Anglers' Evening 1879

Retiarius recently recommended i take a look at a website which allows you to read pdf's of old books. Using the sites search facility I found an old tome called an Anglers' Evening compiled by the Manchester Angling Association, printed in 1879 which had a chapter about my favourite river the Irwell. Using the dark arts of cut and paste Im able to share this chapter with you.

"Angling In The Irwell - A Record Of Hopes And Memories by Edward Corbet

Tis sixty years" since, when in my early days,
the idea of railway travelling yet undeveloped
and the fouling of streams comparatively
infrequent, my angling facilities were limited to a few
ponds near home, where, with frequent catches of
the beautiful stickle-back, or Jacksharp, we had an
occasional prize in the form of a dace, or a Prussian carp
perhaps two ounces in weight. The report of such a
catch was sure to bring a gang of fishers to that pond.
As to river fishing in those bye-gone times, it was what
salmon fishing is now to the trout fishers of Manchester,
a thing to be thought of, and possibly to be had some
The Bolton canal was a stage in advance of the pond
fishing. I have seen a row of ten or twelve men within
easy-speaking distance, each earnestly watching his three
or four rods with hair lines and quill floats ; one of them
perhaps with a silk line and two lengths of a very superior
and costly article called gut at the end. These with waspbait,
or worm, or maggot (gentles we did not know), were
successful in catching a few dace, gudgeon, and eels.

But old traditions of some ten or twenty years then
gone, told of good fishing in the Irwell. We heard of the
time when fine salmon were caught opposite the New
Bailey—itself now no longer "new," but a vanished
structure,—and we were told of many trout and other
fine fish that had been common. Fisherman's Rock in
Hulme had its history of wonderful catches. But all
these accounts were for a time—say about the years
1820-22—tales of what had been before the gas-waste
was put into the river.
About the year 18 19 I have, from the New Bailey
Bridge (now called Albert Bridge), watched the fish on
the shoals at the lower sides of the piers, and seen
innumerable fish both there and at the packet station
near the old Barracks (then opposite the New Bailey).
These were chiefly gudgeon ; but other fish were seen
rising to flies,—and so numerous were the flies that the
air was lively with swallows and house-martins ; and the
" Old Quay boys " used to stand on the bridge and whip
them down, with a long, heavy, short-handled whip,
adroitly throwing the lash so as to kill the poor birds.
It was a favourite amusement for us to count the swallows'
nests along the Salford Crescent, and there were two or
more in every window of the cotton mill at the river side
opposite the New Bailey. There are no nests there now
to be counted.
Some ingenious man found out that gas-tar would
make a cheap black paint, and instead of its being put
in the river it began to find a use, and by-and-by was
actually sold for money—a great result in those days.

I have seen the river so covered with gas-tar (the
varying tints of which were somewhat admired as they
passed) that no real water-surface could be seen. But
we heard of the offence given by this tar to the once
famous Warrington salmon, and to the sparlings which
used to be brought thence. These fish became
scarce, as the use of the new light caused increasing
defilement, and ultimately they disappeared. The
demand for gas-tar was not equal to the supply, and,
therefore, a larger quantity of gas-refuse was put in the
river—gas-tar, gas-lime, ammonia water and all, went in.
About 1824-6, gas-tar ceased to be an unsaleable
article, the river was less polluted, and the fish began to
show (especially above town). We school-boys spent
part of our holiday times in going up the river from
Pendleton, and trying various favourite spots with
carefully prepared bait ; and generally we were so far
successful as to bring home from six to twenty fish for
two of us. We usually went in pairs, furnished with
maggots by Robert Ackerly, of Hope Tower, Salford,
and with lines and hooks by Peter Sharratt, Postmaster,
Windsor Bridge. One favourite spot was half way
between Douglas Mill and Agecroft Bridge, where the
water from certain works came into the river from the
Bolton canal. Here we generally caught one or two
" shoalers."
These shoalers I believe to be the " graining." They
are a fine fish of good flavour, like a herring in size,
form, and colour, and not so broad as a dace, nor so
thick as a chub. They are described in Webster's

Dictionary as " Graining (Leuciscus Lancastrieinsis), a
small fish found in England and Switzerland." We
caught them in the rapids generally ; the Clifton
Aqueduct, the channels in the rocks for half a mile
above, and the outfall of sundry tunnels from coal mines
and other places, being favourite spots. We often caught
dace and chub, but seldom large ones.

The beautiful reaches of river beginning with the
approaches from Pendleton by the footpath from Brindle
Heath, near Douglas Mill weir, with the high lands of
Irlam's-o'th'-Height on the left, the sweep of Scar
Wheel on the right, and the ancient racecourse site
and buildings at Kersal Moor above ; the broad quiet
river before and the footpath through the meadows to
Agecroft Bridge, mantled with ivy ; steep rocks with
trees on the eastern bank, forming a back-ground to the
picturesque Kersal Cell, with its broad meadows; the
whole crowned by the woods of Prestwich and the high
lands of Stand ; these form a picture fresh on the retina
of memory, though more than fifty years have passed since
it was first, and frequently presented to me in all the
varied tints of the season. The yew trees of Kersal
Cell grounds, budding all over with their spring shoots
of light green, backed by the older foliage, gave me my
earliest ideas of the beauty of these evergreens. I had only
seen them in their darker tints. It was only then that
I began to find that not only yews, but many other evergreens,
had more than one tint and more than one aspect
in the varying seasons.
Agecroft Bridge was then a favourite study for painters,
and the bridge was one well worth seeing either from
below or above, from the west bank or from the east, the
west bank of the river giving us a different class of
prospect from that seen on the east. Broad meadows on
the left ; noble trees on both banks ; the Hall (Irwell
House when Squire Drinkwater lived) ; and the hill-sides
covered with trees. There were no boards about trespassers
to be seen, nor even a notice saying, "This beautiful
land on sale for building plots." Here was the broad
rock on which we often spent an hour, and tried it on all
sides ; in shallow, in deep, in swift, in slow, in sun or in
shade, always with patience and hope, and generally not
without some finny prize.
A little higher up the stream we had steep rocks for
some distance on both sides, and many favourite pools,
runs, and shallows in the stream ; and then we came to the
Bolton Canal Aqueduct. Above this, for about half-amile,
we had again many beautiful views ; not much varied
except by the trees, the river course being very straight
but at the half mile, on the western bank, there came a
very fitful stream from a tunnel through a steep rock,
with a descent of some three or four feet to the river. In
the eddies of this stream, and at its margin, we spent
many hours and caught many fish. It was a sort of
Rubicon, seldom passed, though sometimes we stretched
our courage to go to the famous Ringley Weir. The
tunnel was a wonder. Where did the water come from ^
Why did it not always come .'' These, and many similar
questions puzzled us. One day, two of us had worked
our way from the first rapid at Agecroft to this place.

Having had little or no success below, in the numerous
places tried, we had made a push to get here. Arrived, we
found, instead of a rushing stream and a foaming waterfall,
a mere trickle from the tunnel mouth. It was proposed
that as there were no fish to be caught, and no water was
in the stream-bed, we should explore the latter. So away
we started into the dark tunnel, feeling our way with our
bundled-up rods. Step by step we went, in single file,
for such a length as seemed to us near a mile, (really
nearly a fourth of that distance,) during the major part of
which we saw before us a slight gleam of daylight. This
itself was a puzzle, as we knew well that we were going
towards the high lands of Clifton. We arrived at length
at the southern end of the passage, and found ourselves at
the bottom of a deep shaft or well, full of curious and
inexplicable machinery, made chiefly of oak. Long we
looked at it to make out what it meant. Many years
afterwards we came to know that it was a means of drawing
water out of the Clifton coal-mines, the machinery
being worked by the water of the river from above Ringley
Weir, and the whole having been designed and constructed
by the well-known Brindley, the engineer of the then
famous aqueduct at Barton-on-Irwell. On that memorable
Saturday afternoon we got a spattering of knowledge
of this place, and it came in company with a great rush
of water that soon began to flow into the tunnel by which
we had arrived. We, of course, beat a retreat, going back
more rapidly than we came ; but it took so much time
that the water, which had not come to our ankles in our
" up journey," wetted us above the knees during our
return. We gladly welcomed the daylight as we arrived
at the river side. Four of the six retreated all the way
home, frightened, and indisposed to try more fishing.
Myself and one companion tackled up again, and
before we left caught several fish. The river, in those
early days, was seldom seen by us beyond Ringley ;
but above, it had many beautiful lengths. All are now
marred by some of the many uses to which the riverside
is devoted. In later years, I have seen many other parts
of the river, and certainly few streams have originally
been more varied and beautiful than our Irwell and its
Even at this day, with a little license of omission of
shafts, mills, and other works, or by taking the prophetic
view of some eminent men and replacing the above named
objects with broken walls, ivy-covered roofs and
shafts, with other such poetic arrangements ; and improving
off the rocks and trees the perpetually recurring grime
of continual smoke, clothing the dead branches with
verdure, and putting in a few anglers fly-fishing, the lover
of the picturesque may yet find miles of beauty full of
precious "bits," or broadening into grand views of lake,
river, and mountain. We call the lakes " razzervoirs,"
and the mountains are "nobbut hills," while the river
itself is but an open drain ; yet in a ten miles' walk from
Manchester to Bolton (by river nearly twenty miles), or
in a five miles' walk by the brook-side above Bolton to
Turton, or by Wayoh and Bradshaw Brook to Entwistle,
or from Prestolee to Bury, or from Bury to Haslingden,
or branching off towards Tottington to Holcombe, or from
Rochdale up the valley by river instead of by rail to
Shawforth, or along others of the numerous tributaries,
the artist may find such combinations of river, road, rock,
and ruin, with back-grounds of hills and trees, as will give
him years of work for his pencil. With such skill as an
architect is required to apply in restoring a ruined old
cathedral or monastery, he might paint back the views
and produce a Lancashire of a century ago, or possibly a
century hence, styling the picture " View on the Irwell,
1780" or " 1980," according to his fancy. The river and
its tributaries are really yet worth exploring, even in search
of the picturesque, and many a fall, and turn, and rapid,
give such views as only require the conversion of the
stream itself to purity to become eminently pleasing.
This chief defect, the impurity of the water, is, however,
now so perceptible, not only to the eye but also to the nose,
that it would be advisable for our seekers of pleasure in
this district to provide themselves with some of the
preparations of carbolic acid, or with some other good
antiseptic, before inhaling for any length of time the
odours of these tributaries.
It has not been my fortune to explore the banks of
the Dead Sea, but a sad sight it must be if it exceeds in
deadness the sight I once had of the Irwell when engaged
on professional work. I had to go in a row-boat from
Manchester to Runcorn by river, or by "cut" where the
navigation is shortened by canals ; all along there was
evidence of the direful effects of the polluted condition of
the stream. There was scarcely a blade of grass or a
bunch of rushes near the river itself; and only such trees
as were high enough above its banks to keep most of their
roots out of its reach, and luckily so placed as not to be
destroyed at the top by chemical fumes, had preserved
their leaves and lives. Excepting these, a very few rats,
and now and then a melancholy-looking sandpiper, who,
no doubt, kept to the river side, not from choice but from
family tradition, with an occasional lock-gate keeper, and
those few others of the genus homo and genus equus who
earned their living in connection with the navigation,
there was not a thing with life to be seen. Indeed the
navigation itself is almost destroyed by the persistent
river pollution, so many tons of rubbish being put in, that
the dredging is a very serious and almost overbearing cost.
One of our greatest treats in my boy-days was to walk
down to Mode-Wheel lock, there to meet the packet-boat,
sail down to Warrington or Runcorn, and buy some Eccles
cakes at Warrington. Returning by the boat the same day
was sometimes practicable, but more frequently we had to
return by one of the Liverpool coaches, which placed us
nearer home at Pendleton. On these packet-boat journeys
we always, or nearly always, disturbed some angler who
was fishing from the towing-path ; though, of course,
fishers were more numerous on the bank where they were
not likely to be disturbed.
It would require many journeys now to find one man
fishing in this stream. Even the mouth of Glaze Brook,
once famous for its bream, has lost its prestige ; and only
the Mersey and Bollin retain at their outfalls sufficient
purity to keep eels and gudgeons alive.
About 1825 I became acquainted with practical fly
fishing, and made flies that caught fish. They were
generally a sort of hackle, made of a starling's breastfeather,
with a body usually of black silk, but occasionally
a little scarlet wool. The first knowledge I had of the
effect of this wonderful art of fly-fishing was on seeing a
man with two flies, at work where a stream was coming
into the Irvvell, about one hundred yards below Agecroft
Bridge. He caught almost at every throw, and often
brought two fish to his basket. He caught some forty
while I stood by, and told me he had over a hundred
they were about two ounces each in weight—shoalers,
dace, roach, and a few chubs. Of course I was converted
to fly-fishing, but I generally kept a reserve of requisites
for bottom- fishing, and pursued my way, with or without
one or more companions, as far as Ringley Weir-hole.
There we generally caught some fish, and at sundry places
on the way we had more or less success ; often bringing
home ten or twelve fine fish, either graining, chub, or dace ;
occasionally only gudgeons and minnows. When the
others would not rise, and we had to try the bottom, we
did not refuse the loach. Sometimes we got an eel, and
sometimes a perch. I have often seen the bottom-fishers
with a good lot of eels ; and once I remember a man
showing me a fish which, from memory, I estimate to
have been about three or four pounds weight ; I think it
must have been a bream, but its silvery-white scales looked
too bright for that dull fish. The scales were large-sized,
and the man called it a salmon ; I did not, but it was a
fine fish, and he had caught it in Ringley Weir-hole, within
an hour of my seeing it. I went to Ringley Weir-hole
at once, and after a patient trial of about two hours, was
rewarded by a settled conviction that there was not
another fish like the one in question left, and that it must
have eaten all the little ones. Yet it was not a pike, or a
trout, or a grayling ; it may have been a chub.
The last time I went to try the upper part of the
Irwell I saw the only pike I ever saw in that river. It
was about twenty yards below Agecroft Bridge, and I was
on a small island of sandy gravel. The fish was about the
size of a herring, and swam round me, looking as if it was
seeking food. I caught no fish that day. I think it would
be about the year 1830. I had before this fished and
caught fish in some other streams, notably the Irk at
Crumpsall and Blackley, the Medlock at Ardwick, and
the Derwent at Rowsley. On a day kept as a fete day
on account of the passing of the Reform Bill, some time
late in 1832, I went with a companion to fish in the
Mersey below Irlam. We caught very few fish ; but we
saw some ten or twelve men at various favourite holes,
each of them with a good dish of fish beside him, some
twelve to twenty in number, very uniform in size, and
mostly dace about as big as herrings.
This is the last of my remembrance of fishing in the
Irwell, but I had previously seen and caught fish at Mode-
Wheel mill -tail, at the Crescent, Salford, the weir below
the Crescent, and various other places. Perhaps about
1828 I saw a man catch a trout nearly two pounds weight
at the mill tail below the Crescent, Salford, and I once
met a man with six trout caught in the Irwell, at the
foot of a small streamlet near Kersal Moor ; but I never
caught a trout in the river myself. I knew by sight an
old man who got his living (according to his own account)
by fishing in the streams around Manchester, I once saw
him at Agecroft, fishing above the bridge, and he had two
or three eels. I had some confidential talk with him and
found that his basket was more frequently weighted with
hares and rabbits than with fish, and that fishing was with
him only a cloak for poaching. About the year 1840 a
salmon was caught, nearly dead, above Warrington ; it
was about eighteen pounds weight. The latest Irwell
fishing I have known was about 1850, when some people
used to fish in Peel Park. They caught some fish, but I
do not know the species.
And now for the future of the Irwell. There have
been put into it, as refuse, several materials which, with
the progress of science and invention, have been found
capable of better uses, and of these I will name a few.
Gas-tar was put in ; it now sells for thousands of pounds
per annum, and forms the basis of many important trades.
Ammonia-water was so wasted, and it is now sold and used.
Gas lime was also freely put in the river before a better use
was found for it. Cotton waste was put in, I have seen
the river white with this material ; we have now a group
of traders called cotton waste dealers, who have an
Exchange of their own. Dye stuffs have been redeemed
from waste to a large extent, but they yet form a great
portion of the river's pollution. Soap has been very
largely put in, and in some cases profitably kept out and
converted into fine tallow candles and alkalies. Metallic
and chemical refuse, coal, ashes, and cinders are yet
thrown into the river. And last, though not least, the
valuable article called sewage is still put into the river, to
an extent causing a loss, in my belief, of more than a
million pounds a year to South Lancashire. At
Wrexham, and many other places, it yields a clear
profit to the sewage farm of more than £10 per
acre per year. The increase in the revenue of land
so improved in South Lancashire, to the extent of twenty
miles by twelve, would exceed a million a-year, and the
sewage of the town would improve such an area very
materially, without nuisance from over-irrigation. Science
has so far advanced as to show that it is profitable to
keep sewage out of the rivers, and legislation must proceed
to prevent the abuse of the water-ways of the country.
Then we may hope that the Irwell will again be a bright
stream with trout and other fish in it, swallows and other
birds over it, patient anglers not disappointed of sport
beside it, and the poisoned area along the whole length of
the stream restored to its original atmospheric purity.
Smoke may be as effectually done away with as other
wastes have been. Then we may hope also for other
improvements not so remotely connected with these as
may at first sight appear ; and as the filthy gas-tar has
given us the beautiful aniline colours and the valuable
carbolic acid, so other wastes maybe utilized, until everything
is put to its best use; and finally, through the
operation of the much-despised utilitarianism and trades'
profits, we may arrive at the highest attainable pitch of
civilization, when our towns will be lively with vegetation,
our streams replete with fish, the air resounding with
birds, and ourselves living well-spent lives in a well governed

I hope fellow Mancunian anglers enjoyed reading this chapter as much as i did.