Recently a colleague made a comment about preserving the egalitarian trout fishing heritage that our forefathers had fought for. Is it a truism, an undeniable fact, or an urban myth?
How dare I suggest that it is a myth, you say. There have been wonderful books and articles written about it for years. I have recently read quite a bit of archival material relating to the early Otago and Canterbury Acclimatisation societies and I seriously question whether the motives of those who founded the sport were egalitarian.
My conclusion is that many were social-class-climbing ultra-conservatives. Relative to the average settler, most were the class of person that the majority of settlers had hoped to “escape” from when they left England. When you look at the composition of the Societies, and in particular those involved in trout introductions, you will find Prime Ministers, M.P.s, “Sirs”, “Venerable Archdeacons”, Provincial Superintendents, Doctors, Judges, etc. For most settlers these were not their normal associates.
Groups like the New Zealand Company, the Canterbury Association, etc., were governed by representatives of the English upper land-owning classes. New Zealand imported the English class structure as a framework for its settlements. The social disaster in areas like Russell (in the Bay of Islands) had shown the need for social frameworks that could maintain effective commerce, and hopefully law and order.
The land-owning class quickly became established, especially in the South island, and soon dominated the local and national settler governing structures. Some were “younger sons” who had little prospect at home but who had the “breeding” to assume roles that allowed their expression of superiority over the “ordinary” settler in the colony. The dispersal of the land acquired by the settler government, by fair means and foul, allowed these individuals to quickly gain a social and financial status that paralleled that of the land owners at home. The next step was to recreate the lifestyle of the estate inhabitants in Britain.
Unless you owned a river or forest in Britain, salmon and trout fishing, hunting for boar, deer, hares rabbits and ducks, etc., were all crimes. Being able to do these things legitimately was a sign of financial “success” and social superiority. The colony’s trout fishing forefathers on the Acclimatisation Societies were motivated by the need to experience this success/superiority. They came to New Zealand with the mind-set that Britain should rule the world; as if God had decreed it. Replicating “the old country” was a major driving force; Life style included. Fishing and hunting was what the upper classes did, and they were determined to assume that role in New Zealand. To join the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society in 1864 cost you five pounds ($10). Each subsequent year it was two pounds and two shillings. At that time the average worker in Canterbury received a gross wage between 25 and 35 shillings ($2.50-$3.50) a week; and often their work (& pay) was intermittent. This financial barrier ensured the “class purity” of the societies. The standard of dress “required” added to this. The Kiwi colonists recreated the tweed and claret image.
When fishing in Canterbury was permitted, in March 1875, the licence fee was one pound; over half an average wage. Trout had been first hatched there in 1867. Fees were vital for the Society of course as importations of fish, game and other familiar species were expensive. I note that the South Canterbury Society charged $4 for a fee to shoot hares between May and July around this time. Fishing and game hunting were thus the prerogative of the wealthy, just as they had been at home in Britain.
The squabbles amongst these aspiring Lairds and Squires at the Societies’ meetings are fascinating to read. The English Barons of medieval times must have really inspired this lot. In true recognition of class the first trout to be cooked (legally) for consumption was presented to the Governor General, Sir James Ferguson in 1875. It was a 9.75 lb Avon River brown trout.
Most of us descend primarily from the “other classes”. As in Britain these ancestors were priced out of fishing so some reverted to the wiles of their cousins back home. The courts quickly began to feature cases of poaching. Others sought to justify the fee with worthwhile take home catches, even if it meant bending the rules. The 1880s seem to have been a great time for fishing squabbles. The Anglers’ Society took one matter as far as to the Colonial Secretary in October 1880. The tactic worked. New regulations were gazetted. The issue at question was “the unsportsmanlike practice of cross-line fishing” in the Avon River. Two anglers, one on each side of the river, tied their lines together with a string of flies along the length. They would walk slowly along the river, “dipping as they went”. When a fish was hooked the nearest one would wind in while his partner paid out line. A difficult fish could be played backwards and forwards across the stream. Anglers could allegedly clean out the trout from a stretch of river with this method.
The Anglers’ Society believed that the good work in stocking the Avon could be undone by these working class blaggards. The Colonial Secretary was suitably outraged and not only made cross-line fishing illegal but also the use of ground bait and stroke-hauling (deliberate foul hooking). These unsportsmanlike actions were usually clandestine. Fishing under the cover of night, by poachers from the “lower classes” was seen as an unfortunate imported behaviour from the “old country” (or was it those “infernal Irish”!). As a result the regulations enjoined that fishing should be allowed only “between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.” in an effort to rid the sport of “these malpractices”.
Unsportsmanlike behaviour, especially poaching continued to bother angling authorities from day one. The old Canterbury court records are full of cases. The survival of the fishery was regularly cited as being under threat from such “scoundrels”. Some interesting cases came from South Canterbury. In 1899 a Thomas Moss was charged with illegally taking trout. He pleaded “Not Guilty”. He had been seen to throw something away when confronted by a ranger. On his person was found a towel and a cake of soap. He claimed to be on his way to bathe. A trout was found nearby. His worship dismissed the charge against this “clean living” man. The towel and soap evidence supported his alibi. Another man who was observed in the act of “tickling” trout claimed that he was just getting a drink and that he had found the two trout in his bag lying on the river bank. His defence, that finding trout just lying there was common, was not accepted and he went home over five pounds poorer.
Fines in those days were often less than the Court costs, often about a third. These fines ranged from less than 10 shillings to three pounds. By 1903 The Timaru Herald was covering complaints about the fines being too low. In 1906 the average appears to have grown to five pounds but stayed there for 20 years. There was no Muldoon-like inflation in those days.
In 1916 though there was a record of a gang of 20 poachers with lookouts (watching for rangers). In the 1920s cars were being used; a bit much for rangers on bicycles or horseback. By then a “fishing tourist” was reporting “dynamiting, liming, netting and stall-holding” and looked forward to better fishing in Rotorua. Fines were obviously not a real deterrent. Subsequently acetylene lamps (at night) and rifles were often quoted in poaching cases.
Probably the most colourful poaching story was reported in both the Timaru Herald and the Ashburton Guardian. The ranger felt that as a gentleman could not search the suspect. It was a woman; in fact there were several, all bathing in the river. The suspect had on a regulation 1917 style bathing costume; probably neck to ankles. This “gentleman” ranger whilst on his patrol felt obliged to veer away when he saw the women bathing. He did note however that one was “extraordinary stout”.
He thought nothing more about the matter until indisputable evidence came to light that she had been poaching. He stated with some embarrassment that “he had been duped”. Her stoutness was caused by fine well-conditioned trout that were secreted under her bathing costume. It is a good old “fishy story” about a woman who certainly would have stunned people with her exotic “perfume”. One suspects that her “Eau de Trout” fragrance would have done little to attract the local Douglas Fairbanks, or other silent movie star, look-a-likes at the local dance hall.
It is a “touchy” fact for most of us to face but more of us descended from the “scoundrels” than the individuals who sought to recreate the English class structure.
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