Books are a perfect Christmas gift. For match anglers and those fascinated by Angling history, a very special book has recently been published by The Medlar Press.
The National Angling Championships by John Essex
Book review by Alex Clegg
As a work, be in no doubt that “The National Angling Championships” by John Essex represents one of the most important ever for the history of our sport. Not least for the long-overdue codification of the competition’s precious, yet sadly neglected results, but also for the tremendous collection of stories and photographs that would otherwise have faded into obscurity. A true match anglers’ almanac for the ages, “The National” offers readers the best possible accounts of Championships year on year, with stacks of talking-points and brilliant anecdotes to keep pages turning.
The National Championships
For the uninitiated, the National is a team competition fished annually. Since its inception in 1906, the match has somehow kept up appearances for 113 years and counting, pausing only after the outbreak of each world war. While the match itself, along with the tackle used, has evolved considerably since those early days, the gravitas of this competition has never faded. Many have criticised it however. Year on year, the trend towards declining turnouts spawn accusations of team fishing being ‘dead’, cast into the shadows by a climate of high profile, big cheque finals. There might be the excitement of pools money and medals, but in a time where life changing amounts can be won elsewhere, just what is it that keep anglers coming back to the National each year? Many years ago, former NFA president Major B. J. Halliday OBE, summed up the situation well:
“There is only one National. There is only one Championship”
Far from being any old fishing match then, it can be thought of as THE match. Words might not always translate into substance, but the fact remains that Division 1 to this day attracts a calibre of angler rarely found in the same density on a single competition. You need only look at any results from the past few years to see the number of Internationals, World Champions and otherwise top-flight match anglers fishing with their respective teams. What’s more, winning requires placing above these characters. Luck can play a part in any fishing, but outperforming the very best, irrespective of circumstance, offers immense satisfaction to the angler who beats them. But what is perhaps most poignant about winning in a National, is the immortalisation that comes with it – a subject that leads nicely on to the work in question.
For appreciating the legacy of this grand competition, we owe a great debt to John Essex for his dedication in compiling the book. For such a large sporting event that once attracted over 5000 anglers every year across the divisions, it remains surprising that archival records of competition were not kept. It should therefore be celebrated that someone has taken the time to collate these records from such an extensive range of sources, before they were lost for good. This book now represents the best single document available. It is an authority, and one that will provide a point of reference for many years to come.
Frank Oates Revisited
Frank Oates (1915-2011) was a pioneering match angler-cum-journalist from Hull, whose writings form the basis for so much of “The National”. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to him.
On a personal level, it gives me great pleasure to see so much of Frank’s work included. One of the first books I was given as a budding junior angler was the same author’s “Match-Fishing: How to join the ranks of the experts”, on the basis that every piece of advice included is timeless – something which I firmly believe to be true. Allegedly, this same copy was passed between some of East Manchester’s finest anglers during the 1960s, eventually finding its way to my granddad via a Mr Ian Cooper of Beveridge St, Rusholme – whose name and address are still printed in the front. Far from just an instructional guide however, “Match-Fishing” deserves credit for its meticulous attention to records, with the results of every National Championship taking pride of place in the book’s final pages. For those starting out in competitive angling, I’m sure that reaching this list of results after reading the preceding ‘how-to’ chapters served as great inspiration.
Frank also wrote a series focused solely on the National Championships, which appeared in the Midland Angler from 1946-64. The illustrations throughout all his work were fantastic, with a unique charm that never compromised on precision. Detailed maps of every Championship venue were also drawn, which provide a fascinating insight into the former lives of so many historic waterways. Many of these appear in “The National“. It really is a privilege to see so much of Frank Oates’ work in one place, and moreover, being given the credit it deserves.
Though the numbers now associated with this competition pale in comparison to what we saw in the 1990s, it’s interesting to note an upturn as of this year. On a hard Shropshire Union Canal, 43 teams turned out for the 2019 Division 2 Championship, making it the largest in the last 8 years. Combined with Division 1, it was the largest overall turnout across the 2 Divisions in 5 years. An anomaly perhaps, but with the launch of the new Angling Trust Feeder National this year, as well as renewed interest in our ever-improving river and canal venues, could team fishing see a resurgence? I’d certainly like to think so.
What is certain, is that thanks to “The National“, we can be safe in the knowledge that the story of this competition and the history of team fishing within it is now safely preserved for the future. Even more precious than the results though, are the many first hand accounts, anecdotes and long forgotten photographs that have rightfully made their way into the book. I fear that so much of this would have disappeared otherwise. Match anglers might be notorious for scribbles on soggy bits of paper, but really deserve so much better.
“The National” serves the legacy of Frank Oates and others proud. I would urge anyone with an interest in angling history or match fishing to get a copy, because it will undoubtedly provide much joy, as well as a solid reference point, for years to come. I also believe every competitor in future Nationals should make the effort to read it. Maybe, just maybe, you can write yourself into the next chapter?