Fishing Lines: Eyes on a PM's tackle

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ONE OF the great mysteries in political history concerns the death of Neville Arthur Chamberlain, just six months after resigning as Prime Minister in May 1940. Was he broken-hearted at the failure of his appeasement policies? Did he feel that his struggle for peace had led to a world war that other policies might have prevented? My theory is that he died because he couldn't go fishing.

Not a lot of people know this, but Nev was a passionate angler. He spent many holidays in Scotland fishing for salmon and trout, and he was a regular on that doyen of rivers, the Test in Hampshire, where he once caught the largest trout taken on his favourite stretch, near Stockbridge.

Chamberlain fly-fished regularly with Major Dugdale of Cirencester, who owned the fishing rights on the nearby river Churn. Here, the man who became one of the few prime ministers not to have fought an election escaped from affairs of state. Dugdale and Chamberlain cooked their catch of trout on a portable stove and ate them with bread bought at the local bakers. The Stratton House hotel in Cirencester still has a photograph of Chamberlain, taken in 1935, with his fishing gear.

His hobbies are usually listed as music and butterflies, but fishing was Chamberlain's greatest love. A rod, reel or box of flies was the best present you could give him. One admirer who sent a box of trout flies wrote: 'Thank God the PM is a fisherman.'

That very letter and the flies were on sale earlier this month at Moore Allen, a Cirencester auctioneer. It was one of more than 40 items belonging to the man whose 'peace in our time' speech is one of history's less successful prophecies. Ironically, the sale took place on 3 September, the very day that Chamberlain declared war on Germany in 1939.

Eleven items went to his grandson Francis Chamberlain. Many of the lots were gifts to Chamberlain for his efforts in avoiding the Second World War. The auctioneer Andrew Gibbs said: 'Many collectors like to associate tackle with a well-known person.' They don't come much better-known than Chamberlain. That's why there is an estimate of pounds 2,000 on a unique item of his tackle up for auction in London next Saturday.

It is a presentation rod and reel, made by Hardy Brothers, the world's most famous tackle company. The three-piece hand-built cane rod, with gold reel seat, was presented after Chamberlain signed the Four Power Pact and was given, an inscription says, 'as a mark of appreciation for his determined and successful efforts in averting a World War - September 1938'. The rod was obviously well-used by Chamberlain, as there is light hook damage to the handle.

When he eventually declared war on Hitler, how must he have felt, looking at those words every time he went fishing? It's said that he seemed very depressed in the last few months of his life. And no wonder. Even when Chamberlain had relinquished the premiership to Churchill, he could scarcely sneak down the Test for a few hours. Yet if he took his beloved tackle out to conjure up a few happy memories, there was this wonderful rod with that damning inscription mocking him. Cancer may be the official reason for his death at 71, but only because 'acute withdrawal symptoms from lack of fishing' wouldn't fit on the death certificate, I reckon.

Chamberlain's rod and reel will be auctioned at Angling Auctions, the Princess Louise's (Kensington) Regiment HQ, 190 Hammersmith Road, London W6 on 3 October, 8.30am.