
I carefully studied modern London maps at the British Library but of Crooked Lane there was no mention. So where was it? The fact that so many tackle makers adopted it as London's “fishing quarter” meant it surely must be close to the Thames. It might also be where the fishing was best in London, when good fishing could be had in the Thames that is – near London Bridge.
Fire, fire everywhere
I had originally thought that the Great Fire of London had destroyed the old wooden bridge, but it turns out I was wrong. Fire had first ravaged it much earlier in 1633 when a maidservant left a pail of ashes under wooden stairs. Forty-three houses were destroyed at the time and many of the shops were also burned and damaged.
However most of the bridge escaped the Great Fire of 1666 as the earlier blaze had left a gap just wide enough that flames were unable to “jump” across. Many buildings were lost in the raging furnace that consumed a vast area of London around St Pauls. Tackle shops in the vicinity of the churchyard all but disappeared. Some of the old streets re-appeared but like modern planners, the architects saw a golden opportunity to revamp the City. But “Crooked Lane” lived on – for while!
Fishing off the bridge
In Walton's time the old wooden bridge (and later rebuilds) had a large number of stone piers, surrounded by wooden piles embedded into the river, as protection against damage by boats. These piles were often referred to as “starlings” and became favourite haunts (fishing stations) of ordinary anglers and the Thames professionals despite treacherous currents and the tide variations. Courtney Williams mentioned that many big barbel and bream, roach, perch and dace were taken from these spots.
Who moved the bridge?
London Bridge was the clue as, looking at a circa 1750 map, something clicked. I felt as ecstatic as a “Time Team” digger who had unearthed a small broken piece of pot. This map showed “old” London Bridge but it wasn't where it is now. Someone had moved it. At some time in the past the modern bridge had been rebuilt and the north end moved westwards.
But when? A new bridge was constructed exactly on the site of the old one in 1763 but the centre arch caused terrific currents and the stone piers became unstable. A massive copper plate print exists showing the “rebuilding “of London Bridge in 1832.
“In 1824, John Rennie's new designs has been accepted. One of the great engineers of the era, Rennie also had canal links, being the Chief engineer on the Kennet & Avon Canal and several other canal schemes. He passed away before the new London Bridge was constructed by his son, John Rennie the younger. The bridge was built 180 feet west of the old Bridge and for a time Londoners could see both the old bridge and the new side-by-side.” It was eventually sold to American Robert P McCulloch and shipped to Arizona.
Crooked Lane burial site discovered
The large print showed the area to the north of the bridge under construction. In the distance was the Church of St Michaels situated on the corner of Crooked Lane. The church was destroyed in 1831 to make way for the new intersection at King William and Gracechurch Street. Crooked Lane appears to have gone the same way and by my reckoning is buried under King William Street, just a few yards away from the Monument.
Fishmongers and all England connections
London Bridge has continued to fulfil its long and happy association with anglers. Located at its north end is Fishmongers Hall, home to the Worshipful Fishmongers Company.
a building erected near the time of the 1832 bridge reconstruction. In the past this fine establishment has played host to many angling greats who have attended numerous important fisheries meetings there.
The support given by the Fishmongers Company to angling is commemorated by their donation in 1938 of a magnificent silver trophy, won by the angler taking the top weight in the old All England National Angling Championship.
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