To mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday 8 March, we’re celebrating some of Britain’s first competitive female anglers, who paved the way for today’s champions.
One of the great achievements as we move towards gender equality has been the work to level the playing field in sport. Long gone are the days when ladies were considered too frail to run the 1500 metres in the Olympic games. Women were only allowed to run as far as 800m up until the 1972 Olympics, and the women's marathon was introduced as recently as 1984.
But things were much worse for Olympians in ancient Greece. They had yet to fully grasp the health and wellbeing benefits of participating in sport. The sentence for any woman caught spectating, never mind competing, was execution.
In modern times, the growth, decline and regrowth in British women's football has been well documented. The women's Six Nations rugby championship is here to stay. A much less well-known story is that of the pioneering women who were the first to compete at the highest level in the biggest competition of our sport, in the National Angling Championships. The tournament is commonly known as ‘the Nationals', but was called the All England Championships up until 1972.
A brief history of the competition
With sponsorship of medals from the Daily Mirror newspaper, the inaugural championships were held on the River Thames in 1906, with just 7 teams of 12 lining up. There were precious few motor vehicles back then, so the early match venues were located near to convenient railway stations.
Typically teams were selected to represent their town, county or association based on a series of qualifying matches. Therefore, to have a chance of being picked, these groundbreaking women would have needed some steely determination, a whole load of angling ability and in some cases a supportive spouse. It's worth remembering that at this time women were still fighting for the right to vote.
Early views of women anglers
None of the surviving pre-First World War tournament photographs or team sheets include lady anglers. The search for a lady anglers participating in the 1920's has drawn a blank too.
The Dundee Courier reported on the 1928 national as follows ‘No woman took part in the contest, for girls cannot fish because they talk too much. They will wriggle lines to attract the attention of fish and are too impatient. That reporter has obviously not been to a Let's Fish event because more often than not it's the boys who are the impatient ones.
Change begins in 1935
Held on the River Witham in the sleepy village of Kirkstead, the Lincoln team took the title at the 1935 National. A feat this great team were to repeat the following year, despite the best endeavours of Buckingham's Arthur Bryant. Arthur's post-match dance with the lady mayoress has gone down in the annals of British sporting history. There is a fantastic account of Arthur's exploits in John Essex's book, ‘The National Angling Championships'.
It was also in 1935 that the first two female competitors made their debuts. Representing Newark and District Piscatorials was Mrs Bert Barnes. She was the wife of the licensee of the White Hind, Newark, an establishment that can be dated back to the 1790s. Best we know, Mrs Barnes' name was not actually Bert (or even the more formal Albert), rather it was quite common practice then for a woman to take her husband's first name. The couple would have been referred to in social circles as Mr and Mrs Bert Barnes.
The second lady participating was Miss Carter, representing the south-east-based CALPAC team, who unfortunately came a disappointing 49th out of 50. With 4-3-13, they finished ahead of only Biggleswade and District AA (3-7-0). Mrs Barnes weighed 0-13-8 to beat three of her male teammates, and Miss Carter recorded 0-2-0.
Staffordshire's Mrs Poole
North Staffordshire, the land of the Potteries, has always been a hotbed for angling. Mrs A Poole (pictured) represented the association in the 1937 National, held on the Gloucester & Sharpness (Berkeley) Canal. It was the first National to take place on a canal, and most recently hosted the 2021 Division Two event. Mrs Poole impressed the North Staffs selectors sufficiently to line up for the team again in the 1938 event on the Great Ouse at Harrold, the last national held before WW2 was declared. Alas, there seem to be no further mentions of the pioneering Mrs Poole in the angling archives after the outbreak of war.
The last pre-war National was won by one of the best anglers to ever emerge from the south-west, George Bright. Interestingly, George's wife also recorded many local match victories and had been a potential contender for the Bristol and West of England team.
Mrs Sutton was listed in the 1945 National programme as representing North Staffs Association of Anglers, but she had to pull out at the last minute. In 1948 the Fishing Gazette wrote that Mrs Barber, wife of Mac Barber of High Street, Hadleigh, Suffolk, who fished the match, was the first-ever female National competitor. It just goes to show that not everything you read in the angling press is necessarily true.
In the 1953 Nene National, CALPAC again selected a female angler, Miss DK Banks (pictured). As you can see, this young lady had the common sense not to overburden herself with the excessive quantities of equipment that superstar match anglers often carry today.
Modern medal winners
In response to growing interest, the National Federation of Anglers introduced their Ladies National Championship in 1974, though it had started unofficially as early as 1963. It remains a well-supported and popular competition, with some famous winners over the years. These include Linda Purchase in 1976, Avis Thomas (wife of 1981 world champion Dave Thomas) in 1979, Lynne Baxter in 1987, and, perhaps the greatest of them all, Sandra Halkon-Hunt (now Scotthorne) in 1990.
Talking of Lynne, she was almost the first female angler to win a National medal as part of a team. She appears in the Leeds Anglers World team photograph after they won the 1988 Division Five National, but was first reserve that day.
Browning Ossett took the 2017 Division Two National team title with an emphatic performance on the prolific Aire and Calder Canal. In the Ossett team that day was young Kayleigh Smith (pictured at the top of the page) who, best we know, is the first-ever female to win a divisional National team gold medal. For good measure Kayleigh, who went on to win the bronze medal in the 2019 World Championships, also kept her husband-to-be, Adam Dowd, out of the team in 2017. It was a selectorial decision that I am sure he took with good grace.
Growing in popularity
The young ladies of Dawley (pictured), ably coached by Jon Portman, set a record in 2019 being the first all-female team to take part in the Angling Trust Junior National Championships. Both the 2020 and 2021 national celebrations of young people and fishing attracted a 25% female attendance, which in 2021 equated to 50 or so anglers.
Whilst they still have a long journey ahead of them, potential future stars such as Morgan Dowman and Freya Sullivan are just two examples of girls with an abundance of natural fishing talent.
Ladies who coach
Nuala Gray, one of our growing army of excellent female Let's Fish! coaches has an ambition. She wants to make angling history and see an all-female Let's Fish! coaching team compete in the Angling Trust Division Two National in the 2022 event on the Warwickshire Avon. Nuala has stepped up to captain the team and is quietly confident that 10 anglers will put their names forward. Wouldn't that be a fitting tribute to the likes of Mrs Poole?
If you have any information on female pioneers that would add to our knowledge of angling history, please don't hesitate to get in touch. We're also keen to hear from ladies (as well as gentlemen) who are interested in becoming a Let's Fish! coach or getting involved in any of the angling championships mentioned. You can email us at [email protected]
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