William 'Bill' Southam Cane Rod, Bellbrook Fishing Lures, Monty Fly reel, Information & Australian Angling History
by Bernard (Bernie) Ladd.
Introduction: William Southam started production of fishing cane rods in 1932. In 1937, Southam produced an aluminium alloy 3 1/2‘’ fly fishing reel named the “Monty” (THE “ MONTY “ REEL MAKER Wm. Southam Sydney stamped on the back).
The 1940s, Bill Southam decided to manufacture the Bellbrook range of lures.
Below is an insightful article written and kindly provided by John Brown, of Tweed Heads, who had the privilege of knowing Southam personally. In this article John shares his fishing experiences and first-hand knowledge of the manufacturing history of William (Bill) Southam’s passionate work and love of fishing.
During the years of my childhood fishing trips to the NSW North Coast in the 1930’s, ninety percent of fishing rods, particularly for the blackfish, (luderick), which we pursued, were made from a tropical hardwood known as greenheart. It served us well but slowly a new contender emerged, known as split-cane, being a composite material consisting of six strips of Indian (Calcutta) bamboo.. The system had been invented in the U.S., and copied by Hardy and others in the U.K, but its labour- intensive character placed it beyond the financial means of many of our local anglers.There were no split-cane manufacturers in Australia until about 1930, when one William Southam, a bank employee, started the building of game rods, and possibly surf rods for the overhead reel, in some kind of backyard environment, because mutual friends told me that completed varnished rods were hung up to dry from the family clothes line. And he was using the newly-emerged Tonkin cane from China which was unquestionably superior to the Calcutta variety, especially when heat-treated. It is not known how Bill achieved his skills or was able to acquire imported Tonkin cane. But by 1936, he was sufficiently well-known for one of his cane game-rods to have been selected for use by Zane Grey, eminent author and game fisherman, who was on a fishing trip to Australia. Grey pronounced Southam’s rod as the best he had ever used. As Southam only ever claimed to have started business in 1932, Zane Grey’s endorsement in 1936, was quite significant.
I first met Bill in 1940 at a Casting Club event where he was using one of his own rods, as were all of the ranking competitors. They were all beautifully made, but lacking bindings between runners, (which seemed always to have been his policy), they seemed at first to be somewhat radical to my eyes. Southam was the Club champion in distance casting, with throws of over 160 yards. He was also a champion in fly and plug-casting in the 1950’s, when he was associated with the Lakeside Casting Club. During his lifetime he also held major positions in the big-game movement and was the owner of a game-fishing boat "Wyoming". He could have had factory premises as early as 1932 at 77 Longueville Road Lane Cove, on Sydney’s northside, because he is established as being there in 1938 and 1940 by advertisements. By 1948, he had located to a larger building at 419 Pacific Highway Artarmon, where his business expanded to embrace a large range of rods (something like 30 at a rough count), the popular range of “Bellbrook” lures, fighting-chairs for big-game fishing boats and a fly-fishing reel which I have never seen. His chief rodmaker, Des Riddle, who seemingly absorbed all of Southam’s rodmaking and engineering skills, produced a hollow-glass game fishing blank in the 1960’s which he offered to Bill to manufacture, to receive an abject refusal. Southam considered fiberglass to be a fad which would not last. Bill Southam had a lifetime captivation with cane, which is still considered by a select few to be without peer, particularly for (expensive) trout rods. He had been a pioneer in Australia of an industry which at the time required craftsman skills of the highest order, as cane rod segments were hand-made on long clamping-jigs from carefully split bamboo. Razor-sharp block-planes would have had to be used – with the endless application of care and patience. The six profiled segments were then glued together, wrapped temporarily with thread to make a hexagon, and strangely, the glue used was of an animal nature by Davis, an international company still existing to-day. Apparently the heavy coat of varnish which was always applied to Southam rods was considered an adequate protection.
Not withstanding, friends of Bill with whom I camped and fished, always put their Southam rods under cars at night in case of rain. Bill advertised his rods as the “Autograph Series” and he always personally inscribed the words - “Wm. Southam Rodmaker” - in Indian ink, and in beautiful calligraphy, on every rod immediately above the handle. Fitted with ferule-stoppers on jointed rods, and a well-made bag from Indian Head cloth they were a living artform with an unashamed English heritage. I saw him for the last time, about the mid-sixties at Seal Rocks NSW, where we met while spinning for tailer – with Southam rods. He approved my choice but chided me slightly for having selected a jointed rod instead of the single-piece version! I never saw him again. He died on 5 November, 1968, at Prince Alfred Hospital Sydney, presumably from heart problems. He was aged 69. Len Butterworth of Brisbane, joined the rod-making ranks in about 1940, with his own range of hand-made split-cane rods, and achieved his own market. But Butterworth was able to make the transition into fibreglass which Southam disdained to do.
The Southam family continued to retail fishing tackle after Bill’s death, in a showroom quite close to the factory – but in general fishing-tackle sales rather than as specialist rodmakers. Fibreglass rods were now sold - but Bill - Australia’s pioneer fishing-rod craftsman, had remained loyal to his beloved cane to the very end.
John R E Brown, Tweed Heads, September 2015.
THE ' MONTY ' FLY REEL Maker William Southam, Sydney. Aluminium construction; brass saddle; ebonite handle-knob; spring loaded spool release; plated line guide. Diameter 3 1/2''; Drum-spool width 5/8'' -c 1937.
Bellbrook Sway Back No.1 fshing lure and early cardboard storage display box. Maker Wm Southam -c. early 1950.
Bill Southam at Newcastle beach 1941, making his winning cast in The Newcastle Sun Cup, using his Wm Southam cane rod, equipped with a model 915 South Bend overhead casting reel.
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