Established in 1829 the Ellem Fishing Club, the oldest fishing club in the world, is still going strong. While it is still a rather exclusive club, by invitation only, it has been influential for just a smidgin short of 200 years in the sport we revere, being set up with articles which state:
“the Art of Angling has ever been considered most estimable, for the cultivation and improvement of it and of friendship, one toward the another”
In my life I have found no other activity where any and all of “Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (a Scottish expression for Gods Children) can meet as friends in conversation about angling prospects, well met, if only for the one occasion.
A wealthy foundry owner, Mr J Patterson, from Edinburgh owned a cottage in the upper reaches of the Whiteadder at Ellemford from which he explored the river and it’s tributary the Dye. He with others, constituting 11, formed a club at a meeting in the Ellem Tavern and was appointed the first Prese (an arcane Scottish title for Chair or President). The club grew over time, drawing on gentlemen from the legal, medical and accountancy professions, clergy and landed gentry from Edinburgh and the Borders.
Unsurprisingly they are somewhat different to your ordinary club. What club today can boast to have had over the years a list of officers with the titles; Club Painter, Medalist, Assessor, Physician, Chaplain, Artist or rules so strict that in the ealy years in order to miss an AGM or Annual Dinner, avoiding a fine of 1 guinea, you had to provide a doctors certificate or have 2 neutral persons attest that you were unable to attend! In addition a prospective member had to be able to demonstrate proficiency or face a ‘trial of skills’ (which was never applied as the word of the gentleman proposer guaranteed acceptance).
The club held it’s first competition on the 29th of April 1831 and it is minuted that;
"the spectator from an adjoining hill might trace hickory and casting lines flickering through the fog in many a distant glade".
The winner of the competition won a Club Medal of solid gold and kept the medal and the title of Vice Preses for the next 12 months. Over the last 189 years the Medal has been enlarged to accommodate winners names and now resides under security (being worth a bob or two).
A set of scales was bought in in 1834 and that year 18 dozen and 7 trout were caught for 19lbs 7ozs (average 3.190zs)! In 1835 George Trotter provided a medal for the heaviest 12 trout (salmon, grilse and whitling were excluded). The medal is awarded to this day but for the 6 heaviest fish in recognition of the ever continuing need for conservation, a matter which the club has addressed throughout its history.
In 1844 a size limit of 5 inches was introduced, increasing to 7 inches in 1899 up to the present day limit of 9 inches. The club, as a result of concerns of over fishing, introduced a closed season from 31st October to 15th March in 1870. They took action to prevent netting on the river having stakes driven into the river bed in heavily poached pools and planted trees to provide improved habitats for insect life. They supported initiatives such as a hatchery and tackling the problem of mink, financially supported provision for a river watcher, the establishment of Berwick and District Angling Association, the Anglers Co-operative, Borders Angling Association and the Tweed Foundation influencing work to prevent poaching and pollution on the Tweed system. They also supported the Scottish Sports Association for the Disabled and following the example of the Club the Tweed Fisheries Act 1857 came into force appointing 2 commissioners to look after the preservation of stocks of salmon, sea trout and other fish. The Ellem Club was and is active and influential setting the mould for many to follow.
The Club has always been very much a Gentlemans Club and rules were introduced to prevent the employment of ghilles during competitions helping with equipment, giving advice and (help ma Boab!) contributing to a members catch. One proposal was that an angler should not be accompanied by anyone above the age of 15 but this was set aside on the grounds that it was felt that at 15 years of age a boy would be as good a fisher as he ever would be but was more likely to be “influenced” to catch fish for a competitor than would a man. At weigh in members declare upon their word of honour they have complied with the rules. All this aside it was assumed that being gentlemen no member would ever be unsporting.
The club is imbued with a sense of duty. In 1887 it was decided that the winner of the Club Medal would compete on behalf of the club in the National Competition which was fished at Loch Leven. The 1887 winner declined on the grounds that he had no experience of loch fishing. The Council sent him a letter stating “membership of the club has it’s duties as well as privileges” and that “you should not allow personal inclinations or differences to stand in the way of carrying out the wishes of the membership” he did his duty!
Maybe the Club sounds a bit stuffy and sternly Victorian but I note the club also had its own wine cellar to lubricate annual dinners in the White Swan in Duns with the consumption of large quantities of sherry and port, champagne and claret being accompanied by much merriment, singing and a few jigs and reels. I suspect merriment carries on to this day.
What a club, 200 years old in 11 years, the oldest in the world verified by the Guinness Book of Records. The Club has played a part in the making of the history of our sport. Riverside banter, shared interest, unselfish help and advice, the occasional dram and frequent tales of what might have been have been are shared over generations. This spirit is enshrined in the Club Articles and activities of the Ellem Club, lang mae their lums reek!
The Ellem Fishing Club regalia and other memorabilia is on display at Paxton House in Berwickshire. Paxton House, Paxton, Berwickshire TD15 1SZ. Call 01289 386291.
Information gleaned from several sources including the book, Ellem Fishing Club (The first 175 Years), written by Dr Jimmy Mitchell. Dr Mitchell has been a member since 1953 and a former Chairman of Council.