New Zealand’s foremost and most successful reel maker Ernest John Brown was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1912. At a young age he found employment with the Christchurch agents for Harley Davidson motor bikes. This led to an interest in motor bike racing and in racing circles he was known as being ‘one of the mechanical innovators in term of both engine and frame design.
Due to the effects of the Second World War fishing reels, were almost impossible to obtain and following a visit to the Christchurch branch of the sporting goods retailers W.H. Tisdall Ltd. [Tisdall’s] in 1946, Brown began manufacturing fly reels.
Of three-piece construction frame, spool, and winding plate, fitted with an adjustable compensating check, but not a spare spring or pawl. The first was 3-7/8 but later a 3-5/8 inches in diameter reel was manufactured. The alloy used to cast the early reels was obtained from a trailing fork that was formerly part of the landing gear of a DC 3 aircraft. However the source of the alloy use in later reels is unknown.
As ball races were unavailable at the time, the underside of the winding plate was fitted with a brass bearing which when aligned with the face of a brass bearing pressed into the spool boss, formed a bearing surface between winding plate and reel frame. A brass spindle, threaded into the winding plate bearing ran through the reel frame bearing, connecting spool and reel frame. Later reels were fitted with a steel spindle which insured that wear took place in the brass bush.
At first a small run of reels were manufactured and apart from being unnamed these reels can be identified by the lightness of the casting of the brass foot, which in order to balance the reel was attached off-centre and by the use of copper rivets in attaching the cog to the winding plate. Later reels have a heaver foot and the cog is attached with brass rivets. It is important to note that Brown’s reels were not a direct copy of a Hardy Perfect. As Ernie explained; ‘I altered sizes, also the bush & spindle was replaceable. The handle attachment was also my design.
The St Giles
Tisdall’s obtained the exclusive retailing rights and these reels had a strengthened foot, and the winding plate was stamped ‘The St Giles’ with their details stamped around the centre boss. The majority were fitted with an aluminium handle, but a number were fitted with a black, casein handle. They were not offered with a line guard and were only available with a plain aluminium finish. Later externally located line guards cast from brass and carrying a hard chrome plated finish were offered as an optional extra. Very occasionally a St Giles with a black enamel finish and a ball race is encountered and these date from 1948-9, a period when Brown was experimenting with reel finishes.
In 1949 the arrangement with Tisdall’s came to an end and the Christchurch firm of F. Steans & Company Ltd were appointed distributing agents. The reels now sported a ball race, a black ‘crackle’ painted finish and a line guard. At this time they were not named. A small run of unnamed two piece reels fitted with a compensating check were also manufactured.
In 1954 reels were offered with a plain aluminium finish or at a slightly increased price an ‘anodized bronze’ finish. Both carried the distributor’s details around the centre boss on the winding plate. The plain finish was only available for a short period, and the majority of Steansco reels were anodized in shade of bronze, but a number were later finished in shades green, aqua, gold or black. These reels are generally referred to as Steansco reels, Steansco being the trade name of F. Steans & Co.
Steansco Salmon Reel
In 1954 Steans offered the ‘Steansco Salmon spinning Reel.’ Stamped with Brown’s stamp, ‘Made by E. J. Brown’ on the back of the frame they were of two piece construction frame and spool. Available with or without a check they weighed in at a whopping twenty one ounces! Although at the time of their introduction they were an out dated type of reel they were available until the early 1960s.
In 1962 the sporting goods wholesalers Kilwell Rotorua Ltd. approached Brown about manufacturing a fly reel. The resulting three piece reel: frame, spool and winding plate was only available in size 3-7/8 . It sported a silver-grey, baked enamel finish and a compensation check, line guard, or ball race were not fitted. Known as the ‘Kilwell Brownie’ which was stamped on the winding plate, internally they were similar in design to the St Giles. They were not a financial success and only about 100 reels were manufactured.
In 1968 F. Steans & Co. Ltd ceased business and a Christchurch firm R. J. Bain & Company Ltd. were appointed distributing agents. The reels were then distributed under the ‘Stream-Fly’ logo, which was boldly stamped on the front of the winding plate. Bain’s also distributed two-piece reels which were retailed as the ‘E.J. Brown Reel’ and carried his details stamped on the back of the frame. However, a small number were stamped ‘Stream-Fly.’ By this time there was not a market for the salmon reels, and they were not offered.
Revolving Spool Reels
In order to meet the demand of surf fisherman in about 1953 Brown began manufacturing revolving spool reels. The majority were anodized in various shades of bronze, but occasionally a reel with a plain alloy finish turns up. Brown’s details were stamped on the end plate but occasionally an un-marked reel turns up. At the time of their introduction it was thought that they would find a ready market but they proved time consuming and expensive to make and only a few were produced. Several one-off reels were manufactured, mainly for family members.
Tournament Casting Reels
In New Zealand, tournament distance casting or dry land casting as it was better known evolved out of the surf casting craze that swept the country during the 1950s. Prior to 1962, the sports governing bodies did not specify the brand or type of revolving or fixed spool reel that a caster could use in competition. A competitor was free to compete with a modified commercially produced reel or one that had been specifically designed for distance casting.
In the mid 1950s and in collaboration with Christchurch timber merchant and rod maker Kelvin Thomson, Brown designed and built several reels capable of contesting the 4oz level line, and the 4oz unrestricted line, tournament casting events. In order to be successful individual components: reel, rod, and line had to complement each other, especially when competing in events that did not allow a shock leader to be used. Thomson designed and built rods with a soft tip section which helped dampen the initial shock of the cast, and assisted in preventing break-offs. Improvements in design were ongoing and although the pair continued to compete in local and national casting events the reels were kept under wraps.
In October 1959 the first International Surfcasting Championships were held at Greenhills, Sydney. Both Brown and Thomson were members of the New Zealand team. Eight events were contested in Sydney and in the unrestricted line, 4oz lead, free spool, distance with accuracy event, Thomson gained first place and the winner’s medal with an average cast of 707 feet 7 inches. Nothing quite like their reel had been seen before and its innovative and radical design created an enormous amount of interest. Thomson’s success highlighted its potential and numerous competitors placed orders for them.
The Final Hurrah
The second International Championships were held at Rotorua, New Zealand, in February 1962. Thirty four contestants competed: twelve Australians, eighteen New Zealanders, and four South Africans. The rules now stated that competitors must use ‘a standard practical fishing reel’ and although casters using Brown reels were successful this was the last time that his reels were used in international events.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, fibre glass rods became the norm, and in order to ensure a balanced outfit, lighter reels were required. This coupled with the importation of Japanese manufactured reels, which retailed at a considerably lower price, effected the viability of his business. In the early 1970s Brown was forced to cease operations. He later recalled; ‘All told I made a few thousand reels only a few had my name stamped on them’—–I machined them all—‘Ernest John Brown passed away in November 1995.
Special thanks to Frank Leckie author of “E. J. Brown; The Man and His Reels” for supplying this information.