Restoration of the grave of Alfred Ronalds
On Sunday 17 August, members of the Victorian Fly Fishers Association and the Ballarat Fly Fishing Club attended a short ceremony to mark the restoration of the grave of Alfred Ronalds at the Old Ballarat Cemetery. It was the culmination of an appeal which was launched by the VFFA in 2000 for funds to restore his grave, which had been destroyed by vandals. The appeal was launched at the initiative of well-known fly fishing journalist, fly tier and VFFA member, Rick Keam, and followed an article by Mick Hall on the life of Ronalds which appeared in The Flyfishers Annual (Volume 6, 2001) of which Rick was the editor.
The Australian and international fly fishing community owe a great debt of gratitude to these two men, for Alfred Ronalds is undoubtedly one of the major figures in the history of fly fishing. When the appeal was launched, Rick wrote of Ronalds: He was born in 1802 in London, his father died when Alfred was four years of age, and he commenced an apprenticeship as an engraver and printer and subsequently moved to Staffordshire in the Midlands where he married. During his time in Staffordshire Alfred developed a passionate interest in flyfishing. He was close to the river Trent and its tributaries, the Blythe and the Dove, the latter already famous through the writings of Charles Cotton and Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler and no doubt he was familiar with their works.
Alfred performed his own research on trout and their habits with insects. By the Blythe he built a small bankside fishing hut. It was clad with heath and designed to overhang a part of the river so that it could act as an observatory. The building was octagonal and contained only three windows, situated four feet or so above the river surface. The middle window commanded a view of a fast run, and each of the other two a small eddy or whirlpool. The curtains had peep-holes, so that the observers and their movements could not be seen by the trout. The bank of the river had also been built up so that one could approach without scaring the river's inhabitants.
Using his hut and his own astute observations, Alfred built up his knowledge of flyfishing and in 1836 his landmark book The Fly-Fisher's Entomology was published. This was a serious study of entomology as applied to flyfishing and contained numerous colour plates of insects and artificial flies to imitate them. It was decades, ahead of its time and ran to many editions.
Alfred subsequently moved to North Wales and became involved in the production of trout flies, and following other relocations set up as a full time tackle maker and fly tier. His wife died in 1847 and seeking a fresh start, he migrated to Australia with six children. Landing in Melbourne he soon set up as an engraver and the following year remarried. With the discovery of gold he set out with other hopefuls and tried his luck variously at Castlemaine, Bendigo and finally Ballarat, where he settled on six acres and ran a successful market garden on the banks of Lake Wendouree. Two years later he died suddenly of a stroke on 23 April, 1860.
Within four years of his death, trout were introduced to Australia and Lake Wendouree received its first stocking in 1871. He was a remarkable man and left a huge legacy to the sport of flyfishing. In an extensive commentary on Alfred Ronalds in his two volumes work Trout, Ernest Schweibert comments: "Alfred Ronalds is one of the principal milestones in the entire history of flyfishing; with his Entomology, the rational basis of the scientific method had reached angling in full flower. The graphic work is beautifully executed and the copperplate lithography remains equal to most modern printing technology. Alfred Ronalds is the prototypical mixture of angler and aquatic biologist that would emerge again after midcentury and continue to play a major role in fly-fishing theory.'
Rick Keam carried out a lot of the initial groundwork obtaining stonemasons" and placquemakers" quotes, corresponding with the Cemetery Trustees and chasing up Ronalds family members. Clive Allison provided useful advice. However, the project could not have succeeded without the subsequent help of Rick, Jim Allen, who together with the VFFA made a substantial financial contribution towards the restoration of the grave, and John Pilkington who spent many hours discussing the restoration with Ronalds" relatives, negotiating with the Cemetery Trustees and organising the replacement of the monument. On behalf of the VFFA, John Philbrick presented John Pilkington with an inscribed copy of a limited edition copy of The Fly-Fisher's Entomology in recognition of his efforts.