100 years of angling great Dick Walker

The Richard Walker Centre-Pin Reels

Dick tying a fly in his shed - the 'Thorndike' reel on the desk
Dick ties a fly in his his shed, with the 'Thorndike' reel on the desk

Richard Walker is known to have made two centre-pin reels in the years following the Second World War. They were made specifically for the capture of big carp. Being larger than the other reels that were available at the time - which were few due to the war shortages - they were able to retrieve line much more quickly and could therefore help keep in touch with and counter the fast moving carp. The design, as noted by Dick in Drop Me A Line, is an “oversized version of Hardy’s ‘Eureka’ bottom reel – 5 ¾ in. diameter, ¾ in. wide in the drum, with a finger operated brake lever in addition to the optional check and exposed flange”. The improvements in fixed-spool reel design and their numerous advantages no doubt put pay to any further reels being made by Dick.

After the war, Dick had decided to leave the RAE at Farnborough where he’d been working on airborne radar systems. He applied for and was granted permission to leave, as in those days labour was directed, and was able to return to the family business – Lloyds of Letchworth. He wanted to be able to work with his hands; to create, to exercise ingenuity, although he was not particularly concerned with what, he just wanted to ‘create’, and felt that continuing with a career in the civil service would likely lead him to become ‘a desk bound paper-waller’.

So it was at Lloyds where he had access to the firm’s machinery, that he was able to apply his engineering knowledge and skill with the equipment now available to him, to make these two reels.

The 'BB' reel
The 'BB' reel
The reels – ‘Blood Brothers’    

Whilst the reels are very similar, they do have their differences, so at this point we shall refer to and name them according to who became their respective owners after they parted company with Dick: the ‘Thorndike’ reel and the ‘BB’ reel.

Which reel was made first, is not clear, but there are a few clues which can lead us to speculate that it was the ‘Thorndike’ reel that was the elder of the two ‘blood brothers’. When studying the internal workings of the reels, it certainly looks like the ‘BB’ reel is more sophisticated and has some notable differences. It has a braking mechanism absent from the ‘Thorndike’ reel, the pawl lever has been drilled to reduce weight, and the ratchet cog wheel has an interference fit with no screws, as opposed to the ‘Thorndike’ reel which has. The other internal components look more refined and give an overall much neater presentation.

As we can consider these to be improvements, it does bear out the theory that the ‘Thorndike’ reel did in fact come into existence first. Dick had made the reel for himself, and it seems likely that he made the second reel for Denis Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘BB’, following his visit to Bearton Pond, Hitchin in 1946. Dick had read ‘BB’s The Fisherman’s Bedside Book, in which the author had expressed an interest in carp and Dick wrote to him with an invitation to come and stay with him for a week, along with the promise that by the end of the week, ‘BB’ would realise his ambition to catch one of over 10 lb. – which he did.

Walker centre-pin reel mechanisms
The mechanisms of the Walker reels - the 'BB' reel on the left, 'Thorndike' on the right

An interference fit on the 'BB' reel and screws and  on the cog wheel
An interference fit for the cog wheel on the 'BB' reel and screws for the 'Thorndike'

Following this ‘BB’ wrote and suggested forming a club for those particularly interested in carp. Dick thought this was an excellent idea and replied with the suggested name of the ‘Carp Fishers Club’, but ‘BB’ said it should be called the ‘Carp Catchers’ Club’, since they would catch carp, not just fish for them! In order to assist ‘BB’ in this quest for carp, Dick then made and equipped him with a suitable reel and also later, a MK IV rod. ‘BB’ describes the reel in his book Be Quiet and Go A-Angling published in 1949 under the pseudonym Michael Traherne, which sheds some light on its birth:

“The reel which I use exclusively for carp fishing was made for me by my friend R.W., and is a lovely thing. He made it himself in his own factory at Letchworth. He tells me that when he managed to get the block of duralumin and was turning it on the lathe, the shavings caught fire. He was enveloped in a mass of flames. If he had let the metal cool it would have been ruined, so he kept at his lathe while everyone else was rushing round trying to put out the fire. A reel which had such a fiery birth is surely destined for great things.

It is very light, weighing only thirteen and a half ounces. It measures five inches and seven-eighths across the drum, with a width of one-and-a-quarter inches. The drum is detachable in a moment by pressing a trigger in the centre. Facing forward is a brake lever which can be applied with the forefinger of the right hand, as I prefer a left-hand wind. But by a quick adjustment of the ratchet inside the drum the reel can be converted to right-hand wind. There is another trigger facing forward which releases the tension, allowing the drum to move quite freely. This wide reel has a terrific purchase on a big fish; the line can be drawn in with great rapidity, and the brake lever is only applied when the carp is making for cover.

I know no reel on the market which is so ideal for angling for carp over ten pounds in weight, fish which fight with power and determination.”

Manufacturing materials

The exact composition of the materials used in the manufacture of the reel are unknown at the time of writing. Should the current owners be prepared to have samples taken for scientific testing, we could perhaps learn for certain. However ‘BB’s account does cite duralumin, and the ‘fiery birth’ described, without doubt adds to the charm of the tale.

This is borne out thanks to some research by Len Arbery, whose close friend Roy Cross is well versed in engineering, metallurgy and machining aluminium alloys.

“When discussing with him the likelihood of alloy swarf catching fire, he reported he'd witnessed such an event when duralumin was being turned; but it wasn't the metal itself that burst into flames, it was the hot swarf igniting the turning lubricant - namely paraffin. Believe it or not, Roy said this occurred way back around 1950, at about the time Dick Walker made 'BB's reel. Back in those days, turners were still experimenting with different cutting tool angles for these then novel materials, and not fully understanding the need for a steep top rake angle. Therefore, the swarf generated being much hotter as a result and easily hot enough to ignite paraffin.”

Duralumin is the trade name for one of the earliest types of aluminium alloys, made using precipitation hardening - a heat treatment technique utilised to increase the yield strength of malleable materials such as aluminium, magnesium, nickel and others. Duralumin consists primarily of aluminium, with approximately 4% copper, 1% magnesium and small traces of manganese and silicon. It provides a higher strength to weight ratio than pure aluminium and is often used in aircraft construction. Therefore, we can draw from this that Dick may well have used his association with Farnborough during WWII to obtain the necessary blocks of Duralumin for the reels.

Heat-treated duralumin is also resistant to corrosion, so we can add further support to this being the material used, when we examine what Mike Wilson discovered many years later, when visiting ‘BB’:

“On a visit to BB I enquired after the reel and after some searching, BB came back with the reel and the Mark IV that Dick had made. Both in need of TLC as BB had used them for Bass fishing. I later sorted out the rod after Dick found a replacement white agate butt ring and matched the silks for some rewhipping.

The reel at first would not come apart until a little pressure applied had it moving. The spindle was completely dry. A drop of oil from the dipstick of my car soon freed it, the inside however was full of sand and I was concerned that I could damage the bearings without a proper clean, which I would do at home.

Thankfully the reel didn't show much galvanic corrosion, that white powdery substance generally found on low grade aluminium alloys which was activated by the action of seawater and is why quality sea reels are anodised.”

However duralumin may not be the material used, as in Dick’s copy of Be Quiet and Go A-Angling, duralumin has been crossed out, and magnesium written instead in Dick’s handwriting. So without testing, the reel’s composition remains unclear.
  The 'Thorndike' reel on display with the MKIV rod and landing net that Dick used to capture his 44 lb. carp
Extract from Dick's copy of Be Quiet and Go A-Angling
Where are they now?    

‘BB’ had heard the news that Bernard Venables had sold his Walker made MKIV rod at auction in around 1990, and that it had fetched £2,000 – a handsome sum indeed and worth at least double that in today’s money. He was attending the Carp Society’s ‘Conference 90 – Into The 90s’, as was Len Arbery and in discussing the sale of Bernard’s rod, ‘BB’ asked Len to furnish him with the details of the auction house. Len, not being one to miss an opportunity, offered to match the price and therefore save ‘BB’ from having to pay the auctioneer’s commission. ‘BB’ accepted the offer, and added a bonus, “If you are willing to pay such a sum for my rod, I'll include my Dick Walker-made reel as well." Although Len wasn’t quite sure where he’d get the money from, the deal was struck there and then.

Len has kept the reel in his possession ever since, “it is undoubtedly my most important and prized angling memorabilia possession”. He did however make it available to Barry Grantham in the 1990s for him to measure in order to produce replicas. There was no chance Len would loan the reel out to Barry or anyone for that matter, as the reel means far too much to him to ever take a chance like that, so a meeting was arranged where access was granted. Chris Cullen was responsible for the reverse engineering drawings – without Len’s help, it could never have been done. Seventy reels were produced, and although some 70 grams heavier, it was a fine reproduction that gave collectors a chance to own facsimile of the original.

The ‘Thorndike’ reel bears that name, as it is believed that it was given to Jack Thorndike, who was an editor of the Angling Times in the early years of the paper’s existence. Dick of course was writing his weekly piece for the AT, and they had therefore worked together and developed a friendship. The exact circumstances are unknown, although efforts in the past were made to find out. Len Arbery asked Jack about the reel in about 1988, but Jack said he had no recollection of it. The reel can be seen in an old black and white photo, where it forms part of a display that includes the MKIV rod and the landing net used in the capture of the 44 lb. record carp caught in 1952. So whilst we have these two clues, it remained a mystery as to its whereabouts until only recently.

An avid antique tackle collector named John Nightingale was looking to add a Barry Grantham replica to his collection of over 200 centre-pin reels and was successful in winning an online auction. Upon receiving the reel however, he was perhaps a little dejected to find that having paid £130, it wasn’t what he was expecting. He contacted Barry who confirmed that the reel was not one of his. John began investigations as to where this reel may have come from, and stumbled upon a fishing forum that included details of Len’s ‘BB’ reel, which had only been posted within a couple of weeks prior to John acquiring his reel. Without this remarkable coincidence and uncanny timing, perhaps John’s investigations may not have come to anything. It was here that he saw the picture of the reel as part of the display as noted above, and no doubt the moment his disappointment was washed away, and replaced with excitement over what he could be holding in his hands. This sentiment gained further momentum when he saw the picture of Dick tying flies in his shed 1952, as the reel can be clearly seen on the workbench amongst the various angling paraphernalia. Further credibility to the authenticity of the find is added by the box the reel came in, which bears the name “J. A. P. Villiers” – a supplier of engines and motor parts that Lloyds used in their mowers.


Denis Watkins-Pitchford, 'BB', with the reel Dick made for him
Denis Watkins-Pitchford, 'BB', with the reel Dick made for him

Len Arbery and 'BB' complete the deal struck at the Carp Conference 90
Len Arbery and 'BB' complete the deal struck at the Carp Conference 90

Confident that it is indeed the ‘Thorndike’ reel, John contacted Angling Times who shared this news in issue 3225 on August 25th, with the headline “Priceless Dick Walker Reel Found”. During his investigations, John also had help from Len Arbery and they plan to meet in the near future for a comparison, photographs, and to bring the long lost brothers together again. Furthermore, John will be attending the Redditch Vintage Tackle Fair in November, “so as many people as possible can see and hold this great piece of angling history”.

John Nightangle with the 'Thorndike' reel
John Nightingale with the 'Thorndike' reel


The 'Thorndike' reel on display with the MKIV rod and landing net that Dick used to capture his 44 lb. carp
The 'Thorndike' reel on display with the MKIV rod and landing net that Dick used to capture his 44 lb. carp

The 'Thorndike' reel
'Thorndike' alongside John's MKIV

Many thanks to Len Arbery, John Nightingale, Mike Wilson and to the Traditional Fisherman's Forum, for permission to use photographs, quotes and for their assistance, knowledge and expertise that have helped put this page together.    
    Copyright dickwalker.co.uk 2015