William was born on 2nd January 1862 in the bustling metropolis that was Victorian era London. A place far removed from the clear and gentle chalk-streams of southern England.
He was the fifth child of Charles and Eliza Lunn and life for the family, as for many of the period, was not easy. The children, including a young William, contracted smallpox in their early years. Three of his siblings died, but William managed to survive and went on to fully recover. His father, a distillery worker, had been determined to try his fortune across the Atlantic in America, intending to send for the family at a later date. He never made it. The ship he took passage on ran into a storm two days out from London and Charles drowned just off Dartmouth Bay on the 21st March 1866. Following their terrible loss William’s mother returned with her remaining two children, William and his sister Rose to live with her father, the manager of a brickyard, in Saffron Walden.
For young William this move would also herald the start his working life. At the tender age of seven he went to work in the brickyard, from four in the morning till eight at night. His only education gained from what he taught himself and some little learning at a local night school in Newport. He was however so eager to get on that by the same year he manage to pass his admission to the local grammar school, becoming the youngest that had ever done so. But schooling was not on the cards for young William, his family could not forego his earnings from the brickyard nor find enough to pay for school books. So he continued on at the brickyard until at the age of twelve when he ran away from home.
Out on his own William was fortunate enough to find work on a farm and it was here he discovered a new way of life and a world of nature that excited him. Now in his element, his natural aptitude for learning helped him get ahead. By the time he was 15 he had become a keeper’s boy at High Ashurst, Surrey. From whence he progressed to under-keeper then finally head-keeper, at Burrows Lea, by the age of twenty.
It was then in 1886 that Herbert Norman, at that time the secretary of the Houghton Club, invited William, aged twenty four, down to the Test as his ghillie. It was an introduction to a river valley that would become his life’s work and with it the start of a dynasty of river-keepers that would last more than a century. Within twelve months of William first visit to the Test he was to take sole charge of the beats owned by the club, following the retirement of the old river keeper, James Faithfull.
This all came at a time when the sport of fly fishing was undergoing great change. Elsewhere in the country the dry fly and the whipping rod were beginning to take hold, yet on the Test members of the Houghton Club were mostly still using the old blowline method which involved floating a natural fly, impaled on a hook, over the rising fish using a 18 to 20ft bamboo cane rod. In fact it was 1888 before the first fish was recorded to be taken with a dry fly on the Test. Compare this to Ogden who was fishing the floating fly in the 1840s at Derbyshire, or Halford who recorded its use in 1868 on the Wandle. Even closer to home, Skues claimed it was accepted on the Itchen in 1875.
It is believe that it was Arthur Gilbey who at last persuaded the members of the Houghton Club to wholeheartedly adopt the whipping rod and the artificial fly in around 1893. Today however the Houghton Club is the revered home of dry fly fishing, with its members doing more to elevate the art form than any other fishing club, William playing a notable part in this development.
From the day he was introduced to the Test, William became passionately involved in all aspects of the river-keeper’s craft. He was never one to be content to merely cut weed, carry out restocking and act as ghillie to the members. He wanted more than anything to know the river and wrestle the secrets of the natural world from it. To that end he developed observation tanks in which he could study the development of the natural flies. Here he breed flies carrying them right through from egg to imago and studied them with careful and repeated experimentation learning many new and original facts. That he did this all on his own with no external advice or learning from books is remarkable. So to is the length of time to which he devoted to the work, all of which were fitted around the demands of his active life. In total he spent twenty-six years experimenting and studying the mayfly. Here his boundless exactitude and freedom from prepossession enabled him to succeed in the artificial re-stocking of mayfly to the Test, which had died out between 1906 and 1917.
William’s greatest success with the natural fly however came from his invention of a new piece of riverside equipment that was at one time almost standard issue on countless trout streams – the fly-board. These 8ft long wooden boards are moored in mid-stream, often tethered to bridges and provide a location for species of ephemaridae to lay their eggs, safe from devastation by caddis who would happily feed off the eggs but can’t swim to the underside of the boards. This helped keep the a large supply of natural fly in the river, and to encourage the fish to rise on the surface. For unless fly is abundant, fish take to feeding on the bottom and do not rise freely to the disillusionment of the fisherman.
It is perhaps surprising given his experience with the natural fly that William didn’t turn his hand to the imitation until 1916, when he was 54. He was introduced to the craft by Mr E. J. Power, a competent amateur who felt that William’s unique knowledge of the natural should be transplanted to fur and feathers. He was to prove an apt pupil.
Encouraged by Power to take special notice of spinners, for which he felt the Halfordian examples of the time did little to attract the trout, he began with a copy of the spent iron-blue, which was successful until he beat it with his famous Houghton Ruby the following year. However it was the fly that was to perpetuate his name that proved the most enduring, the Lunn’s Particular, which was first offered to the Test trout in 1917. That the Lunn’s Particular was first designed to represent the Medium Olive spinner would seem to be clear. However it proved to be a most successful imitation for a number of the Olives and gained a reputation of being able to attract shy fish. By the time that J. W. Hills immortalised him in his biography ‘River Keeper’ published in 1934 he had gone on to produce forty patterns of his own devising.
Beyond his accomplishments in natural history, care of water and fly dressing William was patient, kindly and gentle family man. In 1894 he had married Emily Florence Baldwin and together they had four children. Two boys William Henry and Alfred Walter, and two girls Edith Emily and Rose Evelyn.
William had never been a tall man, but he was strongly built with broad shoulders and a deep chest. His hair and beard were all shades of brown, though would turn grey in his later years. His eyes were a clear blue-grey and though he wore spectacles he had quite remarkable eyesight. He was alert and good-humoured, constantly engaged with the world around him. He spoke slowly, with a pleasant, deep resonance and expressed himself with terse vigour, interspersing his talk with incidents of fishing and wild life. When on one of his own subjects he spoke with a deliberate weight that bore down those who would contradict him. Having never jumped to conclusions and always taken great care to eliminate the possibility of error with his experiments, he would defend himself with a positive, abrupt assertiveness.
William passed away on June 10th 1942.