The History of Fulling Mill and the Kenyan Fly Tying Industry
As you stand by the water’s edge carefully knotting your Royal Wulff to the end of your line I suspect you will ponder only briefly the provenance of your fly. Your mind will be on matters closer to hand: tying the knot tight and true, the best spot for your next cast, or even, dare I say it, will I ever catch anything at all? Only fleetingly might you admire the tiny, perfectly formed work of art that marks the business end of your fishing expedition. Atop a mountain of highly tuned, expensively purchased space age equipment, the humble fishing fly remains perhaps the most important thing in your tackle bag. Without a decent fly you may as well tickle the fish out of the river. Fulling Mill
Enter Fulling Mill stage left, widely regarded as the pioneers of commercial fly tying, keepers of the oldest dressing traditions and bastions of the angling industry for the best part of half a century. From humble origins in Kenya, Fulling Mill now sits astride a global manufacturing business that produces over four million top quality, exquisitely crafted fishing flies a year. Fulling Mill flies are sold on every continent except Antarctica (we are yet to find a dealer there) and I suspect, though unverified, have been used to catch just about every species of fresh and saltwater fish that can be decently caught with a dressed fly.
The history of Fulling Mill is interesting from a niche perspective. The story has that peculiar combination of accident and design that provides an insight into that particular moment of British history when our colonial forebears spread their wings far and wide taking with them energy, persistence and in many cases, sheer bloody mindedness to achieve really quite extraordinary and in many cases unusual things in the outposts of the empire.
It all started with a rugby accident in England in the 1920s. Denis Whethan, a schoolboy at Wellington College had the misfortune to break his back when two large players landed on him at the same time. Eminent specialists in London gave a disappointingly unanimous verdict: he would never walk again. As he lay prone and bored in bed he began to tie fishing flies with the help of a mirror placed above his head, harking back to happier days spent on the river bank before his accident. He reputedly summed up his first efforts as “more calculated to scare the life out of trout than to seduce them.”
As soon as was practical Denis was transported back to the family farm in Kenya in his wheelchair. He continued to tie flies and quickly became a curiosity amongst the neighbours for his tying skills. The local bank manager commissioned a range of patterns and Denis experienced his first commercial success, something of an eye opener. Not only did this encourage him to further his fly tying ambitions it also spurred him on to get back on his feet. After two years in a chair Denis slowly forced himself out of it and, inch by inch, step by step, he agonisingly regained his feet. In delight at defying his doctors he promptly set off on an extended three-year expedition through the Congo, hunting and prospecting for gold: fly tying was temporarily well forgotten.
Fast forward a few years to the mid-1930s and Denis was back in Kenya working as an assistant manager on a large dairy farm in the west of the country. He began tying flies commercially to supplement his salary, more out of necessity than choice as times were tough and he was now supporting his mother after his father’s death. She helped the operation gallantly, overseeing the dying and ordering of the raw materials (mostly from Veniards the renowned south London feather merchant who continues to supply Fulling Mill to this day). By the outbreak of war in 1939 Denis had trained four tyers and production stood at 65 – 70 dozen per month.
During the war (in which Denis served with distinction in the desert rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) his mother heroically continued the tying operation, embattled by a thousand difficulties but never downtrodden. She continued to participate in the business right up to her death at the grand old age of 84 years old.
Towards the end of the war, Denis married Bobbie and they bought a farm in upcountry Kenya which was to become both their home and their life’s work for the next thirty years. As ever Denis turned to fly tying to help pay the bills and “Kenya Fishing Flies” quickly grew into a flourishing business. Post war Kenya suffered the same stresses and strains as many other places in the disintegrating British empire (the Mau Mau uprising being an obvious example) but Denis was adept at dealing with the shifting sands and was well liked and respected by his staff. By the mid ‘60s, with a staff of 30 fly dressers, Denis was exporting to over twenty countries and fly tying had taken over their lives. The foundation of their success lay in a focus on quality: either Denis or Bobbie inspected each and every fly before it left the premises. We are pleased to say this quality ethos liesa t the heart of everything we do today.
In 1969 with the threat of land distribution hanging over the country Denis was offered £20,000 for the business by Brook Bond, a leading Kenyan tea producer. The sum was too significant to refuse and Denis sold the company banking his retirement fund. Denis and Bobbie moved to England a few years later and spent a happy retirement visiting Kenya frequently. Denis eventually died in 2004 at 90. The sale of the business marked the end of the first chapter of the history of Fulling Mill and really underpins the reputation of Denis Whetham as the ‘father’ of the Kenyan Fly Tying Industry. His contribution to the industry will be hard to surpass.
Brook Bond struggled with their new business. Difficult labour conditions compounded by a fledgling and militant worker’s union ensured that the acquisition was far from being a success. It was at this tricky moment that the Kenyan Fly Tying Industry experienced a moment of serendipity in the form of Andy Unwin.
Andy Unwin was British army officer who had been evacuated from Dunkirk and then stationed in India for the remainder of the war. He was a fanatical fisherman and whilst on leave from his regiment he often ventured into the mountains of Kashmir on fishing expeditions. History relates that on one such trip having run out of flies he fashioned a ‘Butcher’ from a crow which he shot, some red wool from his socks, and the silver foil from a packet of cigarettes. By all accounts, this gave him his first rudimentary insight into the world of fly tying and provided later inspiration for the black and red of the current Fulling Mill logo.
In the army, Andy ended up being posted to Kenya in response to the Mau Mau rebellion. He continued to tie fishing flies and it was really through this hobby that he became aware of Kenya Fishing Flies, its recent sale to Brook Bond and its troubles post sale. He made contact with Denis to discuss the situation and was given the following advice: “Let them go bust which they are going to do, take on some of the best fly dressers, and only ever buy the materials that you need”. Andy followed this advice to the letter with Unwin & Sons Ltd established in the early 1970’s with Denis becoming a small shareholder and subsequent lifelong friend of the Unwin family. Andy established his business in an old aircraft hangar near Nandi hills in Western Kenya and the Kenyan fishing fly industry was successfully rescued. The second chapter in Fulling Mill’s history had begun.
Under Andy’s supervision, the business once again flourished especially as it benefitted from the wise counsel of Denis and Bobbie who regularly came out to inspect operations. There was only one conundrum remaining: how best to distribute the flies outside Kenya?
Barry Unwin was Andy’s son and had been raised and educated in Africa. Also a fanatical fisherman he had moved back to the UK in the 70s to find work. In a moment of inspiration, Barry decided to start a wholesale tackle business to distribute his father’s flies from Unwin & Sons. This business was called Fulling Mill, named after the eponymous beat on the Itchen. Within a few years, Fulling Mill had become a respected name in the angling industry with a reputation for exceptional quality and service.
Fulling Mill steadily grew and soon became the principal customer of Unwin & Sons Ltd, re-exporting flies to countries all over the world. It was the next logical step for Fulling Mill to purchase Unwin & Sons which it did in 1995 marking the end of Andy’s career in the industry. There is no doubt that without his drive and determination there would be very little in the way of a Kenyan fly tying industry today.
With Fulling Mill now controlling the source of its own production, Barry embarked on an ambitious development program that saw considerable growth over the next decade or so, especially in Europe. Alongside its core fly range, Fulling Mill began to release other complementary fishing accessories including fluorocarbon, fly tying materials and fly boxes. The Fulling Mill brand became synonymous with top quality and good value, an enviable mix which only acted to improve prospects for the business.
In 2004 the decision was taken to move Unwin & Sons Ltd away from the rather dilapidated accommodation it had been using in Nandi Hills since the 1970s to a new, purpose-built factory close to Kericho, about 60 miles away. The new factory was opened on 21st May 2005 and Barry invited his father to perform the official opening ceremony. This was done in front of a 300 strong workforce capable of producing 30,000 dozen flies per month: the business had gracefully matured into a thriving operation with an entire community built up around it.
In more recent times Fulling Mill has entered a new phase of development under the ownership of a small team of investors and fly fishing enthusiasts who bought the business from Barry when he retired. The strategy remains very simple: keep tying the finest quality flies in and grow the goodwill of our brand in a global marketplace. In doing this we are more than proud of our strong Kenyan heritage and the exceptional community of over 300 artisan tyers who we employ today. Although the pace of the world may have changed dramatically over the last 50 years you can rest assured that the time it takes to painstakingly craft your fishing fly has remained exactly the same.
So the next time you knot your Royal Wulff to the end of your line spare a second thought for the Kenyan who tied it and the patron saints of Kenyan Fly Tying, Denis Whetham and Andy Unwin who made the whole thing possible.
Managing Director, Fulling Mill
“The Kenya Fly Dressing Industry, 1930-2005” Unpublished, by Barry Unwin
Transcript of Lecture given by Denis Whethan to The Shaftesbury Probus Club, circa 1998