Sadly, there are no records of little Onesimus's early days. This was back in the 1750s, but we can be pretty certain that those formative years were not easy for the youngster. What, after all, can you abbreviate it to? Saddled with that unwieldy monicker, he could easily have become a hermit or a highwayman, taking his revenge on vicars and cranky old ladies. But he soldiered on. He didn't even change his name to something more manageable like Ben or William. In fact, he wore his anagram with pride, and when he started his own fishing tackle business in London, his letterheads bore his full name, not the weasly Ustonson.
He was a fine craftsman. It was as if he was determined to make his mark for something other than an unpronounceable name. A few of his small brass multiplying winches are still around, avidly sought by collectors not only because they are among the earliest examples of fishing reels, but also for their fine construction. The reels bear the legend "Ustonson, Makers to his Majesty, Temple Bar, London" and only last week, an 1815 Ustonson reel sold at Angling Auctions in London for pounds 7,000.
Though Onesimus is the star of this story, it is not about silly names and people rising above adversity. It is about an incident on 26 June 1789, that he probably didn't think about very much, except to celebrate with a quick glass of Mrs Miggins' best on his way home.
On that day, Lord Delaval came into the shop at 205 Bell Yard, close by Fleet Street, and had a bit of a splurge. He bought a mass of tackle, including three rods at a total cost of pounds 2, two winches for 10 shillings; some barbel hooks and various other bits. The whole lot cost him a hefty six guineas. In his best handwriting, Onesimus wrote out a receipt.
Lord Delaval was a careful man. He didn't shove the invoice away and forget about it, rediscovering it only when he got his britches back from Sketchley with a soggy mess in the back pocket. Not Lord D. He filed that invoice away - and amazingly, it has just resurfaced, more than 200 years after that original purchase and still in almost mint condition.
At some stage, someone with an eye for the novelty value of such an invoice had it framed. It's is one of the earliest records of an angling invoice. Small wonder, then, that Neil Freeman, who runs Angling Auctions, valued it at between pounds 300 and pounds 400. Freeman is one of a small group of perhaps a dozen people with the knowledge and experience to price such a piece, but even he was astonished when bidding for the small piece of paper rose into four figures. It eventually sold for pounds 2,800 - excluding commission.
Freeman himself was unavailable this week (he is probably fishing in the Bahamas on the proceeds from the sale), so I cannot tell you whether the invoice has been bought by a British buyer or an American bidder (the Yanks being particularly keen on Ustonson memorabilia). But it certainly makes you think twice about chucking away those tackle receipts, doesn't it?
My last visit to the local tackle shop was, I feel, easily on a par with Delaval's purchases: a new reel, another fly line, a few flies, sundry hooks and weights, a disgorger, some groundbait and a frozen pack of lamprey. Sadly, I fear that the invoice will never make history. The tackle dealer has the prosaic name of Stan Binge. If only Mrs B had been a little more creative...Reuse content