THOMAS TAYLOR was a fisherman of many parts. He was a butcher’s apprentice, a sergeant in the Rifle Volunteers, a dance and deportment teacher, a lifesaver, a poacher, an excellent swimmer, a good shot and Teesdale’s finest angler.

He was also handy with his fists.

His story is told in a new book that is overflowing with pisciculturists, tackle inventors, hook-makers, fly-dressers, river-watchers and anglers, plus people who blow up their town centres and get wrapped up in murder cases.

The book, Game Fishing in the North Country, has been compiled by retired Durham policeman, John Austin, after many years of research. It is already being described by Classic Angling magazine as “the most important book on angling in the North Country to be produced so far this century” as it tells the stories of men who created hatcheries and invented tackle and flies.

The Northern Echo: WJ Cummins, a famed tackle dealer

Men like William John Cummins (above) who, at the age of 22, established a printing works and fishing tackle shop in 63 Fore Bondgate, Bishop Auckland, which became a world renowned enterprise. Mr Cummins developed the North of England Rod Works in Bishop which, by the end of the 19th Century, was exporting tackle all over the globe.

The Northern Echo: A fishing tackle catalogue by WJ Cummins, of Bishop Auckland, one of the biggest tackle dealers in the district

WJ Cummins' colour catalogue from 1880

His flies were regarded as among the best in the country, and in the 1889 season alone, he sold 60,000 of them from his new, larger shop in the Market Place. His coloured tackle catalogues show all of his gadgets and led the Scottish Field magazine to say that “he is to anglers what Cook is to tourists”.

That’s presumably Thomas rather than Captain James.

Mr Cummins, who was usually to be found on the banks of the Wear, fished in Norway and Canada. He died in his hometown in 1897 when the Auckland Times hailed him as “the worthy high priest of local angling”.

His sons, led by Alfred, took on the business and moved it to 13, Newgate Street. One of them, Herbert was killed at Ypres in the First World War, and Alfred himself was severely wounded.

The Northern Echo: WJ Cummins' roll of honour showing its empoloyees who served in the First World War, including three sons of the founder. Cummins also had a printers' shop, which closed in 1973, which may explain how they could create such a powerful memorialWJ Cummins' roll of honour showing its empoloyees who served in the First World War, including three sons of the founder. Cummins also had a printers' shop, which closed in 1973, which may explain how they could create such a powerful memorial

After his death in 1950, Cummins relocated to Coniscliffe Road in Darlington, and the Bishop Auckland rod works closed after 99 years.

Cummins, which closed in 1969, is a fairly conventional story from the golden age of sportsmen.

The Northern Echo: The Durham Ranger was one of the most popular salmon flies of the 1840s. It was designed by Durham solicitor Walter Scruton. A Durham police officer became obsessed, perhaps with good reason, by the notion Scruton was having an affair with his wife,

Author Austin tells lots of unconventional stories, as well, like that of Durham solicitor Walter Scruton who created the Durham Ranger (above), which was one of the most popular salmon flies of the 1840s.

However, in 1845, Superintendent Louis Henry Goule of the newly formed Durham Constabulary became obsessed, perhaps with good reason, by the notion that Scruton was having an affair with his wife, Emma.

When matters came to a head, Goule shot Emma through the arm and pistol whipped Scruton until he was pulled away by a crowd. Emma died of tetanus a few days later, and Goule was tried for murder. He was found not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity. He served two years in prison and then became a respectable vet in Worcestershire.

But few of the stories are as eye-catching as that of Thomas Taylor, born in Barney in 1814, and who made his name as an angler in 1847 when he caught 52 trout in four hours in the River Tees – an “enormous quantity”.

The Northern Echo: Frederick Acclom Milbank, 1st Baronet (1820-1898)
*watercolour on ivory
*24.8 cm high
*inscribed verso: Portrait of Frederick Milbank Esqr / painted by / Mrs Henry Moseley / 52 Upper Charlotte Str / Fitzroy Square / August _ 1846

His skills as a hunter and fisher came to the attention of Sir Frederick Milbank (above), who was the MP for North Yorkshire from 1865 to 1886. Sir Frederick took Tom with him as a ghillie on sporting excursions. On one, on the Isle of Arran, Sir Frederick was taken ill with lung inflammation out in the field and, with no medical assistance nearby, Tom immediately put his apprentice butchering skills into action and bled Sir Frederick.

Sir Frederick survived and Tom was hailed a hero.

It added to Tom’s colourful reputation as Teesdale’s most talented sportsman, who wasn’t afraid to resort to illegitimate means to catch his prey, or to his fists to settle disputes. In May 1857, the champion fly-fisher of Penrith, John Broughton, challenged the Teesdale tyro to a fishing match on the River Eden.

Weight of catch would determine the winner, and Tom took an early lead until the fish ceased to rise for him. He plodged around a bend and discovered another angler midstream, disturbing his fish – probably a deliberate tactic by Broughton’s backers who had money riding on his success.

Tom asked the angler to desist, and when he refused, Tom took off his watch, handed it to the umpire saying he could keep it if he didn’t return to reclaim it, and launched himself at his rival, using his skills as a swimmer – he had rescued several people from the Tees – to pin him underwater.

“He held his opponent down till the man seemed drowned, and then dragged him out by his hair,” wrote an eye-witness. “But the man suddenly revived so Tom held his hair with one hand and pummelled his face with the other, till, as he said, “I fairly blinded him; he couldn’t fish again”, and he left him on the bank to be taken or led home.

“He then took his watch from the umpire and renewed his fishing, had very good sport and on the second day he had no interruption.”

Even in Teesdale, Tom was prepared to bend the rules to catch his fish. He was employed by the Fishery Board as a river-watcher, keeping an eye on fish stocks, but he was renowned as a poacher, often caught red-handed by the police. However, because he had saved Sir Frederick’s life, Sir Frederick always ensured that there wasn’t enough evidence of his poaching to place before magistrates.

This nobbling of the cases became so blatant that in September 1877, Thomas Hill, the Chief Constable of the North Riding, personally oversaw Tom’s prosecution and he received the maximum fine of £5.

However, in October 1878, the Chief Constable was himself prosecuted for fishing without a licence and was fined £5 by Darlington magistrates.

Who knew that the contemplative sport of angling could be so exciting, but all these characters from the old days and their techniques come to life in the hands of author John Austin, who really hooks his readers.

The Northern Echo: Game Fishing in the North Country by John Austin

  • Game Fishing in the North Country: An Historical Miscellany, by John Austin is published by Coch-y-Bonddu Books, which specialises in angling books, for £35 hardback. Go to for more details.