Special Feature:
Greenwell's Glory


here are all sorts of variations on the story of how the first Greenwell's Glory came to be tied, but there is no doubt that it was the invention of Canon William Greenwell of Durham, pictured above in his later years. In his early teens, Greenwell learned to fish on the Browney, a tiny beck which winds its way into the Wear within a few miles of where I am writing this article. Our hero was a mere whipper-snapper of thirty-three when he travelled up to Scotland with the Durham Rangers fishing club to their waters at Sprouston and at Henderside on the Tweed, and it was at Sprouston where the idea for the fly came to him. The canon had had a rather thin day's fishing one day in May when the water was alive with March Browns, but the fish were to determined to take another fly which he couldn't recognise. Make a careful note of Greenwell's thoughts:

I caught some of them, and came to the conclusion that the best imitation would be the inside of a blackbird's wing, with a body of red and black hackle, tied with yellow silk.

It just goes to show how they were conditioned to think in those far off days, because here were the fish rising to take insects on the surface, and yet the canon came up with a classic design for a fly - perfect in every way, but designed to be fished wet. Of course, dry fly fishing was only in its infancy in 1854 and capable fisherman though he was, Greenwell was no revolutionary. So he took his ideas along to Jimmy Wright's humble abode and told him what was needed. Wright already was the best-known fly tyer on the Tweed and it sounds like he must have been a bit sceptical at first about the new pattern, but he soon changed his mind:

Next day I had as fine a day's sport as I ever remember, and going, on my return, to James Wright, he asked me what success I had had. I told him I had filled my creel. 'Why', he said, 'but your creel holds 32 lb.' 'Yes,' I said, 'but I have got my pockets full as well.' 'Wonderful!' he said, 'with March Brown, no doubt.' 'No,' I said, 'almost all on the new fly. Dress me another dozen for to-morrow.'

The day after that, Greenwell had nearly as good sport, which says something about how many trout there were in the Tweed then, compared to now. Catch and release wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye then, but they certainly knew how to have a good time:

When I got down, I found fourteen or sixteen assembled, with the schoolmaster at the head. Mr. Brown then said, 'We have the punch brewed and you must name the fly' 'Then,' said Mr. Brown, 'are you all charged? Then success to Greenwell's Glory!'

Not a bad tale, really. The interesting thing about it is that here we have a famous fly that can still be found in many fly boxes, and for once we know exactly what the dressing should be - we even have a photograph of an original. You would think that there wouldn't be any argument about how a Greenwell should be tied, but life ain't that simple.

I presume that the dressing Greenwell gave is the way that Wright tied it, but whatever the case may be, it wasn't long before variants sprang up. The first variant came from the pen of the great E. M. Tod, writing in 1903, while Greenwell was still alive. Tod was an enormous fan of the Greenwell's Glory, but his dressing is subtly different to the original:

Body: Yellow tying silk, waxed with cobbler's wax, to impart to the body a greenish-yellow hue. This is ribbed over with yellow gimp, or finest gold wire.
Hackle: Coch-y-Bonddhu.
Wings: Blackbird, tied in a bunch and split.

In 1903, coch-y-bondhu meant a foxy red hackle with a black centre; in this case a hen hackle, since the pattern was a wet fly. Nowadays most people think of coch-y-bondhu as a foxy red hackle with a black centre and black edges. Anyway, Tod was very definite that he 'obtained the pattern direct from the Rev. Canon Greenwell himself,' which is more than possible, but his pattern is different enough to the canon's that it rings a few alarm bells. I mean, I can understand why splitting the wings might have slipped Greenwell's mind, but why on earth didn't he mention waxing the silk, a subtle but important manoeuvre which is used in almost every subsequent variation of the fly? Could it be that the fiendish Tod invented this particular nuance, or did the canon change his mind somewhere along the line?

The next time we meet the fly is in Courtney Williams' 1932 book 'Trout Flies', where Williams attributes the following dressing to one 'E.M. Todd'. 

Coat: inside of woodcock or starling's wing
Waistcoat: coch-y-bondhu with the tips yellow or pale golden, and the part near the 'pen' of the feather quite black.
Trousers (legs): yellow tying silk waxed with cobbler's wax to give it a yellow and slightly dingy hue, ribbed with very fine gold wire.

Discounting the fact that this is quite different to Tod's 1903 pattern, the idea of using a coch-y-bondhu hackle with golden or yellow tips is pure genius, and it must have been the downfall of many a wily trout, caught unawares by the beckoning ends of those pallid fibres. This tying would only be another footnote in fly fishing history were it not possible that it was where the idea of the modern idea of a 'Greenwell hackle' took root.

Devilishly cunning though it was, the '32 variant was not the last word on the Glory. Courtney Williams mentions a Scots variant with a yellow tag, and even a New Zealand pattern with a bright red tag, but I'll draw a veil over them for fear of upsetting any nervous readers. By now, the Greenwell was part of the pantheon of fly fishing, and having passed into legend it was fair game; everyone and his dog had their own variant. Here are some modern patterns, taken from Roberts' authoritative Illustrated Dictionary of Trout Flies:

Dry Greenwell

Tail: furnace cock fibres
Body: waxed yellow tying silk
Rib: gold wire
Hackle: furnace cock with a medium blue dun in front

At first sight the dry Greenwell has nothing in common with its ancestor, but this is partly due to a change in jargon. Hackle terminology is terrifically confusing, mostly because it is defined by the fickle machinations of consent between fishermen, rather than in the smoke-filled rooms of international standards organisation committees. The word 'furnace' as a description of hackles doesn't seem to have come into common use until after the first war. We think of a furnace hackle as a red feather with a black centre, which, as it happens, is what the canon and E.M. Tod would have called coch-y-bondhu. Interestingly enough, Roberts says that a 'Greenwell' hackle is an alternative for the furnace/medium blue dun combination, which apart from being terribly confusing, is ever so slightly ironic. There might be a lot of uncertainty about hackle terminology, but Greenwell should mean a ginger hackle with black centre. Don't ask me how authentic this option is. In May 1854, Jimmy Wright couldn't actually have found a Greenwell hackle, since by definition, no-one knew what one was in those days, but who knows? Maybe all he had to hand were light ginger hackles with black centres, and all the patterns tied since using dark hackles are worthless impostors. Somehow I doubt it, and I suspect that the idea of using ginger hackles on Greenwell's Glories is a modern invention, inspired by the '32 variant's siren yellow tips. Makes for a nice fly, though, even if it doesn't have much in common with its ancestor beyond a name. Now try this for size:

Greenwell nymph

Tail: coch-y-bondhu hackle fibres
Body: waxed yellow silk or floss
Rib: gold wire
Thorax: grey or blue-grey fur
Wing-case: grouse hackle fibres with the ends turned down as legs

If we could switch on our time machine and show the Greenwell nymph to its namesake, I am pretty sure he wouldn't have the slightest idea that it was a descendent of his invention, so far have we drifted from his original tying. Just about the only thing the nymph in common with the original wet fly is a yellow silk body. But somehow, I doubt that the canon would have been much fussed; fifty years after the invention of his classic fly, he was still fishing and once he caught fifty-two trout in one day, the heaviest four pounds two ounces, most of them taken wading. It isn't recorded whether he used a Greenwell's Glory that day or not, but I expect he just fished whatever he used with his usual persistence. The moral of my tale is that just about any fly can claim to be a Greenwell's Glory, provided that it has a yellow silk body, and that the fisherman believes in it enough. There really is more to fishing than catching fish.

(The flies used to illustrate this piece were tied by Aleksandar Panic, to whom, I am, as usual, indebted).


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