The centrepin reel and its development

Words by:
Barry Grantham
Featured in:
December 2022

Barry Grantham looks at the introduction of the fishing reel to the British Isles, the impact of the centrepin reel and the work of two notable reel makers.

It is thought by many of today’s angling historians that the fishing reel did not appear in the British Isles until the 17th century. But fishing reels were used several hundred years ago in China. There are records that show that fishing rods were invented during the Tang Dynasty (618AD to 907AD).

Evidence of the fishing reel comes from poems of that era about fishing.

Reels were widely used in China from 960AD to 1279 and it is from this era that we get a glimpse of a fishing reel. This is on a painting by a Mr T Wong from 1037 called Rowing on the Fishing Pond.

Historians say it is impossible to say whether the fishing reel was introduced to the British Isles from China, or if it evolved independently. The first recording of a winding device on a fishing rod in England was in a book called The Art of Angling by Thomas Barker, published in 1651. This reel, called a winch, was held on to the fishing rod with a spike that went through a hole in the end of the rod.

We know that the reel was an early invention, because that famous angler Izaak Walton does not mention a winch in his book The Compleat Angler, printed in 1653. In the second edition of the book, published a little later in 1656, he goes on to say that salmon anglers used to fish with a wire ring on top of the rod, through which the line may run and the line is then wound round a wheel that is fixed to the rod where it is held by the salmon angler’s hands.

In 1657 the second edition of Barker’s book was printed. In this edition there is information about a winch for salmon fishing. It says that you must put the winch at the bottom of the rod (handle) and attach with the spring where you please. The spring is much like a modern day circlip.

In those days, fishing rods were made of a variety of woods – hickory, hazel, greenheart and bamboo – and came in all shapes, sizes and thicknesses. The winch with its spring clip could easily be attached to the rod in any position.

Around five years later, in 1662, in the book The Experienced Angler by Robert Venables, there is a print of a winch on the frontispiece of the book. This is, as far as angling historians know, only the second illustration of a winch up to that date.

There were many variations of the winch to be designed in the years that followed but for today’s angler it was a company called S. Allcock and Co who were to develop some outstanding centrepin fishing reels. In 1803 a gentleman called Polycarp Allcock was making needles and as a side-line he started making fishing hooks. In 1829 Polycarp had a son called Samuel and he started to work with his father at the age of 10. By 1880 Samuel had inherited the company which then became known as S. Allcock and Company, employing around 400 people. S. Allcock and Co was by then one of the largest fishing tackle manufacturers in the world.

The First World War suspended production of the fishing tackle and when the war ended there was a great demand for their products. The Second World War again interrupted the business and when that war ended there was again a large demand and interest in angling.

Henry Coxon was an angler who regularly fished the River Trent, and he suggested a design of a reel for Allcocks to build using his name. This was called and patented the Aerial that bore Coxon’s name.

The reels were made from wood, ebonite and aluminium. Many of the wooden reels were made in various sizes but the ultimate one was an aluminium reel with spokes – this reel was considered to be the best of their reels and was called the Aerial Match, produced in 1939.

Another famous reel maker was David Slater of Newark. David was originally a rod maker but expanded his business at 9 Portland Street, Newark to manufacture wooden reels, the backs of which were made from ebonite. These reels also had an annular line guard, and he called this The Perfect Combination Centre Pin. He acquired a patent for the line guard in May 1883. His premises expanded in 1883 to numbers 8, 9 and 10 Portland Street. At these premises a large number of reels were made with an ebonite back plate, and a wooden spool with a brass Starbeck fixed on the ebonite back.

David Slater attended many fishing tackle exhibitions and in 1881 at Norwich he won his first diploma medal and a prize of £10. He went on to compete at the fisheries exhibition in London in 1883. At this exhibition, he won four diplomas and medals. His Perfect Combination Centre Pin went on to win a first-class bronze medal at the Cornwall Polytechnic show.

In December 1883, The Fishing Gazette reviewed Slater’s new patent Combination Winch. This was made of a well seasoned mahogany, a light brass frame and side bars. This was priced at 15 shillings for a 4″ reel, 12/6d for a 3½”, and 10/6d for a 2½” reel.

The Fishing Gazette held a casting tournament in 1886. David Slater beat 19 others to win a cup and 5 guineas prize money. He also won other notable events including one in Glasgow in 1888 – and diplomas and medals for his fishing reels at the Bolton Piscatorial Society in 1889.

David was the founder of the Newark Piscatorial Society and went on to be very famous for his reels and rods. He had applied for several patents but never sealed or completed them. One of them was the famous Slater latch. This was a small latch near the centre of the reel. This would release the reel drum for instant removal. Reels with this latch are very much sought after by collectors.

In 1892 David Slater sold his business and the firm continued to trade as David Slater and Co. In 1894 the business address changed to 60 Harcourt Street. On 29th June 1895, an advertisement appeared in The Fishing Gazette offering the company for sale. This was due to the ill health of the proprietor. In August 1895 it was announced that David Slater had purchased the business once again and was trading under his own name.

David developed further reels including the Zephyr that had a narrow wooden spool and aluminium back – this was quoted as being a reel suitable for bottom fishing.

In 1912, David moved his business into his former premises, and he traded from there until 1920. It is thought that David died soon after this and was buried in Newark cemetery.

A true centrepin is a fishing reel that runs on a plain bearing usually made from phosphor bronze or naval bronze and runs on a smooth close fit spindle. A screw comes through the centre of the spool front face and sits against the spindle end. To get the free running, the reel must be fished handles uppermost. A reel made with no screw or modern ball bearings is just a normal pin reel.

I have always had an interest in pin reels, and today I make my own versions or replicas of some of these famous reels. Yes, there are modern free running reels made on state-of-the-art computerised machines but if you like the joy of any pin reel angling, you cannot beat a well-made reel of yesteryear or a modern day replica.

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