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Barbara Castle: The unlikely canal anglers’ friend

Most anglers today take their access to fishing for granted. The future of canals and canal fishing was potentially under threat until Barbara Castle intervened in more ways than one.

BW192/3/2/6/20 Supplied by National Waterways Archive, Canal & River Trust

Game changers

When people think of game changers in the world of fishing on canals, names like Benny & Kevin Ashurst, Ian Heaps, the Vincent brothers, Mark Pollard, etc spring to mind. Others might plump for the pioneering pollution fighting work of early National Federation of Anglers stalwarts like Alf Waterhouse, or the later follow-up pollution campaigning work of the Anglers Co-operative Association. Then there are the likes of Terry Mansbridge who galvanised consultatives during the tenure of the National Association of Fisheries & Angling Consultatives (NAFAC).

The work of the NFA, ACA and NAFAC is thankfully continued today by Fish Legal and Angling Trust. Barbara Castle was undoubtedly the most important female Labour politician of the twentieth century, only the fourth female cabinet minister, and was expected by many to be Britain's first female Prime Minister. Almost certainly a non-angler, how did this energetic, feisty socialist, born before women had the vote, play a role in securing the future of fishing on our waterways?

Canal fishing history

Nobody has yet been able to identify the name of the first ever canal angler. Even during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, canal companies were looking to encourage anglers to fish on the waterways. Sir Frank Price, chairman of British Waterways in the 1970s, quotes the interesting example of the Croydon Canal company first deciding to charge a guinea a year for a fishing permit back in 1814. Some things don't change and, alas, angling income alone could not save this canal from its fate. The Croydon Canal became the first to be abandoned by act of parliament in 1836, an unwanted record if ever there was one.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, canal companies were beginning to let out fishing rights to the increasing number of angling clubs being formed at that time. Northampton Nene Angling Club were one such club whose records show they were renting sections of the Grand Union Canal by the mid 1850s. The oldest signed legal document we have on file dates from the 1870s, this being an agreement between the Newbury Angling Club and the Great Western Railway Company who had acquired the Kennet & Avon Canal in 1852.

By the time Queen Victoria passed away, angling clubs were well established. The majority of the waterways that contained fish were rented by clubs, large and small, thus providing a small but nevertheless useful source of income for the canal companies.

Transport acts

The twentieth century saw the continuation of the general decline of the canal network that had begun with increased competition from railways. Post war austerity did not help their cause, and canals were taken into public ownership alongside the railways under the auspices of the British Transport Commission at the outbreak of war. The 1960s was a time of reviewing the future.

Move forward to the 1960s and fishing was to find an ally in the recently appointed transport Labour Minister, Barbara Castle. According to both Ken Ball and NAFAC's Fred French, (alas both no longer with us) in 1968, a small delegation of key administrators from the NFA and the National Anglers Council (a forerunner of Angling Trust) sought and were granted a meeting with the esteemed Transport Minister. This was held at her office in the Houses of Parliament in order to discuss future options for the management of angling and fisheries on the waterways prior to the Transport Act becoming law.

To cut a long story short, the delegation was presented by Barbara with two options. Option one was that fishing owned by British Waterways would be made available free of charge. Mrs Castle is said to have made it abundantly clear that with this option, there would certainly be no investment in fishing. Also at some future time, board management could even ban fishing altogether if they deemed it appropriate to do so and the government would not intervene.

The second option for consideration was for the angling community to pay market rates. In return, the board would appoint a national fisheries officer, guarantee representation, and begin to consider the needs of angling customers in its day-to-day operations as it moved from the world of freight to the new world of provider of leisure facilities.

Hurry up lads, I can't wait all day

The delegates requested to have the opportunity to discuss the matter in detail at the next NFA annual conference. Barbara wasted no time in informing them politely but firmly that they had ten minutes to make up their minds which it was to be. If they couldn't decide, she would make up their minds for them. She may have been a democrat at heart, but on this occasion, she made it clear that she had no desire to await the diverse opinions of hundreds of future conference delegates.

The delegation hastily concluded the best way forward was for anglers to continue to pay their way. Consequently, the duty to provide fishing on the cruising waterways was included in the legislation. Following the passage of the Transport Act (1968) into law, Tom Leatherland was appointed as national fisheries officer, probably in early 1969, a post he held until well into the 1990s.

Some of our more middle-aged readers will remember him, and some committee members will have negotiated rental levels with him, often over a pint or two. The inclusion of the statutory duty to provide angling on the cruising waterways was seen as a significant and positive outcome in the angling world at that time, and received a positive mention in the Woodbine Angling Yearbook of 1972.

Tom Leatherland

Sir Frank Price

Barbara's next brilliant move was to appoint Sir Frank to the board of British Waterways. Sir Frank was soon to become its chairman. Born in the slums of Hockley in the 1920s and once greeted by the late Prince Philip as ‘look out, here comes trouble', he was Barbara's sort of leader. Frank recorded the full details of the job interview in his autobiography, ‘Being There'

Barbara: ‘Frank, what do you know about canals?'

Frank: ‘Canals, er nor a lot Minister' followed by a pause and then, ‘my father spent time when he was unemployed fishing in the cuts around the city. He had as much success landing a fish as he had at landing a job.'

Barbara: ‘I'm led to understand that you are regarded as something of an irritant.'

Frank: ‘No more than you I suspect, Minister'.

Barbara: ‘In my book, that's a compliment'.

I'm not sure this plain-speaking approach would necessarily work with Richard Parry. Maybe I should try it one day just to see.

One month later Sir Frank was duly appointed and not long after became chairman. Of all the chairman that I've read about or worked with, Sir Frank is the one so far who most deeply understood the importance of fishing on the waterways and the imperative of the statutory duty towards fishing.

Sir Frank had learnt the positive impact fishing had on the mental health of an unemployed father trying to feed his family in the 1930s and that experience never left him. Both he and Barbara would certainly have approved of our Let's Fish! work had they been alive to see it. Frank also urged anglers of the merit of paying their way, a lesson not sufficiently taken on board and one which has certainly weakened the sport politically.

BW192/3/1/21/7/1, Supplied by National Waterways Archive, Canal & River Trust

A voice for angling

Another important outcome for the Transport Act was that angling was also to be represented by one delegate on the group set up to advise the Board, the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, (IWAAC). IWAAC has long since disappeared and it's debatable whether the right appointments were always made in terms of angling representation. To this day, the Trust has a Fisheries & Angling Advisory Group, and angling and fisheries have one elected representative of the National Council, currently David Kent. The next election for this post is due in 2024.

More about Barbara Castle

An ally of three-time election winner Harold Wilson and MP for Blackburn from 1945, Barbara held several cabinet posts, including being the only women to date to be the First Secretary of State. She was a keen advocate of speed limits, breathalyser tests and compulsory seat belts, lifesaving things we take for granted today.

She championed equal pay for women. In 1969, she authored a white paper advocating trade union reform, proposing such things like secret ballots before strike action. The proposals in the white paper split the cabinet and were taken no further. It was to be another huge female political figure, none other than Margaret Thatcher who, more than a decade later, implemented some of what Barbara has advocated.

British history would have certainly been somewhat different had Barbara Castle been able to move trade union reforms forward, but history, like life itself, is full of what ifs. You can find out much more about Barbara Castle in the authorised biography, the Red Queen, authored by Anne Perkins and published in 2003 by Macmillan.

Last Edited: 06 March 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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