WHEN Keighley anglers first began to pool their knowledge and share stories 150 years ago, William Gladstone had just been elected Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister and London’s Smithfield Market had opened its doors for the first time.

The men who founded the club would never guess that they were laying the foundations of an organisation that would flourish into the next millennium.

December 2018 marks a key milestone in the history of Keighley Angling Club as members celebrate a century-and-a-half of fishing and caring for some of the most picturesque and tranquil waters in the whole of the UK.

Research by the present committee has unearthed some surprising facts about the origins of the club, believed to be one of the oldest in the country.

Archives show Keighley Angling Club was initially forged from the union of two smaller gatherings in Silsden, and Eastburn which amalgamated on December 1, 1868.

Chairman Fred Farrington said: “We discovered records of monthly meetings which chart much of the club’s history and offer a glimpse into little known areas of Keighley’s past.

"They make fascinating reading and provide details of discussions held in local pubs and long-forgotten hotels over the past 150 years - including morale-boosting activities during the dark days of the First and Second World Wars.

“It is incredible to think that our meetings have taken place almost every month since 1868 and that records of them still exist."

By the mid 1880s there were just 67 registered members of the club who were justifiably angry whenever non-members dangled bait in their waters.

In July 1885 the club attracted significant press interest when it took a Bradford man to court after he was spotted fishing illegally on the River Aire at Silsden. The Telegraph and Argus and Keighley News reported Edwin Rowley was fined 2s. 6d by magistrates after river keepers saw him return to the same stretch of water despite having been warned he faced prosecution for fishing without a permit.

Despite other successful prosecutions, the poaching problem refused to go away, later that year, the club offered a £1 reward to help bring thieves to justice after large numbers of fish were stolen.

With fish protection being a recurring theme, the club continued to plough money into introducing new batches and preserving existing stocks. In the late 20th century, farmer Henry Smith was paid a £3 retainer to breed a variety of species in his specially- constructed glass outhouse.

Fishing matches were always keenly contested and attracted large numbers of anglers. Small wonder when prizes on offer for a competition that took place on September 2, 1886 included 1lb of tea for coming fifth, a hair brush for achieving ninth place and a hat brush for the lucky angler who managed to haul in the 11th best catch of the day. The winner walked away with £1.5s.

The format of the club’s annual general meetings has changed quite a lot over the years.

In 1885, the Keighley News carried a detailed piece about their annual dinner at the Crown Hotel on Church Green.

The paper reported the evening included piano-accompanied songs by Hindle Houldsworth who sang ‘Fine Old English Gentleman’ with much gusto while William Whitaker provided amusement with his vigorous rendering of ‘Blow High, Blow Low’.

In the late 19th century, several meetings took place between Keighley and Bradford angling clubs to discuss the best way of encouraging more fish to hatch on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal between Bingley and Gargrave – a stretch of water they regarded as being of key importance and which they described as ‘one of the best lengths of canal water in the entire north of England’.

The River Aire at Keighley also benefited from ambitious stocking programmes. To commemorate the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, more than 100,000 trout hatchlings were transported from Dumfries, Scotland at a cost of £12. Five years later, the purchase of 1,500 mature perch proved considerably more expensive at £19.17s. 6d. At today’s prices a similar batch could cost more than £2,500.

Even local museums benefited from the club’s generosity. In 1911, officials agreed to allow a number of different fish species to be taken for taxidermy. Many are still on display over a century later.

Although the club is now a friendly base to enjoy the sport of fishing, it has seen some turbulent times in its long history.

Shortly after the First World War, it was in severe financial difficulty.

Faced with the prospect of closure, it entered into amalgamation talks with Bradford No1 Club in an effort to safeguard local waters for fishing. Marriage of the two clubs was narrowly avoided following generous donations from committee members which ensured that the Keighley club continued to run independently.

By the 1920s the club had made an arrangement with the railway company that anyone travelling with a club membership card would get a 50 per cent reduction on their rail fare. This popular initiative certainly boosted membership but it was not clear whether they were devoted anglers or keen travellers taking advantage of the bargain offer.

The upward trend in club fortunes continued and Keighley ran its own trout farm at nearby Harden Beck for many years. The farm had comprised two large ponds but closed for good during the Second World War.

Although the Keighley-based club has seen both fish-famine and fish-feast in one and a half centuries of angling, like nearly all small angling clubs it continues to face challenges.

Today’s treasurer Dennis Freeman, who has served the club for 50 years, said: “The quality of our waters has improved considerably in recent years, the fish are thriving and the River Aire still has the power to surprise even the most seasoned angler.

"Over the past five years it has yielded several large pike in excess of 20lbs. While in 2007 Keighley angler Richard Young landed a magnificent 3lb 10oz perch which we believe to be the biggest-ever brought out of its waters.

“On October 23, 1988, a total of 115lbs13oz of fish – mainly chub – were brought to the landing net of a single angler during one of our competitions on the river. That record still stands and is unlikely ever to be beaten.

"There is so much going on in our rivers, canals and ponds we encourage anyone to come along and test the water.”

Anyone interested in joining the club can call Freeman on 07980 338225.