Skip to main content

The charity making life better by water

How the wartime Nationals were won

This week it was announced that the 2020 Division One and Two Nationals will be cancelled and held in 2021 instead, at the same venues. The news prompted John Ellis, national fisheries and angling manager, to investigate the war years, when the championships were also affected by global events.

There is nothing more uncertain than uncertainty. So at least we now know that the Nationals won't be taking place this year. Participants will naturally be disappointed to miss one of angling's most historic championships. But spare a thought for anglers back in 1914 or 1939, when war, rather than a virus, was foremost in their minds.

Jim Bazley, portrait, 1908

The quarter-ounce National

Following internal consultation led by Alf Waterhouse, the 1914 National went ahead on the River Trent at Willington on Monday 28 September. This was two months after Britain's declaration of war on 4 August, in order to protect Belgium from German aggression.

Competitors of a certain age would have been contemplating volunteering to join the forces or the prospect of conscription in the future. Jim Bazley's (pictured) Leeds & District Amalgamated Society of Anglers (DASA) team were short of one of their top men, Chappie Pickersgill, who had already volunteered for the front. Did Chappie ever return or was he one of those who sadly perished in the defence of his country? Unfortunately club records don't provide the answer.

Circumstances didn't stop Derby Angling Association's (AA) Arthur Sharratt from triumphing on the day, with a small fish catch totalling 6-15-12. He just pipped Stan Byrom (Leeds DASA) by 4 drams. I wonder if current Cadence star Ben Sharratt is related to Arthur?

Despite missing out on individual glory by the narrowest of margins, Stan made amends. He picked up a team gold medal as Leeds totalled 20-14-8, just 4 drams ahead of Notts Federation, with the Derby team in third spot.

Intervention of the Great War

For those wondering what, if anything, was ‘great' about the first world war, the term is used to convey the sheer size of the conflict. It was larger and more widespread than anything else that had gone on before in world military history.

One of two ambulances provided for WW1 forces by the NFA

The National Federation of Anglers (NFA), then governing body of the sport and one of the five bodies that eventually formed the Angling Trust, raised money from anglers for the war effort. These donations were sufficient to purchase two ambulances, which were handed over to the Minister of War, Neville Chamberlain, and used on the Western Front.

Chamberlain was the man who, a quarter of a century later, after the failed appeasement policy of the 1930s, would be replaced by Churchill in May 1940. The rest, as they say, is history. Incidentally, a lesser-known fact about the great Winston is that he was an enthusiastic angler when his schedule permitted.

Churchill lands a swordfish

Trout angler wins the National

As a result of the Great War, it was to be 1919 before the National was fished again, this time on the River Ancholme in Lincolnshire.

Almost a million British soldiers were killed in action or whilst held as prisoners of war. Millions more combatants were injured, either physically or mentally. On top of that there was the Spanish flu pandemic to contend with. It was no wonder some competing teams struggled to find a full complement of 12 anglers.

Thus it was that Derby AA ended up selecting Tom Hill, a trout angler with very limited coarse fishing experience, to fish the big match. Some things are just meant to be, and Tom took the title with Lady Luck playing her part in enabling him to become Derby AA's second individual National winner. You can read Tom's story and much more in John Essex's book on the history of the National Championships.

Longest reigning National champion

The 1938 National was the last pre-second world war event. Lining up on the Great Ouse was George Bright, an unknown name to most modern anglers, but one of the top match-men of his day.

George achieved notable success, despite not fishing on a Sunday due to his strong religious beliefs. His wife was a top angler too, as well known back then as the likes of North Staffs' Mrs Poole and other pioneering ladies of the National.

Bristol & West of England team captain George, pegged near the great Bob Fuller, went on to win with a bream-dominated bag totalling 21-13-8. George was to remain champion of England for a full seven years.

War years

There was no National held in 1939, for war had been declared on 1 August and that year's match was scheduled for late September on the Trent at Newark.

At the NFA Annual Conference in May 1940, there was much opposition to holding the championship that year, but the decision was taken to fish by 18 votes to 16. However, alongside many other angling competitions, it was eventually put on hold until the war had ended.

Many anglers were killed on active duty or by German attacks on the major cities. Some of the valuable championship gold and silver medals escaped destruction by the Luftwaffe thanks to a very thick brick wall. The Peek Trophy, held by Groves and Whitnall of Salford, a club that Kevin Ashurst represented in the 1956 National, also miraculously escaped severe damage when the factory housing it was blown to pieces.

National Angling Championships River Trent 1945

Nationals restarted

The campaign finally ended in Europe on 8 May 1945 and a National was hastily arranged to be held on the Trent at Newark, the same location as the cancelled 1939 event. It was fished on Saturday 1 September, despite the fact that not all soldiers had returned from the far-flung corners of the global fighting theatre. Indeed, the Japanese didn't finally sign the surrender document until 2 September, although surrender itself had been announced on 15 August.

Programme for the 1945 National championships

There was period of silence at the draw on that Saturday morning. What thoughts must have gone through people's minds? There wasn't an individual present there, or in the country as a whole, whose life had not been impacted by the events of the previous six years.

Nationals are rarely without controversy. On this occasion it was around the awarding of medals; an intriguing story covered in depth in John Essex's book.

This was also the year that Leigh's Benny Ashurst made his National debut, in a match he possibly should have won. George Bright finished seventh, in an amazing effort to retain his crown.

Greatest National angler with military service

John's book also reveals a plethora of individual and team National medal winners who have served their country in the forces. The story of the 1948 individual champion Billy Thompson, invalided out of the first world war, really does pull at the heartstrings.

However, my pick has to be Coventry legend Billy Lane. The left-handed maestro served in the Royal Air Force and later picked up an incredible total of 18 National medals (nine individual and nine team) during an outstanding match-fishing career that also saw him become England's first world champion back in 1963.

One day, I am convinced that Alan Scotthorne will equal or surpass Billy's medal haul, and possibly Frank Butler's all-time number of 51 appearances. Alan has the single-minded determination to make it happen. Time will tell whether my prediction comes to pass.

Last Edited: 12 June 2020

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